Ripping up the travel marketing manual for 2021

Ripping up the travel marketing manual for 2021

Travel marketing, March-September 2020: Close down, think short-term, salvage remains of the summer season, lose staff, realign, change marketing strategy completely for 2021.

This is broadly what has happened to travel industry thinking in the past six months, amidst having to constantly react to new quarantine measures, keep customers onboard while juggling refunds and trying to keep your company afloat.

Back in April, travel marketing was looking long-term rather than putting out fires. A fascinating piece of ‘Voice of the Industry’ research from Euromonitor from that time showed that customer service, better technology and improved user experience were top of the marketing wish list worldwide.

Of course, COVID-19 was by then starting to impact the industry, as the responses show below. If the survey had been carried out in May or June, the ‘most important commerce-specific’ response would undoubtedly have been providing information and advice about COVID.

euromonitor report important developments

Still, it’s interesting to consider what, in April, were the main commercial ambitions for the next 12 months in the travel industry. As we can see, the ambitions were laudable but also practical: leveraging tech to better guide and woo customers to the booking point is obvious – but just as important is understanding that customer service has suffered in recent years as tech came first.

This is even more evident now as customers struggle to obtain refunds, particularly from airlines and online travel agents, the latter handing responsibility to the accommodation/holiday provider. Just trying to get through to speak to a human voice is nigh on impossible.

Different thinking

The survey also shows how different countries perceive the travel industry, and what each considers to be a priority. In the UK, the main ambition was to create a consistent brand experience across channels – 68% of marketeers in the UK said this was their priority. Their counterparts in Germany agreed, along with an ambition to become ‘consumer centric’. To paraphrase, to make it easier for customers to understand the brand.

However, travel firms in China and the USA are fixated on the technologies, both mainly concerned with improving the user experience – or to paraphrase, to make it more streamlined to sell to customers. As the leading providers of technology and social media platforms, the desire to implement more/better tech is a natural fit.

It is also noteworthy, though, that China and the US place high store in enhancing customer service, far more than Germany and the UK. China and the US also place far less importance than their European rivals on shifting from physical to online platforms. You must assume China and America have already done this – now the emphasis is on even better tech and customer service.

Marketing summer 2020

The ambitions shown in the survey are on hold while the realities of crisis management are played out. There are 90,000 UK jobs lost or at risk across the tourism sector, according to Sean Tipton, spokesman for UK travel trade body Abta. “We are at a tipping point,” he added. Meanwhile, the head of three UK airports this week accused the government of ‘overseeing the demise of UK aviation’ by not testing for COVID at airports.

It is a financial bloodbath. Visit Britain now forecasts, as of August 25, that inbound tourism to the UK in 2020 will fall by 73% in visits to 11m, and decline by 79% in spending to £6bn. “This would represent a loss vs the pre-COVID forecast of 30.7m visits and £24bn spending,” says a spokesman.

We don’t want to travel – we want to hide away deep in the countryside, or on the coast. Self-catered cottage holidays in the UK sold out quickly after the government relaxed domestic travel restrictions on July 4. Camping is this year’s hot holiday while road trips have also boomed – you can’t find a mobile home this summer. Camp and cottage operators say that bookings for 2021 are also soaring as those still wary of travelling want to bag a holiday of their choice, not just what’s left.

Marketing 2021?

A big trend for next year will be destinations marketing to their own residents. British Airways Holidays may have started selling holidays, for the first time, for more than a year in advance, but the perceived wisdom is that travel will not return to ‘normal’ levels for five years.

Australia has begun a new themed ‘Stay Here This Year’ campaign as it begins its southern hemisphere summer. With national carrier Qantas cancelling all international flights until March 2021, the idea of any ‘traditional’ marketing is absurd.

Japan too is looking to boost domestic tourism by targeting travel discounts for residents in specific areas, according to a report last month on Skift. Using geo-targeting on Line, the country’s most popular messaging app, it can offer 50% hotel discounts in areas unaffected by COVID – integrating new technologies, the Euromonitor survey would say.

But while domestic tourism campaigns will flourish in 2021, there will be a huge pent-up demand to really get away – but only if the holiday can go ahead, is safe and satisfying, Which brings us back to cottages and villas, where families and friends can form their own bubble.

A report in The Guardian last week on the ‘new travel landscape’ quoted Noel Josephides, chairman of Greek holiday specialist Sunvil Holidays, in which he said 45% of the company’s capacity for 2021 is already sold. “A lot of the popular villas are full,” he added.

Happily for worried holidaymakers, 60% of available bed spaces across Europe are in rented accommodation (the rest is in BBs, hotels and hostels) – and France, Spain and Italy account for half of those rented rooms, according to the European Travel Commission. It’s not hard to imagine the gite/cottage/villa tour operators gearing up their marketing to these safe-but-seriously-relaxing type of holidays, while France, Spain and Italy also look to offer discounts and incentives to their residents to spend their money at home.

And if the operator can demonstrate a good reputation, for answering the phone, listening and refunding if necessary, then they will be the winners. It’s called enhancing customer service, an attribute that UK travel marketeers told Euromonitor they consider just 9th highest in the list of 12.

Many marketers will be looking to reprioritise their values for 2021.

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Steve Keenan has been a travel journalist for 25 years. He started at a Reed paper, news editing at Travel News in London - now Travel Weekly - having spent a decade reporting general news in the UK and abroad. He also taught English in Peru, delivered cars in the USA, ran the Sydney desk at AAP and took the train home from Hong Kong. He left Travel News in 1990 to freelance for several publications, including The Times of London, which he later joined as deputy travel editor. In December 2004, he became the first national digital travel editor in the UK, running the combined travel website of The Times and Sunday Times. The introduction of a paywall at the papers in 2010 persuaded him that the connected world might continue outside of Wapping and he left to co-found Travel Perspective. The company runs the social media seminars at World Travel Market London, and works with Reed Expos and others in helping the travel and tourism industry best communicate stories in all forms of publishing.

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