Travel Marketing During A Pandemic: Shifting From Selling To Inspiring

Anna Kroupina, Open Jaw

While it's a time for social distancing, travel retailers say it's definitely not a time for social media distancing.

Open Jaw reached out to a number of travel advisors, host agencies and consortia on how they are approaching the marketing challenges presented by this unprecedented travel stop. The consensus is that the biggest mistake is to go dark.

"I think it's important to keep the conversation going between our agents and their clients because when we get to the other side of this crisis, people are going to want to travel," said Christine James, Vice President – Canada with Travel Leaders Network. 

"If you go totally silent, people have short memories and they'll forget about you. You want to make sure that when the world opens again, clients think of you first."

Penny Martin, Vice President of The Travel Agent Next Door, had this to add: "It's really important that customers know that when this is over, their agent will be there for them, that they are experts, that they give the best service and that they can be trusted."

In terms of how to maintain that relationship, travel professionals say that it's not time for traditional selling but rather to use social media for a soft sales approach and focus on uplifting travel ideas.

"Our marketing is now more inspirational and aspirational. Our members have been sending assurances to their clients that we are here for them," says TLNetwork's James. 

"People are hungry. They're looking for things to do and things to look at. A lot of it focuses on destinations versus a hard sell product." 

She suggests creating posts centered around destination bucket lists, virtual travel and reuniting with families. "People are desperate for that human connection, and travel is the perfect vehicle for that," says James.

Ensemble Travel Group, too, has shifted its marketing message to inspire rather than sell.

"More than ever, people are dreaming of where they want to go, so we think it's important for advisors to stay connected with their clients, although right now it's not about the offer, it's more about imagining" said Liz Metlitsky, Senior Manager, North American Member Marketing at Ensemble.

Metlitsky adds that virtual getaways -- which suppliers and destination management organizations have been creating en masse recently – are another great way to market during coronavirus.

TTAND's Martin says agents should be careful not to do a "big sell."

"We definitely want our agents to stay engaged so it’s about finding the right balance between keeping travel as an option worth dreaming of and respecting how people are affected by the current situation.”

Martin suggests agents send out "a personalized email or letter telling clients that they hope they're doing okay and that whenever they're ready to discuss their future vacations, that they're there for them, but no rush. Stress that staying healthy and distancing is the most important thing at this time."

TTAND advisor Coreen Doucett's Facebook feed provides an example of this approach. Many of her recent posts have revolved around engaging ideas such as "Where in the world am I?" trivia, memories from past travel experiences and the benefits of using travel advisors.

"I'm presenting the world and encouraging the public to book with a travel agent. I don't believe in selling at this point. I think it's disrespectful. But there's nothing wrong with advising and entertaining," explains Doucett.

Bonnie Little is an advisor with Expedia CruiseShipsCenters. She says she feels it's important to remind her clients that she is there for them, encouraging them to keep dreaming about travel.

"Our office marketing message to our clients is that we are here for their current needs, cancellations and booking changes, and that we'll still be here when it comes time to travel again. But we're also encouraging them to keep dreaming and thinking about travel," she says.

An Opportunity To Flaunt The Value Of Booking With An Advisor

Most importantly, and perhaps the silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic, is that this a great opportunity to inform the public on the value of using a travel advisor, travel experts say.

"One thing playing in favour of travel advisors right now is that a lot of people who booked online are struggling to get service. Those that booked with a travel agent are appreciating the value they got," says James. "If they haven't appreciated the value before, they sure are now."

"While this is clearly a difficult time to market travel, it is still the right time to communicate the value of travel as well as the benefits of working with a professional travel advisor. We truly believe that when we get to the other side of this, that the value proposition of using a travel advisor will be enhanced significantly," said Ensemble's Carl Schmitt, VP of Marketing.

"We truly believe that what our members do now will be critical to how quickly they recover. To that end, our entire marketing team has shifted its focus and efforts and has coalesced around creating relevant and critical tools and resources to benefit our members."

Martin agrees that the coronavirus pandemic may, in the future, raise the profile of the retail community.

"For the agents to show compassion to their customers like they have, I don't think they're ever going to lose those customers if they treat the situation right," she says. "People were really struggling if they booked anything online. Definitely, this is helping travel agents in the future, and probably insurance.

Anna Kroupina

Anna Kroupina Journalist

Anna is OJ's newest member and she joins the team as a writer/reporter. She co-writes the daily news and covers events. Although she's new to the industry, pursuing a career path in travel/tourism has been a goal since her first family road trip to the Florida Keys sparked a desire to discover the world and this exhilarating, fast-paced industry.

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