I’ve heard there are people out there who truly believe that “getting there is half the fun.” I, on the other hand, feel that when it comes to traveling, everything that happens between my initial decision to leave my house and my lying on a beach chair with a fruity drink in my hand is just stress-inducing static and delayed gratification.
To reduce the friction I’m likely to experience at any step of my journey, I rely pretty heavily on online travel advice (from both the pros and amateurs). And, judging from the sheer number of businesses that cater to the ever-expanding online travel and tourism category, I’m certainly not alone.
Such is the power of the role that travel and tourism marketers play in the lives of their customers. With so many different touchpoints to engage with, so many ways to facilitate and enhance the travel experience, and so many pain points to help customers overcome, this field offers tremendous opportunities to create content-based connections, build trust, and add value for intrepid world explorers, road-weary business travelers, and everyone in between.
Of course, travel industry marketing isn’t just about posting picturesque snapshots and telling tales of how to have fun in the sun. There are some significant challenges when it comes to successful storytelling in this space, not to mention plenty of competition. From huge hotel chains, to boutique B&Bs, and B2B service providers to the beach-going masses themselves, it seems everyone has some travel advice to share online – and it’s not always clear whose is the most accurate, trustworthy, or useful. Professional travel business marketers need to go the extra mile when it comes to creating content that distinguishes their expertise and earns bookings, not just “lookings.”
The wealth of channels makes budget prioritization difficult: According to Neal Tornopsky, associate publisher, digital, at Northstar Travel Group, one of the major challenges travel and tourism marketers face is how to allocate budget and resources against the many channels of travel.
Travel information is ubiquitous on the web, and the audience is just as likely to seek it for a little armchair-escapism session as they are for an impending trip. It’s difficult for travel brands to determine where to prioritize their content distribution to make sure they are earning the attention of in-market consumers, not just those who are taking flights of fancy.
Adding further complexity is that travel brands are eager to explore the potential of emerging content formats and channels, like virtual reality, to stay in step with consumer trends and interests. “While traditional ads remain a key piece of the puzzle, there is a great need to communicate with the audience on a deeper level,” Neal says. “Content that allows (the audience) to experience a product can be very exciting, which is why so many (B2B marketers) are excited for what VR is expected to bring.”
This eagerness to experiment also speaks to the pressing need for businesses in this sector to stay in step with their customers’ media preferences and trends. Ultimately, it is this driving force that may finally loosen travel marketers’ reliance on traditional advertising – a trend that likely will extend to businesses that deal directly with travelers. In fact, social media strategist Donna Moritz already sees international tourism authorities taking advantage of VR’s potential to engage, immerse, and convert curious consumers into repeat visitors.
For example, Kerala Tourism in India set up VR experiences in airports to encourage people to experience the feeling of cruising in a Kettuvallum houseboat (thatched roof with wooden hull). “People who may never have considered traveling to Kerala were suddenly tweeting about it, adding it to their holiday plans, and even those who may never journey there were telling their friends about their experience,” Donna says.
Category growth is difficult to achieve. In such a noisy space, stealing audience mindshare is difficult enough when you are a huge online travel agency like Travelocity or Priceline, let alone a regional boutique hotel or independently operated B&B that must compete with these services for the same reservations. Providing a differentiated experience through content can give businesses (both large and small) an edge in a local market; but even that may not be enough if the benefits don’t translate to scalable growth against the Goliaths of this industry.
While it can be tough for travel brands to gain ground within their own category, content can open doors to scaling across the travel industry. As Deloitte’s 2017 industry outlook report points out, travel is fragmented across many micro experiences. The secret to growth may lie in conceptualizing your brand as a content platform that enhances the customer’s entire travel experience – particularly in areas that go beyond the services your own business provides.
This strategy is also well-suited for the B2B side of travel and hospitality. For example, Neal points to a thought leadership piece recently published by Travel Weekly to educate its travel agent audience on ways to take advantage of the luxury rental market – an area that sharing economy services like Airbnb and VRBO previously edged them out of.
The sales funnel isn’t fixed, and neither is pricing: Unlike markets where the consideration process is more or less universal for all consumers, the path to purchase in the travel and hospitality industry is highly subject to each traveler’s personal preferences – where they want to travel, how much they want to spend, what activities they want to book, etc. Further, each touchpoint in the planning process can be influenced by myriad unpredictable factors – fluctuations in fuel prices, seasonality, current travel trends, and even (unfortunately) acts of violence in a particular region. All of these things have the potential to impact how attractive your offerings are at a given time, not to mention how competitively they can be priced.
The Deloitte industry outlook report also points out an additional complication: A travel customer can pull a Jekyll-and-Hyde act on their go-to service providers when planning for different types of trips. For example, a business traveler customer may completely confound your ability to predict their content needs if their next trip to New York is a family outing. Throw those carefully crafted personas out the window because they can’t help when even your most loyal customer flips the script on their typical travel behaviors.
The social ripple effect: With social media becoming a powerful influencer in this industry, even a minor infraction your brand is accused of committing (rightly or wrongly) can escalate quickly, turning an isolated experience into a big PR headache, or worse. Just look at the decline in stock value United Airlines experienced when it devolved from having a reputation as a brand that “breaks guitars” to the one that broke a passenger’s nose.
In a landscape where an online review from a dissatisfied consumer or a live-streamed video of a poorly handled customer service incident can speak louder than all the carefully crafted content your brand creates, travel businesses have an urgent need to monitor their online reputations carefully and respond quickly – and not just on the social channels they commonly use to communicate with customers. For example, a single one-star review on a site like TripAdvisor can negate the favorable opinions of dozens of enthusiastic brand fans on your Facebook page.
However, the social ripple effect can be applied in the brand’s favor. As Donna points out, there is a huge opportunity for tourism businesses to empower the travelers to tell their own stories (user-generated content) and then amplify those messages. “So many destinations are doing great things with UGC already; but it’s still a huge area of potential,” she says.
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Despite the significant challenges travel and tourism marketers must overcome, they have plenty of attributes that work in their favor when it comes to creating content – not the least of which is the potential to put a world of travel experiences at the consumer’s fingertips. The right content experience can make a traveler’s planning process simpler, their journey easier to manage, and their overall experience more enjoyable. And beyond the practical aspects, there’s a high degree of emotional cache up for grabs in this marketplace. Not only can immersive storytelling simulate the excitement of exploring an exotic location for the first time, content can also be used to help the consumer turn their wildest travel fantasies into a virtual reality.
Here are a few more examples of how travel and tourism businesses can put content’s multipurpose power into play:
Embrace inspiration and visualization: Online consumers in this space expect to be informed, inspired, and entertained throughout their “dream-and-discover” phase just as much as they want their actual planning and booking requests to be accommodated. The attention earned by sharing inspiring ideas and enabling the audience to personalize the content can really give your business an edge when those engaged consumers are ready to make a purchase. This is an area where content like interactive trip configurators, virtual tours, and VR experiences can help your business really shine.
Example: Qantas VR app – The official airline of Australia created a virtual-reality-enhanced app that provides potential visitors with 360-degree video tours of more than 13 tourism experiences they won’t find anywhere else on earth. For example, the airline was granted permission to capture aerial views of sacred sites at Uluru and Kata Tjuta – including areas prohibited to the public such as Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. And, after virtually hopping on a helicopter to see ancient Uluru or view the spectacular sights of VIVID Sydney, armchair travelers who want a more up-close and personal experience can book themselves a flight in-app.
Editor’s note: You will need a VR headset to experience the video as it was intended.
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Make adventure happen more easily: While having the ability to virtually explore dream travel scenarios from your living room can be a powerful driver of consumer intent and action, there are plenty of practical decisions travelers need to navigate along the way to making any journey (fantasy or otherwise) a success. Create content they can use to facilitate a smoother planning process and your brand may earn the kind of appreciation that leads to more favorable online reviews, more fervent brand evangelism, and more repeat bookings.
Example: #nsfavourites – The Dutch Railway operator, known as NS, wanted to encourage the country’s citizens to travel more often by train. Working with G+J Custom Content, the company identified leading Dutch bloggers and influencers, who chose four Dutch cities to be profiled. In an exclusive email series, NS shared the influencer’s recommendations on lodging, restaurants and bars, activities, and how to get the most out of a visit to each destination. This collaborative content effort also led to a responsive website and companion mobile app that allow visitors to compose their own lists of favorite locations – and receive a map to help them find their way from the closest railway station. Thus, the effort added real-world value by including interactive content that took some of the guesswork out of traveling by rail.
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A page of preparation is worth 1,000 tweets of cure: When it comes to an industry as unpredictable as travel, consumers can never be too well informed about what to do if something goes wrong. While it’s likely your business is prepared to respond on social media when a travel crisis emerges, you might score more consumer loyalty points if you have easily accessible information on hand to help them avoid potential travel traps in the first place – or at least help keep their stress down to a minimum when they are in the thick of an unpredictable situation (like the one I experienced a few years back).
Strategic content creation that removes travelers’ fear of the unknown and the friction caused by uncertainty is also a great way to differentiate your content from your competitors that focus on glamour shots of exotic locales.
Example: Delta’s RFID baggage tracking app – Last year, Delta became the first major U.S. carrier to grant passengers the ability to track their checked bags through their smartphone app. Using radiofrequency identification (RFID) technology, Delta makes every part of the routing process visible to the luggage’s owner – from the moment the passenger drops the bag at check-in to the moment it arrives on the carousel at the destination. Using push notifications and visual maps, the app lets passengers know when their bags have reached each handling checkpoint; and, because the tracking system uses a RFID chip loaded with the traveler’s contact details, should a bag get mishandled en-route, it can be located more easily and delivered to the owner with fewer delays.
Want more insights, ideas, and examples on how travel and tourism companies can leverage content marketing to their best advantage. Register to attend the Travel and Hospitality Lab at Content Marketing World 2017. Use code BLOG100 to save $100 on registration.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute