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A Lesson In Marketing Agility: Surviving Travel’s Turbulent Recovery

Adit Abhyankar
May 6, 2021

As 2021 pushes on and vaccines are on their way around the globe, the end is in sight for this pandemic if you use a long lens. But even as jabs in the arm are ramping up, 2021 promises to be a year filled with uncertainty, as the ups and downs continue to vary by week and by geography.

Highlights And Lowlights That Defined 2020 Will Linger In 2021

Last year was a roller coaster of outbreaks and misinformation about how to control the virus and the economy. This yo-yo of on-again, off-again restrictions forced families and businesses to adapt, adapt and adapt again. As the infection waves came to each country and region at different times, 2020 was characterized by the shock of forced change, along with the insecurity of not knowing what would come next.  

For many large businesses, 2020 turned out to be the best of times and the worst of times. Services like Zoom, Peloton and food delivery lit up, while CPGs and other manufacturers saw rapid demand for household toilet paper, sourdough yeast, puzzles and bikes. Face masks became the new toothpaste — without which people would not let you get close to them. Insider Intelligence charted the winners and losers of 2020 here.

But the hardest hit sector — travel and hospitality — will continue to struggle with 2021’s continued uncertainty. Restaurant, hotel and transportation companies saw demand plummet, and the recovery is expected to be slow. International travel is still very limited, and domestic travel is barely achieving the pessimistic forecasts for a recovery this year. With the rare exception of AirBnB, few firms that cater to business travel still don’t know when people will return.

Travel Marketers Will Be Last-Minute Planners For Another Year

2021 will be similar but different. The year will be more predictable, but only because people more prepared for the unexpected. The fragile recovery over the course of this year will continue to face the conflict of wanting to promote and encourage travel while recognizing the uneven pace of global vaccine rollouts and potential threats from new strains.

Here are the three things travel marketers need to do to survive 2021:

1. Practice real-time agility. The term “real-time” has been tossed around a lot over the past few decades, as marketing has been able to get closer and closer to messaging at the moment of truth for each consumer. But it means so much more in our current environment, where every day there are temporary lockdowns or openings that require adjustments on a very local and timely basis. The good news is that it's all possible. Tools allow you to gather consumer insights at scale and vary your messages and alerts to stay on top of real-time rule changes.

2. Adapt contextual relevance to local perspectives. As marketers, the goal is often to find the one message that resonates across the widest audience. But what happens when models that define “look-alikes” don’t work because there are local and behavioral overlays that are hard to model? Find new ways to get a read on consumer sentiment by locality and other demographics. And look at the data with an eye to vaccine penetration, age distribution and location data to understand if a target segment is observing stay-at-home requests or is free to interact, so your message is aligned and well-received.  

3. Take random opportunities to lead. You can’t tell what‘s going to be in demand next. So don’t wait for it; make it happen. Take a look at your products or services and use a broad range of messages, and offer testing to look for signs of emerging opportunity. Tourist-dependent locations took charge and turned their focus from recruiting beyond the local area to getting local residents to participate in modified events, realizing that people shouldn’t travel but relish the thought of an adventure near home.

Three Ways To Adjust Travel Marketing On The Fly (Literally)

As a marketer at an airline or hotel, you're anxious to get back to people in seats or heads in beds. But getting people to travel requires understanding their demographics, local norms they're living in, government regulations and destinations where things aren't operating as usual. Applying the “new not normal” framework above, travel marketers need to:

1. Create opportunities for creative and media to work side-by-side. So many changes are based on the news cycle, new learnings from epidemiologists and new restrictions or openings. With media and creativity closely aligned, brands can shift ad content quickly and watch as performance improves with relevance.

2. Build reusable assets for quick message changes. With the status of destinations changing frequently, having a way to use the same asset for different origin and destination marketing messages is key. Using creative management tools to marry weather, CDC and bookings data can change “visit sunny California” messages to “say aloha to Hawaii” on the fly, as local hospitalization and travel mandates are updated.

3. Rethink mid-funnel messages to drive bookings. Seniors are on the move — the first cohorts to be vaccinated are getting back to pre-pandemic travel planning. They're mix of concern and willingness to travel can offer people the flexibility and funds to enjoy some new surroundings, with messages ranging from “staycations near home” to “visit us — check out our beaches and our hospital capacity.”

More fundamental changes, like Marriott and Hilton moving to in-house agencies, are emblematic of the upheaval the travel industry will continue to face over the next few years. People want to get back to traveling, and messages that help them get back on planes, in hotels and at destinations will be welcome when they can.

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