Southwest Airlines became the first carrier to return to advertising in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, abandoning its trademark humorous creative for an ad message highlighting the strength of America.
Others in the travel industry are expected to follow soon -- but at least initially with short-term media buys and creative emphasizing low-price incentives to encourage nervous business and leisure travelers. Last week's cutbacks in staff and service are also expected to affect ad budgets.
Reluctant to start sales
"Airlines are reluctant to start fare sales when they don't know what is going on in the outside world," said Glenn Engel, an airline analyst for Goldman Sachs. "Once the political situation clears, the sales will start."
There were some signs last week that airlines, which have been reporting flights 40% to 50% full, might be able to get leisure travelers flying again. Las Vegas-based National Airlines last week launched a "Get America flying" sale on service to Las Vegas and other points, offering round trips from Chicago and several other cities from $50 to $70. Even without advertising, it quickly started getting reservation calls.
Southwest, which has contracts to advertise on local baseball telecasts in nine markets as well as nationally on NAtional Football League games, on Sept. 19 broke its silence with three spots from Omnicom Group's GSD&M, Austin, Texas.
One of the two TV spots features the voice of Colleen Barrett, Southwest president-chief operating officer, saying Southwest's 32,000 employees are "pledging our allegiance to America. Nothing will keep our country or Southwest from moving ahead." Southwest will also offer customers a "Keep America Flying" sticker that says "I Flew Southwest Airlines Today."
Other airlines said they were reviewing ad plans day by day. "We are still in the period when memorial services are being held," said a United Airlines spokesman. Craig Braasch, managing director of worldwide advertising for Northwest Airlines, said the airline is conducting an "ongoing evaluation" of returning to advertising.
Todd Putnam, VP-marketing for Princess Cruises, said the company pulled its ads for two weeks but will return to advertising Sept. 30. He said bookings seem to be holding. Interpublic Group of Cos.' Suissa Miller, Los Angeles, handles that account.
Canceled conferences, scared employees
While leisure travel might benefit from price advertising, business air travel may be slower to rebound. Cancellation of numerous conferences, new company travel policies and corporate reluctance to force frightened employees to travel are prompting predictions that the industry, already impacted by the economy, will be down for the rest of the year.
For airlines and hotels, the difficulty in gauging whether to make long-term advertising buys is assessing how long the slump will last.
"It's difficult to understand what will happen because nothing like this has ever happened in the U.S.," said Ravi Saligram, brand president, the Americas, for Six Continents Hotels, which includes the Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and Intercontinental brands. "The only thing that is similar was the Gulf War. We expect fourth quarter to be significantly and adversely impacted."
Among other strategies, Six Continents is weighing using more of its ad budget to revive local tourism.
Tough time for travel mags
Don Ziccardi, CEO of Ziccardi & Partners, New York, which buys media for Loews Hotels, believes ad dollars will shift from national buys, such as travel magazines, to localized community outreach and fund-raising efforts.
"Right now, I wouldn't want to be a publisher" at a travel magazine, he said.
Lisa Hughes, publisher of Conde Nast Traveler -- which derives about 50% of its ad business from the travel category -- said that thus far the cancellations were mostly from airlines, none from hotels or resorts.
But another publisher at a magazine that does substantial travel business expects cutbacks from hotels and resorts.
"When hotels are running 15%, 20% occupancy," said the publisher, "when they're not making their debt payments, it's hard for them to focus on marketing."