How travel brands can adapt messaging in the current moment

In this time of uncertainty with the travel restrictions in place, marketers are taking a step back and re-evaluating their plans, programs and so on. The focus has shifted from promotional communications to how can I best engage with my customer, in this current moment. Nothing matters more right now than relationships.  

Consumers will travel again and the interactions they have with brands today, will determine who they choose to travel with in the future. Watch our video to learn more.



JASON SIMON: Hi, welcome to Epsilon from Home. I'm Jason Simon, senior vice president of sales inside of the travel and hospitality practice. Very excited to have everybody aboard today. I'm joined by two very excellent colleagues and professionals in our marketplace. First, I want to introduce Bob Brown. Bob comes from Brown Analytics Advisory Group. Bob, you want to say hello and introduce yourself? 

BOB BROWN: Hi, everybody, thanks for listening today. As Jason mentioned, I'm founder of Brown Analytics Advisory Group, and prior to that I spent about 12 years on the client side in the travel and hospitality industry with Vail Resorts and Caesars Entertainment. 

SIMON: Cool. And Rob Cosentino, who is the senior vice president of strategy and insights for our travel and hospitality practice here at Epsilon. Hey, Rob, how are you doing? 

ROB COSENTINO: Doing well, thanks for having me. Excited to be here with both Jason and Bob. I've got about 20 years of core consulting experience, which to me is a lot of fun. I've spent my entire career solving problems for clients, so it's sort of one puzzle after another. And I'm looking forward to joining this series. Thank you.

SIMON: And every once in a while creating problems for clients, too. 

COSENTINO: Yeah. That's the whole trick to consulting. You gotta create more problems than you solve. 

SIMON: Right. Don't tell anybody that. So, guys, before we get into some of the content that we're going to talk about today, we all work in the travel sector and so, right now obviously things are a little bit challenged. But I thought it would be fun to start off and maybe share with each other some pictures and favorite memories that you have of some vacation or destination that you went to. So, Bob, why don't we start with you out there in Colorado. 

BROWN: Yeah. I last year at this time was planning an Alaska vacation. [Holds up photo of dog sled team.] Got a good shot there of the family doing a dog sledding trip on a glacier in Alaska. That was near Denali National Park. That was our great vacation last summer, and this summer we were looking to head to Hawaii. So, obviously that's a little bit on hold, but starting to think about what we want to do there and having lots of thoughts and dreams about it. 

SIMON: Like a lot of people. Cool location, too. Rob, anything with you? 

COSENTINO: Yeah, I'm probably the only American that's gone to the country of Montenegro on three separate occasions. It's absolutely phenomenal. I think it's been more discovered more recently, but it's sort of a phenomenal country. I think this year, from a planning standpoint—I think all of us in the travel industry are experiencing this—we've got a pretty big trip planned in Europe. I'm actually planning on buying a car and sort of driving it across the continent before having it shipped back. So those are the plans for this fall. And I think like a lot of people, I still haven't stopped dreaming about it, I'm still doing all the trip planning. So it's going to happen; it's just a matter of when. 

SIMON: And I bet we can talk about it later, but I know what manufacturer you found that car from. 

COSENTINO: Yes, absolutely. 

SIMON: Absolutely. So, for me, it was a trip that I took with my family to Costa Rica several years ago, which is just an awesome country. [Holds up photo of himself holding a fish.] It's sort of like before all the tourism thing gets going. And, I call it a fish—a mahi-mahi. And my children were with me, and they still tell me to this day that despite their being born and my getting married, they think this was the greatest day of my life with that fish. And they will tell you about how I walked around with a smile on my face for the rest of the trip. So, it's good. It's good to talk about that aspirational stuff, because a lot of our clients and people we work with in this industry obviously sell vacations. They sell travel, they sell all these components of what people are going to do with their recreational money, as well as obviously the business spending. So, you know, it kind of leads to an interesting question, as most of our industry isn't cruising really is implying hotels aren't very cool right now. You know, it leads me to think about, what should we be doing? What should we be talking to our customers about? 

COSENTINO: I can pick that one up first. I mean, I think we relate it to our own stories, right? Like, we haven't stopped dreaming. We're still dreaming; it's just that we're not quite sure when we're going to hit the road again. And I think more than anything else, this is the time not to be sending a whole bunch of transactional promotional material. This is the time to sort of keep that dream of travel alive. It's probably the best opportunity in the last 20 years for clients and brands in this space to really focus on that engagement or emotional-related communications with their customers and their members. 

SIMON: Yeah, I totally agree with that. 

BROWN: You know, nothing matters more right now than relationships. And we're seeing that in our personal lives, as connections are being formed and reformed as people are locked away in their homes. There are so many Zoom conferences and video chats, and things going on personally. And I think for travel companies, you should always be pushing for that relationship side and the emotional connection with customers. But now more than ever, that's the escape from reality. That's the refresh, that's the renewal that people are looking forward to. And so, I think in a lot of ways, it's a great time to connect with customers on that emotional level. And there aren't transactions happening, so you don't need to push for those. 

SIMON: Yeah, and I know the three of us were talking about this the other day: There's rarely a time where an industry, let alone a business, can put their foot on the brake and assess what they're doing, who they're communicating with. Kind of a funny—and maybe not appropriate—analogy is that I've been cleaning out the pantries and the junk drawers in my house and finding all kinds of things. I found a Blockbuster coupon from 2010—great deal, not happening. And so, there's a lot of things in those closets. And with what you said, Bob, it makes me think about how you said people aren't transacting right now, but there's always been a rhythm to how marketers are communicating with their audiences in our sector. And maybe this is a time to think about that a little differently. 

BROWN: I've got Eminem's "Cleanin' Out My Closet" going through my head right now, so thanks for that. But, what gets in our way so much as travel marketers—and this was certainly my experience, and I'm sure many of the folks watching this—really, two things stop you from being creative and rethinking how you're approaching your communication with customers. One of those is not enough time, because you're caught up in supporting the day-to-day operations, and there's so much that happens to just keep the ship afloat, keep the lights on, keep that constant communication with guests and pushing for those transactions. And then the other side of it is a fear of lost revenue. We all have programs that we're attached to because we're afraid to let them go. And I think this is a great time when those things that you know haven't really been working but you've been afraid to pull off of because of the revenue that's associated. You know, you don't have people booking, or your booking volumes are way down at the moment. And then teams don't have as much of that day-to-day. So, for a lot of organizations, I think this is a great opportunity to take a bit of a fresh-start look at and more design that journey-based approach to customer communications that you've been wanting to do. 

COSENTINO: Yeah, it's interesting. You know, being on the vendor, or the partner, or the consulting side, it's interesting what you said, Bob. We'd go into situations all the time and usually ask the question, "What's going out the door today?" And everyone thinks they understand how they're engaging or touching customers. But what happens is you start asking enough people, and you find out that nobody's got that total view. There's one great example where they thought there were roughly 100 campaigns or programs going out the door. In the end, it turned out there were like 263. So this stuff accumulates like the pantry over time. And I think you're right, Bob: People are just afraid of lost revenue. And right now, revenue's flat. So it's the best time to clean out all of that stuff, especially things that are much more transactional in nature. There's too much of that going out the door, and customers aren't ready to transact. So, it's time to clean house. 

SIMON: Yeah, and I don't even know, Rob, if it's so much about the idea that with these programs, people are afraid to turn off the revenue. But I also think—in my experience running through the vertical for all these years—that maybe a new person came in, and the program's always been running, and it just sort of becomes part of the "furniture," if you will, in the department. And that sort of leads to this idea that we can't turn it off, because it must mean something. 

COSENTINO: Yeah, I agree. And there's also too much doubt and too many KPIs out there, right? Listen, there's enough data that you can rationalize whatever goes out the door. But I think mostly what happens is people are looking at pretty tactical data usually at some sort of channel campaign or episodic level. I think if you start looking at data in terms of how you're actually moving the needle at an audience level as they interact across marketing and advertising, I think that's the best way to determine what should stay and what should go. 

BROWN: I guess what I've seen and experienced is that there's so much of a focus on that bottom of funnel, the conversion. And to your point, Rob, on the KPIs and the metrics, when we're looking at revenue attribution and especially last-click attribution, those are all pointing towards the transactional communication. And so we get caught up in that cycle. But I think it is, again, back to where we are today: Transactions aren't happening, so transactional communication isn't. So, you know, thinking about the long-term relationship and how do you build that. 

SIMON: Yeah, I mean it makes a lot of sense. And I also think that the recipients of the marketing are probably attuned a little bit right now to the type of content they're getting relative to what they're seeing around them in the real world. We're all from home right now, we're working in a really unique environment—and so are the customers, or the clients, or the travelers, or the guests. And so, not only are they not going out and using the travel apparatus, but they're probably not thinking about it too much. So, talking to them in a certain way is probably a little bit of an opportunity here to think differently about what people are doing versus those types of programs that have been sort of episodic or rhythmic in their approach. 

BROWN: Yeah. Rob, I'm curious how you think about the transition back. If you think back to where we started two to four weeks ago when it was crisis communications to where we are right now to some TBD point down the road when things are open again and we're out of this. How do you think of a travel marketing team evolving through that communication from a strategy standpoint? 

COSENTINO: Yeah, it's interesting. I think there's probably two things. I think the first thing we have to recognize is that there's no one day, right? There's no "day one." I mean, everyone's going to be on their own schedule to get back. And so, you can look at things like when shelter-in-place might lift or when people start flying again, but everyone's going to be on their own schedules. I think the best thing marketers can do is try to pick up data signals to determine when people start to exhibit intent again, because some people might get back on the road like us—from a business standpoint—possibly late summer. But a lot of people from a leisure standpoint may not want to go out until October, November, December. So, I think timing's everything. 

SIMON: And there's probably going to have to be communication around the safety of their properties or their ships or their airplanes. To me, that's going to go a long way to generating some of that competence back to that sector of traveler who, like you and I and Bob, are going to probably jump on the planes pretty quick when it's OK. But I think there's going to be an audience out there that is going to want to be reassured. And the brands have an opportunity now to connect a little bit more emotionally with their databases than they do right now, which may be more transactional, to your point, Bob. 

COSENTINO: Yeah. I also wonder, Bob, question for you: You came from a business that at times is very seasonal, right? So you essentially had a plan for the high season and a plan for engagement during the low season. And that's essentially what we're experiencing right now—just not within a specific subsector of travel, but across the board. So, what were some of the things you guys did from a low season standpoint to keep folks engaged? 

BROWN: Yeah, I mean it goes back to what we were talking about earlier. It's the relationship. During a low season or during this period right now for everyone, you're not going to drive those transactions. So, how do you get somebody in the summertime to think about a ski vacation or in the wintertime to think about, you know, their beach vacation, even while they're not ready to book it or plan it? And I think it goes to what you were talking about, too, with data and recognizing at an individual level, what is my booking time frame? Do I usually go six months out, or is it two months or four weeks out? And talking to me about that, the correct content during that time when I'm in that mindset. And I think the smarter organizations can be about this, the better they're going to come out of it. It's an interesting time as we start to open the doors and travel again. I think there's going to be a lot of loyalty up for grabs. It's going to be a different market dynamic, and there's going to be a lot of pent-up demand to capture, and I think that the organization that can really resonate with people and connect with them based on where they are at that point in time is really going to reap the rewards of it. 

COSENTINO: Yeah, I agree. One of the most important tools at the moment right now, if you think about it, is essentially TripIt. But TripIt is great functionality wise, but it's not great form wise. I would actually love to see some of the big travel brands help me with my travel planning in a very content-rich way today. So essentially, help me keep the dream alive or the big trip that I want to take this fall. But don't do it from a logistics TripIt standpoint. Do it from a very content-rich, experiences standpoint. 

BROWN: Yeah. And I've seen some great examples of the content that's streaming from some different travel companies. What I'm still longing for is more of a personalized approach to content. You know, I'm here with a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old kid that are being sort of homeschooled a bit by me while they're mostly just on their own getting into God knows what; my travel patterns are this; this is what I liked to do in the past; this is where I am; this is how I might be affected by this economically. I think there's a lot of data that's out there and available where this can start to evolve to a bit more of personalized content. Speak to me, the experiences I've had with your brand in the past, not just what you offer more broadly. And I'd love to see some travel companies start to make that transition now. 

SIMON: Yeah, this is great. I think this is a really important topic, and it gets back to where we started with this whole idea of, you know, go in and clean that marketing pantry out. Rethink what you're seeing. There might be programs in there that you've been running that aren't necessarily going to either a) resonate or b) not be that effective in terms of what they've been probably doing for you historically. And now, because everybody's in the same challenge, it's not necessarily that because you're doing this that you're going to fall behind in terms of getting your ship in order. So, really good content today to kick us off with this Epsilon from Home. A couple of things before we move on today. First of all, you guys talked a little bit earlier about places you've been, but plans for when this is over? 

BROWN: I want to get a haircut. 

SIMON: Yeah, totally. I threatened my kid today with the razor, you know, the shears. We'll go crew cuts. 

BROWN: Beyond that, like I mentioned earlier, looking forward to planning that Hawaii trip. I'm anxious to get to Las Vegas; I'm past due for a Vegas trip. Standing around the craps table probably isn't a great idea right now, but I can't wait for the time when I can. 

COSENTINO: And from my standpoint, I think we're all experiencing this right now: I think we always travel. Every year we go somewhere, but I think this year it's got even more meaning. And I think that's for everybody, right? Everyone's having a tough year for one reason or another. And so I think when we do travel this year and we go to Western Europe, it's going to have a lot more meaning. I think it's going to be less about checking the boxes and more about appreciating the fact that we got through this year. And I think all travelers are going to experience that. And I think brands really need to touch on that when they communicate. 

SIMON: I agree. For me, it's been a rough year, and I think it'll be great to just go to some island and relax for a week. Something like Aruba, or some type of place where there's no worries—something to just chill out with. So, really great initial conversation from home. We're going to continue to do these. As you guys know, there's so much to talk about: martech stacks, data insights, digital signals, lots of things out there to come for everyone that's touching the digital or online marketing channels for travel and hospitality. This Epsilon from Home series and video set is going to ultimately be a great place for us to have conversations, interactive conversations with people, and really drive strong discussions in our space about what we do moving forward. We can't do much about what happened yesterday, but we can certainly think about tomorrow. 

BROWN: I'll add a thanks to everybody who watched this today and also encourage you to share your comments, your feedback, open the discussion up on the topics we talked about today and then share anything you'd like to hear. 

COSENTINO: Yeah, same thing. We'd love to hear what you guys want to hear about. So, get the topics in and we'll send around those topics and it'll be a lot of fun for us. Thank you. 

SIMON: Absolutely. And, thanks again and we'll see you soon. And, like I've always said: We're going to fly again, we're going to cruise again and we're going to stay in hotels again. It's all going to happen. So, thanks for joining us.