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Inside the travel industry’s fight for survival

We speak to the agency leaders helping the travel industry fight for survival / Caroline Selfors via Unsplash

It’s hard to think of an industry more directly impacted by global lockdowns than travel. As part of The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive, we sat down with five leaders from agencies in the travel world to figure out how they’ve helped their clients weather the storm, and to find out what the future might hold.

March 2020 wasn’t an easy time to be an agency in the travel business, with clients going dark, panicking and pulling out of contracts. Marketing budgets, of course, are among the first to be cut. It would have been easy, says Emilia Jedamska of Relevance, to think that the business was “utterly finished.”

In some cases, early-pandemic survival meant pivoting; taking on new clients in boom areas (such as wellness) to keep the lights on. But for most, pivoting entirely away from travel simply wasn’t an option. For John Speers of Kemosabe, the core of the agency-client relationship is partnership, which means sticking with them “through thick and thin” – whether that meant working cheaply or vastly changing the relationship.

It also meant sticking around to encourage brands to look beyond mere survival, making the most of the opportunities that did present themselves and continuing to invest in marketing where appropriate, since past crises have shown that those who stick it out tend to bounce back a little stronger. Those who made strategic investments, says Dan Watson of Digitas, “have captured a lot of brand share.”

Not every industry player was in a position to take risks – but those that did so in a smart way stood to win big. Against the grim backdrop of the pandemic, the default in communications was to take a somber mood, but “the ones that gave us a bit of humor, something to smile about, are the ones we remember,” says Jasman Ahmad of Accord Marketing, who points to Iceland’s ‘Scream’ campaign.

And the market’s starting to see even bolder swings: in the summer of this year, Ahmad recalls, Ambassador Cruises launched a new cruise business: “Some people didn’t even want to advertise and these people have bought a cruise ship, liveried it and launched a cruise line.”

It’s too early to see whether the gamble has paid off, but it’s a bold move indeed.

From safety to flexibility: the evolution of pandemic messaging

In the first waves of travel since the pandemic started, our experts say, safety was the natural core theme for reassuring messaging: once transporters and destinations had figured out policies to minimize Covid transition with deep cleaning and distancing measures, the key was to communicate that sensitively to consumers.

Those measures themselves remain important, but communicating them is becoming less important as they become standard. Flexibility is taking over as the core of reassurance messaging: cancelation and offering money back. It’s hard to make a cancelation policy sexy, though, so look out for creative avenues to slot flexibility into campaigns.

There is no doubt among our experts that the pandemic will continue to have other far-reaching consequences for the way we think and talk about travel. For Helen Darlington of Woven, lockdown’s wake-up call was that “memorable moments with the people you love are really important.” We’re already seeing that as a theme in post-pandemic marketing; our experts suspect it will also mean that families will invest in large family holidays in 2022, if not in 2021 (average booking spend has already gone up, while many will have been saving.)

The future: conscious travel

More time outdoors (or at least dreaming of the outdoors) and away from work also brought the environment to the forefront of our minds. On this our experts agree: the environment will become an ever-bigger element of consumer thinking about where and how to travel.

In agreement with Booking.com’s recent research findings, Kemosabe’s Speers says that many consumers will avoid returning to “over tourism.” This doesn’t just mean they’ll reduce the amount they’ll travel; we can also expect an evolution in the ways they’ll travel, and he suspects that there’ll be an increase in consumers traveling “lighter and deeper and longer,” and prioritizing “appreciating local communities and engaging locally.” This is an evolution he expects to see over the long term: “The level of consciousness will rise exponentially over the next five years.”

And if deeper engagement with local communities is what people will want from their travel, the challenge for travel marketers is clear: replicating those physical experiences in digital environments. Fortunately, the very market changes that have caused this shift in consciousness have also made authentic, sustainable production easier than ever: it’s harder and more costly to fly production teams to a location, but it’s easier and more valuable to connect with local creators and promote their content. “The focus,” says Speers, “has to be on getting it real.”

For more on how technology and trends are bringing the world together, check out The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.

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