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Come fly with me: a glance at the travel sector

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Come fly with me / Alex Hopkins @ubiquitous7

At the time of writing, I am daydreaming about my upcoming holiday to San Sebastian. I am not procrastinating about Ryanair and their Brexit bargain sale that immediately made me rinse my bank account, but the roof terrace Airbnb myself and a friend booked, chilling in the sun with some good old Sangria and some pinxtos.

There is a stark difference between these brands. One, a clunky in-your-face airline, and the other, a modern, dreamy and cultured economy driver.

The travel industry is changing. The way we look for escapism, as well as the way we are booking it, are becoming reasons why travel brands must transform and mould themselves to society’s desires.

The Drum Network brought together a group of industry experts at Soho’s Riding House Café to discuss the current challenges facing travel brands and how marketing can help them evolve into the modern world.

Joining the discussion were Paul Stephen of Sagittarius, Matt Richardson of Propeller, Dave Dunlop of Else, Richard Buchanan of The Clearing, Jessica Holloway of London Advertising, Jon Pollard of Rapp, Rachael Bradley of Underscore, Ed Woodcock of Aesop, Neil van Ginsburg of TVC Group, Jim de Zoete of Red Bee, Katy Howell of Immediate Future, Sharan Cheema of Navigate Digital, Phil Burgess of iCrossing and Chris Nurko of FutureBrand.

Disappearing borders

Proceedings began with the state the travel sector is in. The world is our oyster. You can wake up and book a flight to Peru if you wanted, organise accommodation and transport in a couple of hours - if you aren’t the fussy kind. As the world gets smaller, the bigger the opportunities are to explore. The bittersweet notion that there are so many wonderful, luxurious destinations - and so many ways to get there, whether it be by a local bus, a private jet or car share - poses the biggest problem for travel brands. How can we get customers to book with us? How can we stand out?

Paul Stephen, of Sagitarrius states: “The industry has not changed in concept. The idea that there is a flight, a hotel, a transfer and hospitality hasn’t really changed for a hundred or so years. The only thing that is changed is how you buy it, which is seriously commoditised.

“To be a successful travel brand, you must add value to your product and for that, you need to know your niche. Travel needs to be specialist and brands must stand out for something and be different. The ones that succeed are those who understand their audience.”

Stephens continues to add that the real customer journey starts with research, as opposed to boarding a plane, or entering a room at a 4* all-inclusive in the Canaries. Sadly, for most travel websites, Burgess of iCrossing explains, this is a fairly “clunky” process. “The paradox of choice means customers need help. I want knowledge, but I don’t want to trawl through websites. Usually I end up entering my travel dates around 15 times. Brands must be looking to provide a technically frictionless experience before the passenger becomes one.”

The human touch

Those providing these frictionless experiences are the disruptors of travel and the sharing economy. Airbnb offer the chance to live like a local in destinations over the world, from an attic conversion in Paris to a treehouse in Tanzania. Jon Pollard of Rapp discusses the importance of technology in the initial stages and how traditional OTAs must follow disruptors such as Airbnb.

“Brands are using technology as an experience enabler, using a curation component that says, ‘we are a community, or we are delivering this service,’”

“The balance between technology as an end in itself and technology as an enabler is what a lot of travel brands are getting wrong. Those who are providing a service are doing it well, they aren’t just showing a price for offers and package deals.”

Travel brands must be developing new products such as local guides, cooking classes or tours around Saturday markets. Nurko of FutureBrand explains that “there is a B2B economy that is emerging because the consumer has an opportunity to disrupt and leverage the capacity with average citizens who want to create a more local experience.”

Are these B2B disruptors a new wave of competition for traditional travel companies? Ed Woodcock of Aesop elaborates on the need for older models to embrace the connection with people, to provide a human touch: “When people travel, you half experience the destination through imagery before you get there. Making a connection with a local or someone who can give you a human element at the destination (for example, Iceland’s stop-over buddy) has become quite the trend.”

Rachael Bradley at Underscore hones in: “The sharing economy has forced a lot of hotels to become more authentic in experiences and bringing the outside in, as opposed to previously marketing themselves as being a place you can escape the outside. You can see it in the artists they have involved with the interior design, or the advancement in the catering offering. The whole hotel experience has to, and will, become more authentic to compete with the likes of Airbnb.”

As well as the real human connection once you reach your destination, brands need to be able to speak to consumers’ tastes. Data is the real sore spot for travel and leisure brands as Matthew Richardson of Propeller explains: “There are too many digital channels for brands to navigate. The amount of data hotels have is not joined up at all. Particularly if there are ways to book meals, treatments, travel; most of the time these systems are completely separate which becomes frustrating for customers. Due to the numerous touch points hospitality businesses have with customers, they can become a bit lazy. It’s one of the reasons I think they are historically lagging behind.”

Richard Buchanan at The Clearing agrees: “Personalisation is the use of technology to deliver a much more levelled experience that is tailored to customers. Due to the commercial pressures of the whole travel industry, this goes onto ubiquitous levels of commodity service in terms of delivery. Brands must be looking to the value of personalisation and what it can potentially offer you in the long term of business as opposed to short term in its outlook.”

Understanding the mindsets of travel is crucial for the personalisation process Burgess expands: “Why we travel, what we get out of it, who we go with… we can get so much data from understanding a person’s social interactions and we can create content around it, but this personalisation is not delivered as it should be at certain touch points.”

A pretty blue Instagram

A sea of blue is the norm when looking at brands’ Instagram feeds, which could be used for engaging consumer generated content. As well as lazy data, travel brands experience difficulties in perfecting the social sphere too, Katy Howell of Immediate Future explains: “Brands that are advanced enough are those who have key differentiators, who segment using paid social, look at the reasons for travel and use influencer relationships the right way, opposing the vast majority who are throwing mud at the wall.”

“We have spoken a lot about technical and data integration; this again applies to social when looking at channel integration. When brands think of social, the two big channels they think about are Facebook and Twitter, but sadly seas of blue and islands won’t cut it. Social media is slime, and data is a spreadsheet. Social must ooze beautifully into it, it all must integrate together.”

“It’s not just about the personalised websites, it’s all the components that sit together to drive trust, drive the things that move us forward. Social must be an enabler.”

Social must enable brands, but they should also instigate discussions among consumers about their products to promote word of mouth. Travel bloggers form a huge part of the ‘slime’ that Howell speaks of.

“The problem for us is that influencers are a bit of a fad right now,” Howell continues, “The challenge that influencers pose is the misuse and the obsession with reach and numbers. You are spending a lot of money (for some influencers it costs around £600-2000 per tweet) and putting your brand in programmatic jeopardy and the influencer could go off kilter.”

“The problem also lies in the fact that metrics are the only measure, which goes against the whole point of influencers. Influencers are there to change behaviours. You should look to co-create and bring them closer to the brand to help curate user generated content. The opportunity to differentiate is missed time and time again and this must change.”

Jim de Zoete of Red Bee agrees: “Influencers are going for reach, but they are not going into any depth, how can they actually engage audiences?”

Can celebrities provide more depth? Jessica Holloway of London Advertising discusses the Mandarin Oriental Hotels celebrity fan campaign which used celebrity figures to entice people to become loyal to the Mandarin brand. “We could describe it as an influencer campaign as all the celebrities are fans of the hotel. They don’t get paid but they get free nights in the hotel and £10,000 to go to a charity of their choice. The campaign has changed in its intent, instead of a celebrity endorsement campaign, it has become more of an influencer campaign as we would not pay anyone else to do it.”

Building trust is as important as bringing authenticity to an influencer partnership. Charma of Navigate Digital comments that, “In terms of influencers, I think a lot of brands get caught up in the idea and the bones of a campaign. Looking at influencers, it’s a longer game the travel sector has to play. Not a Garry Lineker/Walkers style partnership, but I do think that brands must be looking to other sectors to learn from them and their influencer style.”

Where to next?

Travel brands have been utilising influencers, social and third party booking sites for years, albeit not to the potential they could be. The generation who have grown up with high expectations of holidays, who are now those with disposable incomes, will be tightening their belts due to a fluctuating economy and a cloud of global anxiety. So, what next?

Neil van Ginsburg of TVC comments that: “Brands must have a social purpose. It’s not enough to provide a community for customers to buy into, but there must be a positive human element to the brand that shows they care about people and the world we live in.”

Burgess continues that social and ethical tourism is becoming a “rich vein” that brands should use to drive purpose and trust in their brands.

Above all, Stephens adds “the problem travel brands will face is trust. It doesn’t matter if you are a hotel or a tour operator, when people book their travel, it is all about trust. The digital experience and overall excursion must provide the appropriate level.”

Nurko concludes that we must stop talking about the legacy issues in travel and look forward. “Travel will start talking about the new ways that content, technology and personalisation will drive a whole new economy in travel, and we as agencies can assist by acting as the bridge between them.”

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