Travel brands are spending again—how their marketing strategies are different
A year ago, consumers were hard-pressed to find a travel ad in the market as the raging pandemic kept most Americans homebound. If hoteliers and airlines did any marketing last year, they focused on messages of support and empathy—and offered options around virtual trips.
That pullback is over.
In recent months, brands such as Marriott and Expedia have poured money into marketing, each announcing their biggest campaigns to date as they try to capture a piece of growing consumer demand. Travelocity recently debuted its first campaign from new agency-of-record Doner. JetBlue created a film welcoming customers back to New York City. Even brands not solely operating in the travel sector are trying to cash in—Poshmark, the second-hand clothing site, just emailed its members “Your upcoming travel plans are calling,” as it promoted items like Louis Vuitton travel bags, Fjallraven backpacks and Triangl bikinis.
“Leisure demand is crazy,” says Clayton Reid, chief executive of travel marketing firm MMGY Global. “People didn’t understand how fast they would start traveling again.”
But while travel is back, things are far from normal. New work-from-home or hybrid office schedules are adding flexibility and new behavior to the way consumers are traveling and planning their trips. At the same time, COVID-19 forced many people to re-evaluate their relationships with brands. Some are now booking trips with more in mind than just price, as trends like sustainability become more important. After being caught off-guard in 2020, travel brands are now keeping up with fresh messaging and more nimble advertising strategies. They’ve also rolled out new technology and features around automated processes and perks for loyalists.
“They’re turning marketing back on—they want to get back out in front of the consumer because consumers are dialing up their travel again,” says Alice Jong, director of research at Phocuswright, which conducts travel market research. “People are thinking about it creatively. The pandemic also taught us in general to prepare for things and try not to play catch up.”
Hotels lead with advertising dollars
While travel advertising has not reached 2019 levels, it is trending upwards. In June, travel brands spent more than $210 million in the U.S., more than double their spend in June of 2020, and just slightly down from 2019 levels, MediaRadar reports. But spending is uneven. Hotel chains Hilton Worldwide, Sandals Resorts, Resorts World Las Vegas, Marriott, Best Western and Choice Hotels International spent $41.6 million between January and June. But cruise lines have yet to come back at full force: 66% of the cruise brands that advertised in the first half of 2020 did not advertise in the first half of 2021, MediaRadar found.
But the general uptick in travel spending is a welcome sign for publishers and media outlets that rely on it, after 2020 ad spending and revenue in the sector plummeted by more than 60%, according to Ad Age’s Datacenter.
While ad spending is near pre-pandemic levels, the cost of travel is far exceeding what it was before COVID. Labor shortages, additional cleaning protocols and some remaining social distancing guidelines are all pushing prices up for airlines, hotels and rental car operators, say experts, who estimate about a 15% uptick in such prices. Many affluent consumers, fresh off a year of lockdowns that included savings on things like child care, are nevertheless eager to pay the higher travel costs.
“Consumers are more well-heeled than they’ve ever been—they have a lot of money and they’re paying a lot of money to travel right now,” Reid says. Yet he cautions that such high demand will not last forever. “Right now we don’t expect this leisure demand for 2021 to remain in place in subsequent years,” he says.
Google’s travel rise
As they battle each other for customers, travel brands—particularly online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity—are also facing increased competition from Google, which has been advancing in the travel space for years. The pandemic paved the way for more travel offerings from the search giant, which recently added vacation rental listings, like home shares, to its hotel search result pages.
Google also made it free for hotels and travel sites to list their rates and links in hotel searches, making price wars more likely. In addition, during the pandemic, Google offered features that allowed consumers to track COVID restrictions by region. The moves helped to cement the company as a go-to travel resource for customers. That reputation got another boost last week when Google launched Travel Insights With Google, a resource that helps make demand predictions and offers data and trend insights around travel based on Google search data.
“Google continues to be the most aggressive in taking up that volume around travel,” Reid says. Such gains put pressure on travel brands to differentiate themselves even more. “In every other way—the way your product is distributed, the way it’s merchandised, it’s commoditized on these big platforms and you distinguish yourself by creating a brand presence that is unique.”
In most cases, such differentiation falls to marketing and customer service. In June, Marriott released “The Power of Travel,” the largest campaign in the chain’s 90-year history, as a way of reinvigorating its brand with customers ready to return to booking. The push not only included upper-funnel marketing—Marriott seized on the new consumer demand to explore alternative channels like TikTok and other mobile-first platforms. Early results have been promising, according to Brian Povinelli, senior VP brand, loyalty and portfolio marketing at Marriott International. A #TravelMakesUs tag became a Twitter trend in early July and delivered more than a million video views in a matter of days. The chain also partnered with Snapchat on a custom selfie that was used by over 2 million people, and a TikTok campaign encourages influencers to create their own travel videos usings Marriott's custom song and hashtag.
“We aimed to re-introduce Marriott Bonvoy,” says Povinelli, noting that the campaign highlights the 30-hotel brand chain’s tours, activities and loyalty program. “It’s also a value statement around what we believe—travel can help open people’s minds.”
As Hilton watches the category rebound—Mark Weinstein, senior VP and global head of marketing and loyalty, says leisure’s recovery is rivaling numbers from 2019—the hotelier is trying to be more nimble and targeted with its marketing. A recent platform “To New Memories” that began earlier this year will return to TV networks this fall. A series of 15-second spots show viewers the vacation experiences they are missing, as a voiceover says, “When you’re ready, we’ll be here.” To be as nimble as possible, Hilton, which operates 18 hotel brands, works with its agency TBWA as well as its in-house creative department, Weinstein says.
“As you want to personalize more and be more relevant to the moment, this hybrid operating model of three legs—a robust in-house studio that knows how to pivot quickly, a great network of freelancers and the right network of agencies—has been critical for us,” he says.
Such flexibility has allowed Hilton to have more of a direct relationship with its customers, which is key in grabbing market share.
“The hotel has an opportunity to own the customer,” says Jong. “You walk onto their property you have chance to win them over with great service personalized service, and help them if they had a difficult journey during pandemic.”
The pandemic also infused urgency into the desire of travel brands to innovate with technology. At Hilton, for example, the company had been planning to digitize the checkout experience long before COVID-19; when the pandemic struck, the chain was forced to accelerate that plan. Now, about 80% of hotels allow such remote check-ins, Weinstein says. In addition to mobile check-ins and contactless kiosks, many operators have improved the cancelation or rebooking process—adding chatbots or automated options so that customers no longer have to wait on the phone for hours on end. Some hotels are also working on creating long-term hybrid conference situations where events can offer a virtual attendance component in order to attract more participants, Jong says.
Marketing takes on new directions
In terms of messaging, much of the marketing focus has been around families and gathering people together who may have been apart due to the pandemic. MMGY’s Reid says a lot of current travel is driven by matriarchs or patriarchs who have enough money to book vacations with younger generations. Travelocity’s recent campaign focuses on multi-generation households. Laura Molnar, head of brand marketing at the online travel agency, told Ad Age that Travelocity is refocusing its strategies in order to better address families and Latino families in particular.
Similarly, Hilton just added a new feature called Confirm Connecting Rooms by Hilton. It allows families or groups that want to stay in adjoining rooms to ensure that arrangement when they book, rather than waiting until they check in, which put more risk in getting side-by-side accommodations.
“As so many folks are getting back on the road—whether revenge travel, pent-up travel—it’s the same idea that it’s been too long since we’ve seen those in our lives who are most important to us,” says Hilton’s Weinstein.
As activity has picked up, a lot of marketing has taken a “seize the day” tone, encouraging consumers to travel now, since the pandemic has taught us that the road ahead is not always predictable. Both Hilton’s and Travelocity’s recent campaigns promote such immediate actions.
Brands are also exploring more purpose-driven marketing. The coronavirus gave many consumers time to reflect and think about their values and what they expect from companies—with travel, a lot of brands are now concentrating on sustainability. A recent survey conducted by MMGY found that 15% of active leisure travelers say a travel service provider’s focus on sustainability and environmental considerations “greatly impacts” their travel decisions. In addition, 83% of such consumers said they are open to changing travel behavior to reduce environmental impact.
“For a couple years, sustainability has been a part of the lexicon in travel marketing, but it’s full-on now,” says Reid. “People want to lean into purpose and values in the way they’re communicating recovery.”
Last year, Delta Air Lines said it would be committing $1 billion to become carbon neutral. In April, the airline highlighted its sustainability strategy in a video for customers.
Early this year, the Colorado Tourism Office debuted “Do Colorado Right,” a campaign designed to promote good COVID-19 behavior around its state, such as staying home when sick and wearing a mask. The push featured local Colorado celebrities such as “Bachelor” contestant Ben Higgins and fashion blogger Esther Leach. Yet while the campaign was at first about the coronavirus, it has been extended to tap into sustainability and purpose.
“We knew ‘Do Colorado Right’ had the potential to expand well beyond COVID,” says a spokeswoman for the Colorado Tourism Office, noting that this summer, the campaign launched a new push. “We focused on messaging to help mitigate overcrowding in the parks, address proper disposal of trash on the trail, and to promote the hiring of local guides to experience Colorado’s backcountry.” The campaign will continue through fall and winter with messaging around low-impact travel and ways to care for Colorado, she says.
Lasting changes in consumer behavior
Even when the pandemic is far in the rearview, experts expect some of its effect on travel, and consumer behavior, to be long-lasting. The length of stay is shifting, for instance. With many employers now offering flexibility around office work, some consumers are changing travel patterns from a short traditional weekend of Saturday and Sunday to also include Friday and Monday, days they could work from a hotel instead of from home.
“Now you have U.S. consumers with all this flexibility around how they can travel,” says Reid.
Brands are adjusting their products accordingly. July, a two-year-old suitcase purveyor based in Melbourne, Australia, recently added a lighter carry-on product for longer-weekend use, according to Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Athan Didaskalou. A direct-to-consumer brand, July launched in the U.S. earlier this month and is spending $2 million on marketing this year to establish itself here.
“We are basically setting ourselves up to capture some of that demand,” he says. “We think people are going to be traveling more than what they were prior.”
Yet while leisure travel is seeing a strong rebound, business travel has been lagging, and many expect the shift to be more long-term as employers recognize the value of digital tools such as Zoom and other video conference systems. Some travel brands have recognized the shift and are adding new products in order to get ahead of it. In June, Tripadvisor launched Tripadvisor Plus, a subscription service costing $99 a year in members receive discounts on flights and hotels. The service also offers concierge support around trip planning in a special offering called Tripadvisor Text. Members are able to connect with travel agents.
“The idea is that people’s travel behaviors are going to change because of this connection to business travel changing—the idea of the ‘road warrior accruing the points to get the upgrade’ is likely never going to return,” says Lindsay Nelson, chief experience and brand officer at Tripadvisor. “So the genesis of Plus was ‘How do we allow you for $99 to get that savings, the perks, the upgrades, but not necessarily spend 50 nights in a Marriott on 50 business trips?’”
Brands are also thinking differently about repercussions for trip changes. While many travel operators adjusted their cancelation windows and added more flexibility around bookings during the pandemic—and brands such as Hotels.com highlighted free cancelation in a campaign this past spring—experts expect such offerings to disappear. Hotels and airlines can’t plan well from an occupancy and revenue perspective if all consumers have the option to cancel. However, Phocuswright’s Jong says flexible booking may instead become an extra benefit.
“It opens the opportunity for flexible booking to be a perk, be part of a loyalty program or a specific credit card, knowing now how important flexible booking can be to some customers,” she says.