On television at least, the message from the travel industry is a familiar one. Summer is coming and whether your preference is for sun and sand, cultural city break, or a relaxing cruise, now is the time to go online and book the vacation you've been looking forward to through the dark days of the Northern Hemisphere winter. The travel ads look much the same as they always did but no one can pretend the industry is looking ahead to business as usual. Travel is back but thanks to Covid, it's not quite the same. So does that mean the marketing message has to change?
As the threat from the Omnicron variant recedes - in some regions, at least - the travel industry is hoping that 2022 will mark the beginning of a sustained revival in its fortunes. There are some encouraging signs. For instance, in its Travel in 2022 report, the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) notes that 61% of Britons plan to travel abroad this year, compared with the 16% who actually journeyed to other countries during 2020 and 2021.
But there is also evidence to suggest consumers are just a little bit nervous about spending too much cash or travelling great distances from home. An analysis of transactions by hotel booking site Trivago found that in the UK there is increased demand for so-called staycations (holidays in the home country) and when venturing abroad, consumers are favouring short-haul over long-haul flights. Jamie Sergeant is Global CEO of Crowd, a global marketing agency with a particular interest in the travel sector. As he sees it, the industry continues to face major challenges. Perhaps the most obvious of these relates to restrictions. "Travellers look at destinations and ask - Can I go there and if I do what do I need," says Sergeant. But that's not the end of the story. Some resorts are open but overcrowded while others are working with a depleted number of hotels, restaurants and bars. More fundamentally, after two traumatic years, many consumers need to be persuaded that even a short holiday is worth the risk of testing positive and being stuck in a quarantine hotel.All this requires a marketing response. But what does that mean in practice?
Expect the Unexpected
We are witnessing an unfolding story. The pandemic has not ended and new variants could arise at any time. So as Francesco Carta, CEO of travel company, World Adventure Group observes, brands and marketers have to be agile and responsive. "We are still in a learning phase dominated by uncertainty," he says. "Instead of medium to long-term planning, we are focused on short term plans, which can be deployed and adapted at short notice."
It's equally important to say that while brands can learn from previous travel recessions, there is no playbook for marketing in the wake of a global pandemic. Companies working in the industry are finding their own routes through a complicated situation and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, as Jamie Sergeant sees it, the provision of good up-to-date information is key to moving the industry forward. Put simply, if people don't know what to expect, they are unlikely to commit to expensive trips or even relatively short-haul journeys. He cites his own experience of navigating restrictions. "I booked a flight to Amsterdam," he says. "I looked at three different websites and they said three different things."
In that respect, travel companies must keep their customers up to speed with accurate information on the rules and restrictions as and when they change. Sergeant sees scope for partnership with services, such as GoSafescore, which provides updated travel and border information. But where does that fit into the marketing mix? After all, travel companies don't necessarily want to overlay glossy TV and magazine campaigns with information that might actually deter customers.
Clearly, CRM strategy plays a part, with brands keeping customers up to date on changing situations via email. In addition, Trevor Heley, Managing Partner of specialisttravel marketing agency, Mr.h says social media is coming into its own.,"Social media is the prime channel for communicating details about restrictions and what is available," he says.
Beyond the Restrictions
The need for information goes beyond restrictions. In the current climate, it's difficult for consumers to know exactly what to expect when they travel. Will resorts be too congested because other destinations have closed down? Will all the bars and restaurants be open? Or more fundamentally, what sort of experience is on offer? Again, social media plays a role in provisioning information. "Instagram and Facebook are the go-to channels and Video Content is also very important," says Manish Kastia, Head of Digital Strategy at Digital Dialog, a specialist travel marketing agency that counts British Airways and Eurostar among its clients.
Video content can set a mood or manage expectations. Kastia cites work carried out by Digital Dialog for Tourism Austria in which video content was used to emphasise themes of kindness and empathy in a country still recovering from the pandemic. Trevor Heley adds that influencers can play an important part in promoting destinations while also explaining the on-the-ground realities. "Rightly or wrongly, influencers are seen to be neutral," he says. "If they are seen to be enjoying a destination and saying it is open or safe that can help establish the destination is open for business."
High demand for particular destinations causes its own problems - not least in terms of too many tourists trying to use limited resources. This is causing some regions to rebrand - or perhaps more accurately, recalibrate - their tourism offers. Sergeant says that in the UK's domestic tourism market, regions are seeking to publicise lesser-known destinations to take the pressure off the more popular honeypots. Citing his pwn agency's work, he says: "We have been helping DMOs (destination marketing organisations) to showcase lesser-known spots and channel people away." This can be quite difficult. Destinations are popular because people like them and it won't always be easy to promote alternatives.
At the very least, this is a transitional period. Research carried out last year by professional services firm, PWC found consumers had been saving for holidays and were expecting to spend more and go further. Everyone detects pent up demand but this is tempered by awareness that the industry probably won't recover for another couple of years. So an ongoing challenge facing brands is to keep people engaged. Sergeant says brands should use their CRM to stay in touch with customers. "Drip feed inspiration and then when people are ready to pull the trigger on a holiday, they think of you," he says.
Email marketing has the advantage of preaching to the, at least partially, converted. "Most of the people signed up to our mailing list have already attended one of our adventures or engaged with us and therefore has a certain degree of trust towards what we offer and how we manage crisis and uncertainty," says Francesco Carta. Travel may not be rebounding completely just yet, but there is a hunger for vacations. Responsive marketing is key to turning the appetite into action.