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COVID-19 Travel Media

‘Differentiate or die’: Travel marketers reboot as vaccine looms


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

December 4, 2020 | 8 min read

It was the year without holidays. But despite horizons being confined to their living rooms, consumers haven‘t lost their wanderlust. The Drum explores how top travel marketers are ‘rebooting‘ the sector to get you back on a sandy beach as soon as it is safe.


'Differentiate or die': Marketers reboot travel as vaccine looms

The travel industry is facing financial ruin. But also, it is restricted from doing its immense social good in helping people rejuvenate and explore. It won‘t be for much longer.

Recent McKinsey research has revealed a few new trends. Travel demand was recovering even before news of a vaccine – but many face the reality of getting to a destination that has fewer leisure activities than it once did. The working-from-anywhere trend could surge short-term vacation rentals, while price has been deprioritized by many. It‘s ‘shut up and take my money‘ mode for those who can afford it.

The golden sands are shifting, and travel marketers have to ensure they don't get buried.

Taking flight

Flight comparison tool Skyscanner has got a trove of consumer insights around demand. Jo McClintock, senior director, global marketing of brand and content at Skyscanner says 2020 “has underscored the importance of understanding your audience’s needs more than ever”. Friction and concerns are high, and need to be addressed.

Skyscanner dug into consumer data and sentiment to form the WeWill campaign earlier this year. “We want to take our travellers’ hands as we navigate the new reality of 2021.”

The goal was to use holidays as a way of “providing hope and promoting exploration and togetherness”.

Right now, bookings are slow and laboured. It’s about keeping marketing costs down and maintaining that all important share-of-voice. But as demand accelerates, Skyscanner will be one of the first to ramp up spend across a greater marketing mix.

Travel is about connecting (at least) one market with another, says McClintock, but “many of our key markets are in such different places on their Covid-19 journeys.”

“Our user research team have done a lot of work to understand people‘s attitudes towards risk and how tolerant they are of ambiguity.” There’s no point hard-selling someone a holiday they can’t take – something that might in fact incur a negative reaction. But you can remind them of the precautions being taken by vendors and get them into the planning mindset.

Skyscanner attributes a recent surge of demand to the news of vaccine progress, coupled with Black Friday and its usual peak sales period approaching. “November saw booking volumes increasing 57% over the course of the month,” she says.

McClintock says it is “anticipating a multi-speed return to pre-coronavirus levels of global travel over the next few years,” and is enthused to see what its hardened team can deliver in easier times.

She says: “The team has been incredible, the level of determination, grit and creativity shown by the whole business in even the darkest days was astounding.”

Hard advice

Justin Reid, director of EMEA destination marketing at Tripadvisor has a unique perspective on traveller and hospitality shutdowns. Its 9 million partners, all fighting for dominance and visibility in the service, were affected in some way.

He calls what followed a “reboot” of travel. Reid says: “On the media side, we adapted quickly for our advertising partners. This involved, weekly webinars to share our data and insights, reviewing all creative and messaging to ensure we mitigated any potential sensitivity to our users and giving consultative strategic support on short-term survival and long-term resiliency.”

Conversations have changed “significantly” since, from reassurance to reengagement. Geotargeted programmatic spend is up, tailored to local restrictions by region. “Our programmatic demand is back at pre-coronavirus levels. The targeting is vital right now.”

But what messages are being targeted? Quantitative and qualitative consumer sentiment lights the way. One key trend is that there is increased concern over cleanliness and safety. “For example, when selecting any type of accommodation, nearly nine in ten (86%) consumers said cleanliness will be very important to them,” says Reid.

Aware of this, Tripadvisor launched a new tool called Travel Safe which allows hoteliers and restaurants to inform consumers about the steps they are taking to keep them safe. “People are looking for positive communications during these times, they want to see more heartfelt language from brands,” he explains.

Bookings are more closely researched than they were before Covid-19. 65% of travellers said they do more research about restaurants before they select one to dine in at and further 67% of travellers said they do more research before deciding on local activity. This habit will only benefit the likes of Tripadvisor in the long term.

Travel agents

Neville Doyle, chief strategy officer of independent, full-service creative agency Town Square, based in Melbourne, includes among its clients Qatar Airways and Visit Victoria. “Flexibility and agility,“ are vital from clients and their partners, along with strong planning.

“You have to have a plan in place, you cannot just cross your fingers and try and roll with the punches when it happens,“ says Doyle. He suspects a vital period looms around the corner. Most clients and agencies have been having the same conversations this year. “It’s the conversations that come next that are potentially the more interesting, and where the opportunity really lies.“

And Doyle’s betting the house that we’re all ready for a change. It’s not just a hunch. “According to research by Richard Shotton, author of the Choice Factory, consumers are most likely to change their product buying habits after any major life event. Now, for travel companies, that creates a huge opportunity. 2020 has been a major life event for literally all of us.“

Doyle’s planked down in Australia with a teething baby interrupting his sleep, but it appears the worst of the lockdown is behind him, especially, in neighbouring New Zealand – so his travel campaigns are slightly ahead of the curve we’re seeing in Europe.

“For the northern hemisphere heading into a bleak winter, you need to understand the usual consumer journey for travel. Your audience is stuck in a ‘dreaming- planning’ loop. Some people may be willing to book for summer 2021 but most will be in ’wait and see mode’.”

They will be in mood to plan their next trip. “Short-term sales will be the focus of every travel brand right now, but when no one is making bookings, you need to remain top of mind for when they start up again.”

And there will be no ‘one size fits all’ advice. “One of our biggest clients is APT, who are best known for their Asian and European river cruises and their tours of Canada and Alaska. It had the foresight to use the downtime of 2020 to focus on investing in its domestic travel offering.“

So, observers should expect more “patriotic” marketing drumming up support for domestic holidays.

On the job ahead, he’s somewhat enthused. “I’m lucky to be stuck in a country that most of the world would fight for the chance to visit. There’s an opportunity for us here to reframe the situation to turn that negative into a positive – it’s not that we are locked away from the rest of the world, the rest of the world is missing out on us.“

On this theme, Tripadvisor and Stella Artois partnered to transform cancelled holidays and develop memorable staycations in consumers’ local cities. The staycation can only plaster over the financial deficit for so long, however,

’Marketers need to do everything they can to encourage people to travel again, many will be truly nervous to get back out there.’

He concludes: “More companies are fighting for a slice of a smaller pie. It means differentiate or die.”

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