Successfully navigating turbulent times

Of all the industries impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, the travel industry was one of the hardest hit. In fact, the pandemic resulted in nearly $215 billion in losses for the U.S. travel economy between the beginning of March and the end of May, according to a U.S. Travel Association report. And while there was a slight increase in spending as some states began easing stay-at-home orders, consumers are unlikely to travel as freely as they did pre-COVID any time soon. A Longwoods International report also found that nearly half of consumers surveyed said they will change their travel plans over the next six months.

With the world of travel upended, airlines, hotels, attractions and other brands in the travel and tourism industries clearly cannot continue marketing as usual. Here’s what travel brands should be doing to remain resilient during the recovery—and beyond.

1. Focus on building relationships

Transactional messaging from travel brands resonated less as consumers and business travelers alike took fewer trips. As a result, travel brands sent fewer emails: Email messaging volume in the industry was down nearly 30% in April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, according to Epsilon research. This presented travel brands with a unique chance to shift their marketing strategy.

“It’s probably the best opportunity in the last 20 years for clients and brands in this space to really focus on engagement or emotionally related communications with their customers and their members,” says Robert Cosentino, senior vice president of strategy and insights for Epsilon’s travel and hospitality practice.

Brands can create emotional connections and build relationships through a variety of messages that acknowledge consumers’ shifting concerns and address community needs, as well as inspiring a continued desire for travel and adventure.

2. Cater to new and evolving expectations

Travelers’ expectations have changed with events in the past (consider increased airport security after 9/11), explains Devin Sung, vice president of digital personalization and marketing orchestration at Marriott International. Travelers will have new expectations and behaviors that come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, too.

“What are you expecting as a guest when you’re on property [at a hotel]?” Sung asks. “Those are the kinds of things that are still evolving and will likely turn into marketing proof points, potentially even platforms for campaigns and future messaging and brand programs to build upon.”

Some travel brands are already well on their way to meeting those new expectations operationally and in their messaging, rolling out new cleaning protocols, loosening cancellation policies, extending loyalty points and supporting various local community efforts.

Marriott, for example, created a Global Cleanliness Council, focused on developing the next level of cleanliness standards, norms and behaviors to minimize risk and enhance safety for consumers and employees. Wyndham Hotels & Resorts took similar actions, creating the “Count on Us” initiative, which outlines new procedures for cleaning, personal protective equipment and social distancing at its properties.

Southwest Airlines and United Airlines both announced new cleaning procedures, using electrostatic technology similar to that used in hospitals, to disinfect their planes. Both brands got the word out on social: Southwest shared a motion-graphics video explaining how its air-filtering technology works, while United promoted its “United Together” microsite.

These operational efforts and related communications helped to build a foundation of trust from which the brands began to alleviate consumer concerns—with the goal of drawing people back to travel.

3. Contribute to a cause

Travel brands have also been working to build connections with consumers by aiding those in need. With low demand for hotel stays, Marriott and other brands provided free or discounted rooms to healthcare workers and COVID-19 patients. In addition, Marriott created an incentive for consumers to support their own communities, offering loyalty points on dollars spent with local restaurants.

Southwest shared numerous inspiring, community-oriented images on Instagram, including a plane full of healthcare workers it flew to volunteer in New York. One of the brand’s LinkedIn posts shared how the airline also transported borrowed ventilators between states.

Travel brands should consider how they can retain these community ties and emotional connections as part of their ongoing strategy.

4. Be ready to follow customer intent

As the industry rebounds, brands will need to be particularly in tune with customers’ intent signals. Because the pandemic changed travel, preconceived notions about consumer behaviors will no longer suffice, and consumer segments may look much different than they did in the past.

“Everyone’s going to be on their own schedules,” Cosentino says. “The best thing marketers can do is try to pick up data signals to determine when people start to exhibit intent again.” The winners in the travel space moving forward will be those that can get the deepest understanding of consumers the fastest, he explains.

5. Continue to sell the dream

Although travel has been restricted, marketers can still appeal to consumers’ appetite for adventure.

“We haven’t stopped dreaming. We’re just not quite sure when we’re going to hit the road again,” Cosentino says. “This is the time to keep that dream of travel alive.”

Hilton, for instance, created a Facebook cover photo that exclaimed: “Epic journeys and exquisite destinations are on the horizon. But for now, #DreamWithUs.”

And Marriott Bonvoy, the hotel chain’s loyalty program, encouraged visitors to dream up their next excursion—and purchase a discounted gift card to fund it—with messaging that read, “Dream Now. Travel Later.”

Wyndham used its social media channels to encourage visitors to relive their past trips to generate interest in new travel. “We’re creating a new type of destination for travelers, where they can come and share travel experiences they’ve had in the past,” says Lisa Checchio, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts.

While travel inspiration may not lead to an immediate transaction, it generates a strong emotional tie with the consumer— who will eventually travel again.

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