While the travel industry is calling on the government to green-list more countries and urging people to book up for Summer 21, On The Beach has ceased selling any holidays as part of a marketing plan it hopes will bear fruit in 2022.
Zoe Harris is the relatively new chief marketing officer at On The Beach (OTB). The former Trinity Mirror and GoCompare marketer joined the travel firm at the beginning of the year and has spent much of the first six months of her tenure getting to grips with an industry crippled by the pandemic.
You might expect that would see her standing alongside fellow travel brands in protesting against Covid-19 restrictions and demanding more countries are added to green lists to key destinations such as Spain, Greece and Italy.
But she’s not. In fact, Harris has convinced her bosses to stop selling holidays altogether. A bold move for a travel company today.
“The traffic light system keeps changing and the view of the travel industry as a whole is to campaign and put pressure on the government to open up again. But we believe what’s most important is to rebuild confidence in the holiday industry and sell only when there is some degree of certainty that a holiday will go ahead without disruption or added costs," she says.
"So rather than we join in and say ‘the solution is to put everything green’ we decided in May to stop selling holidays for July and August.”
On OTB's website, you’ll find a clear sign warning potential (and doubtless much needed) customers that holiday bookings have been paused and it’s issued emails to all registered customers explaining the decision.
Predicting another rocky year for travel, its ad agency Uncommon shot a TV campaign with music legend Iggy Pop last December and opted to create a bank of assets that could be put together in any number of ways depending on guidance from the government. And so it’s used these expensive above-the-line advertising assets to ensure the message is spread far and wide that holidays – at least on OTB- are cancelled.
“Taking holidays off sale has big commercial implications and affects everything from how we manage suppliers to resorts etc. But we need to think about consumer sentiment – people don’t want to go on holiday because of uncertainty and the last thing we should do is persuade them they should. None of us [at OTB] is booking holidays, we’re telling friends and family not to, and that’s the general consensus of the majority of the public. So, let’s do the right thing,” Harris says.
“We’re proud to be putting customers first rather than being so desperate to get cash indoor for the summer that we risk our reputation in the longer term.”
Harris explains that since joining in a baptism of fire in January her steadfast approach has been to establish OTB as the “reasonable voice of travel.”
She’s rejigged her marketing team so that she now has more people working on the content side of the business. Where they would previously spend days researching and writing about, for example, the top things to do in Portugal they are instead reading every bit of comms that comes from the government on global travel recommendations and writing easy-to-understand explainers on the implications for customers.
Her CRM team is being proactive in outbound communications. Every time a new update is issued, they are contacting customers to reassure them.
“We’re about speed and turning around CRM copy in 20 minutes rather than two days with multiple layers of sign off,” Harris says.
But beyond just making sure the brand is being seen to do the right thing, Harris has also taken it upon herself to encourage the rest of the industry to improve the service they’re giving to customers.
At the moment, that focus is on the issue of Credit Notes. When the pandemic first hit, travel firms were advised they could offer people credit notes rather than cash refunds which until then were required by law.
However, with ongoing travel uncertainty, the company says these Credit Notes are no longer in the best interests of consumers and is leading a call for all customers holding credit notes to be given a cash refund.
“We estimate the industry is holding on to £750m in IOUs. Even though we’re in difficult times as a sector, a lot of decisions are being made very much with short term thinking.”
She says OTB has made an “intense effort” over the last year to ensure it’s refunding customers in cash within 14 days.
And it’s working. According to Harris, since it stopped selling summer holidays and published a white paper urging for reform of the Refund Credit Note scheme, OTB’s consideration scores have improved by 23% and its recommendation scores by 85%.
Data issued to The Drum from YouGov also found that its Brand Awareness is also up 43%.
“We’re seeing the highest ever levels of open rates on emails. People finding it useful rather than ‘here’s a deal for Portugal’,” she adds. “I’ve never seen so many emails come in from people saying thank you and I hope it pays off for [OTB] next year.”