MarketingAdvice from travel marketers for dealing with uncertainty during the pandemic.

Tackling the ups and downs of Covid-19

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Travel marketers face unprecedented challenges such as leaner budgets and staff strength along with creative questions around how to craft message that keep their brands top of mind while not being reckless in the face of a pandemic. Photo Credit: Getty Images/DisobeyArt

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a real-life stress test on the entire travel industry, and the ups and downs of infection rates and lockdown measures have made unpredictability the only thing that is certain.

That’s created unprecedented challenges for those working in travel marketing, as they juggle operational issues such as slashed budgets and reduced staff along with creative questions around how to craft message that keep their brands top of mind while not being reckless in the face of a pandemic.

All you can do through your messaging is make people feel comfortable and have that trust and transparency to make it easy for those that do want to travel to say yes and pick your brand.– Brian Klein, MMGY

Fletch Brunelle, vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, saw his budget drop from US$101.5 million in fiscal year 2020 (ending in June 2020) to now US$65 million for the current year, while the organisation’s staff dropped from 450 people to 95.

“We are operating very lean,” said Brunelle.

“When we think how we are spending our marketing dollars, we are doing it differently than we have in the past – not being as broad in terms of the upper funnel and being more in the mid and lower funnel as we are talking to customers who are actually interested in booking travel.”

To do that, Brunelle said his team has “upped the ante” on research to get a better view of who wants to travel, what content would help them feel safe and which channels consumers are using as they dream about travel.

“We moved away from some of our other channels – connected TV ... even broadcast, and moved more towards what are we doing with travel endemic partners and what are we doing on the search side,” said Brunelle.

MMGY senior business strategist Brian Klein said marketers need to recognise that the decision of whether to travel now, and potentially for some time into the future, is deeply personal.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges for travel marketers — it’s hard to target somebody at a broad level because it is such a personal choice."

“All you can do through your messaging is make people feel comfortable and have that trust and transparency to make it easy for those that do want to travel to say yes and pick your brand.”

Focus on flexibility
According to Sojern’s report, The Future of Travel Advertising: The 2020 State of the Industry, released in early 2020, nearly half of all global ad spending by travel companies in 2019 – 45% went to digital channels, while 21% went to print, and the rest was split between TV, radio and other channels.

The pandemic had a swift and direct impact on all travel marketing spending, and eMarketer predicts digital advertising spending by travel brands in the United States finished 2020 at just US$3.24 billion — a 41% drop from the previous year.

But digital strategies such as social media and paid search are still expected to continue capturing the largest share of overall travel ad budgets. In fact, Expedia Group Media Solutions’ senior director of business development, Jennifer Andre, says the pandemic will help digital grow even more.

“The shift to digital has really accelerated during the last year,” she said.

“A lot of partners, before the pandemic, were spending budgets on things that didn’t necessarily show direct correlations to conversions or engagement. And also weren’t platforms that are super nimble: If you are talking about print and television it’s hard to switch on a dime if Covid rates surge or change. So all travel digital platforms are probably going to benefit from that.”

Klein said options such as paid search, SEO and other digital formats have gained traction both because of the ability to “throttle up or down” spending in those formats, as well as because consumers stuck at home have been using their computers and mobile devices more than ever.

“You saw a huge spike in social media engagement ... and binging on connected TV. Consumption numbers were off the charts,” said Klein.

“We were gravitating toward those channels because we had a captive audience, and you could release content that was more tailored toward their mindset. You could try to foster inspiration and engage consumers.”

Andre says she has seen a correlation between advertising strategies and Covid data.

“We saw a pretty huge increase in searches on our site and interest from advertisers around the time when the vaccine news came ... and you see a drop-off in searches and also potentially in advertisers’ interest toward late December when we saw cases surging up again,” said she.

“But we’ve also had a lot of advertisers come to us when things are pretty dire in their destination, because they want to be in this safe space of a travel platform to connect with travellers and make sure people remember their destination or brand.”

Content strategy
TourRadar director of partnerships Iris Serbanescu said she was pleasantly surprised when the company tabulated business at the end of 2020 that destinations had spent 15% more on marketing with the travel marketplace than they had in 2019. The Austria-headquartered company also brought on eight new DMO partners.

“After March and April the shock had worn off, so our destination partners — old and new ones — started being more receptive to getting their message across to travellers while they are in the dreaming phase."

One such client is ProColombia, the South American country’s tourism agency, which increased its contract with TourRadar in 2020 by 25% year-over-year.

“Typically we are seen as a conversion partner – we send them passengers. But the nature of campaigns we were running with them in 2020 were really awareness focused, educational, talking to the traveler about what it is they think it will be like to travel to the destination post-Covid, re-inspiring them, without a pushy sales message,” said Serbanescu.

“We’re a digital-first company, so these destinations saw our value to help them get their message out because we’re not now having to shift our business model to an online business model. We already have the audience with a million email subscribers and 700,000 website visits per month — although that was a lot higher pre-Covid.”

For Colombia, one strategy was a contest that ran for a few months at the end of 2020 and awarded the winner an eight-day trip through the country — and established a relationship between ProColombia and the people it hopes will be its post-Covid customers.

“We were able to communicate information about Colombia, gather interest from people that were sitting on their computer bored and dreaming of their next trip, get them excited about where to travel to next and get their email addresses. So later on, down the line as things get better, we have this pool of consumers who’ve expressed interest in the destination, and we can come back to them and say, ‘Colombia is ready to welcome you,’” added Serbanescu.

Alvaro Concha, ProColombia’s North American Hub director, says messages of solidarity and empathy have been the organisation’s focus throughout the pandemic. Campaigns using the slogans “Let’s take care now so we can meet again soon” and “We’ll meet soon” began last April, and Concha says they have garnered 245 million impressions worldwide across all channels.

To reassure consumers that the country is prioritising health and safety, in June Colombia launched a voluntary biosafety certification to recognise tourism companies that are complying with the country’s protocols. To date, more than 300 companies have been certified.

“We want to be cautious with the messages we are putting into the market,” said Concha.

“We are sensitive to the situation, and the country is being very cautious in preparing itself in order to come back.”

Looking ahead
With many consumer surveys showing that desire and future intent to travel remain high, coupled with suppliers now offering broad cancellation and rebooking options, Serbanescu said messaging is taking on a “book now, travel later” tone.

“We are seeing that capacity on tours will be a lot smaller than they were in 2019, so there will be a sense of urgency in messaging — book now, secure your spot and feel comfortable you have cancellation or rebooking options."

As optimism builds around vaccination efforts and subsequent reopenings, Andre says savvy marketers are getting out appropriate messaging now because if they “aren’t getting in front of the consumers that are dreaming right now, somebody else will.”

There is also consensus among those we spoke to that collaborative campaigns – destinations partnering with airlines, airlines partnering with hotels, etc — will be more important than ever to maximise ROI and present a cohesive message of trust and safety.

Of course, unpredictability remains. With Covid infection rates still unstable in many countries, and short booking windows still common, Klein says marketers need to remain nimble.

“Typically in years past you’d do an annual marketing plan and maybe readdress it every quarter,” he said.

“What we’ve had to do for our clients is create monthly marketing plans, and everything we’re doing is very flexible and very targeted, and it’s very intent based. Those short-term strategies from 2020 will continue, but we do think longer-terms strategies that have been proven to work in the past will fall back into place.”

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