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Booking.com’s CMO Arjan Dijk on the emerging post-pandemic traveler

Marketing to the new-age traveller

The Drum interviews Arjan Dijk, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Booking.com, the leading online travel brand, on the evolving playbook for travel markets across the globe, the role that marketing will play in the reboot and the trends being seen in two of the largest markets: India and China.

On the future of travel and the traveling consumer

The pandemic has brought international travel to a standstill as countries tightened travel restrictions to contain the spread of the virus. A full recovery for the travel industry will take years, not quarters and when we do emerge from this global pandemic, the world and our industry will undoubtedly be different. The good thing is that travel will remain fundamental to people’s lives.

The financial legacy of Coronavirus is such that it will inevitably see people demand more bang-for-their-buck from the travel industry. The new narrative will have to be around deeper value, better choice, increased flexibility and transparency as well as more thoughtful experiences for tomorrow’s travelers as they scrutinize spend in 2021 and beyond.

On the shifting consumer preferences

The resurgence of domestic travel: Even as international travel remains extremely depressed with recovery depending on relaxing of the government restrictions, travellers have been turning to domestic travel which has been seeing huge demand and buoyancy.

Preference for alternative accommodations: Covid-19 has accelerated the trend towards travellers choosing alternative accommodations, with an increasing preference for short term rentals. The interest in alternative accommodations will continue in the longer term, especially given working-from-home trends and increased focus/appetite on health and privacy. As per data, there was an increase in the mix of customers booking alternative accommodations in 2020, as compared to the previous year, with alternative accommodations representing about 30% of all reported room nights.

On varying stages of recovery across markets

The recovery has been nuanced and fluctuates widely in both Asian and Western markets. It is still a long road ahead to recovery. From a consumer perspective, the appreciation for local travel - alongside longer haul whenever it returns - will endure into the future, with nearly half of travellers planning to travel within their own country in the next year.

All markets across the world have had to prioritize the health and safety of their citizens alongside their economic growth. The impact of Covid-19 is unprecedented, and the situation remains highly unpredictable. Regardless of which regions the markets are in, the ones that have been the most successful in containing the virus are those with wide vaccine distribution, proper government measures and responsible social distancing restrictions in place.

On the APAC recovery roadmap

The travel brand launched its recent data-driven campaign called ‘Back to Travel’ that is backed by global insights from research (consumers and industry partners) to explore how hope is on the horizon and how travellers and the industry are getting ready to get back to travel.

  • Even as India gets on a recovery path after being ravaged by a cruel second wave of the pandemic, the hunger for travel amongst the population remains unabated even though all inter border travel has been brought to a grinding halt, in the short term at least.
  • As per the internal ‘Back to Travel’ research, three in four (76%) Indian travellers feel more hopeful about travelling in 2021. Over two thirds (68%) state that not being able to travel extensively in 2020 has made them yearn for travel ever more in 2021.
  • 63% will only travel to countries that have implemented vaccination programs. However, nearly two thirds (64%) remain sceptical if a vaccine will truly help make travel safer.
  • Three in four (75%) Chinese travelers feel more hopeful about travelling in 2021. About the same amount (73%) state that not being able to travel extensively in 2020 has made them yearn for travel ever more in 2021.
  • 72% of Chinese travelers state that they won’t travel internationally until they have been vaccinated, rising to 76% for those aged 55+. 67% will only travel to countries that have implemented vaccination programs. However, half of the travellers (50%) remain sceptical if a vaccine will truly help make travel safer.

On the lessons learnt from stints at Google and Unilever

At Google: I learnt “there is an art and science to marketing and no matter which brand and company you work for, it is a universal truth. The analytical rigor at Google has been replicated at booking.com - analysing and looking at things from every angle and then, applying judgement to make the right choice for the business.”

At Unilever: I learnt “the importance of being culturally relevant: think globally but act locally. I remember being shocked by just the number of different flavours of vanilla ice cream there were as different cultures and countries had different perceptions of what ‘vanilla’ should be. It is imperative to continually put oneself in the customer’s shoes.”

The new age post-pandemic playbook will be led by data, compassion and hygiene

Data and technology: As technology becomes more integrated into personal travel experiences, there is an increasing incidence of data-driven marketing approaches, in a rapidly evolving landscape.

Compassion and care: ‘Marketing for good’ is going to be the way forward for marketing. Positive brand value matters to the travel industry now more than ever. After so much uncertainty and travel dreams on pause, the sentiment has to be that at some point in the not-so-distant future, everyone may once again be able to travel and experience the world together. Research has shown that travel is even more important to people now than it was before the pandemic. In addition, people are more aware of and ready to care for the world than ever.

Transparency and hygiene: Health and hygiene top the list of traveler concerns. We also provide enhanced transparency to consumers around cleaning and hygiene information when they book on the site. We are working to make it easier for our partners to display their cleaning, hygiene, and sanitization measures on their property page. The idea is to help set accurate expectations and brings additional peace of mind for travellers when the time is right, and they are ready to experience the world again.

The travel marketer's job will continue to be about ensuring that travelers are inspired to dream about all kinds of travel and bring assurance to the accommodation and experience partners that we will continue to deliver a demand to them as the world begins to travel again. We want customers to know that we’re here to make it easier for them to experience the world as it becomes safe to do so.