Virtual events are helping travel and tourism brands stay connected to customers as real-world travel has ground to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

go virtual

Struggling with sales, travel brands try to excite online

By Adrianne Pasquarelli Illustration by Tam Nguyen. Published on May 4, 2020

During a wine tasting last month, Justin Baldwin, founder of Justin Vineyards & Winery, shared personal stories, answered questions about the wines customers were tasting and helped suggest recipes on food pairings. The April 4 event resulted in ramped-up brand engagement and awareness. But unlike previous events hosted by the Paso Robles, California-based winery before COVID-19, customers didn’t need to travel to attend. Because this tasting was virtual. Participants received tasting packs ahead of the event in the mail, and then tuned in to Instagram Live to see Baldwin and pose questions. A second tasting resulted in some 1,000 viewers, and the two April events saw more than 4 million impressions for the brand, according to a spokeswoman.

“We have seen great consumer engagement with our virtual tastings, including an endless stream of questions and comments throughout the livestream,” says Clarence Chia, senior VP of marketing at Justin. “During this time of isolation, it has been exciting to witness this virtual connectivity manifest in such a unique yet personal way for our audience.”

The virtual event is one example of how travel and tourism brands are trying to survive as real-world travel grinds to a halt with millions of would-be adventure-seekers stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic. Hotels and wineries have closed their doors, and one airport in Westchester County, New York, has temporarily shut down completely. Yet brands—including lodging companies like Airbnb and Marriott—wineries and destination marketers, are putting stock in the virtual suitcase to maintain consumer excitement about travel. They’re hosting online cooking classes of cuisines from other countries, or helping families plan eventual vacations from the comfort of their couches. Even some high-end hotels are finding wellness partners to host yoga sessions with much-missed guests. Experts say the moves, many of which include free videos or seminars, can help consumers stay in touch with brands that now need their interest more than ever.

“Coming out of the crisis, people will want to be able to envision themselves in a destination again and these virtual experiences will play a huge part in getting people comfortable,” says Clayton Reid, CEO of travel-focused marketing agency MMGY Global. “You don’t want your brand quiet—you need to understand the tone in which you’re communicating and what’s the right way to dip into travel again. These experiences that mix virtual with retail, they can in no way be equivalent to the actual travel experience, but are important for brands to stay connected to their customers.”

Travel brands certainly need those connections in the current environment. The industry has been one of the hardest hit sectors by the pandemic, with no end in sight. According to the U.S. Travel Association, the economic impact of the coronavirus on the industry will reach half a trillion dollars by the end of this year, including 8 million travel jobs lost by the end of April. The damage will be nine times worse than the fallout following September 11 nearly two decades ago, according to the association. Airlines are offering extended re-booking options and The New York Times just paused its Sunday Travel Section. The American Hotel & Lodging Association forecasts that occupancy rates for 2020 will be worse than rates in 1933 during the Great Depression.

Virtual travel 2.0

The virtual travel experience is nothing new, experts say, but it is being deployed in novel ways to market brands during the pandemic. In addition, while some experiences pre-COVID-19 required equipment including VR goggles, most of the current offerings just need a camera and internet connection.

“Virtual tours have been around probably the last five years, but there’s been quite a bit of improvement in technology for those visuals,” says Cindy Estis Green, CEO and co-founder of Kalibri Labs, a data analytics firm specializing in hospitality, noting that many hotels and meeting venues use tours to help with the booking process—something that has intensified during the coronavirus crisis.

Some brands already report success—both with sales and future booking. Traktek Partners, a marketing agency located in Needham, Massachusetts, shifted its activity for clients, including SmarTours and Vantage Travel, to experiential and educational messaging from promotional when the pandemic took hold. Short snippets of videos and webinars are resonating with consumers, says Cyril Lemaire, managing partner of TrakTek. He says engagement rates on emails increased 35 to 45 percent in the four weeks ended in mid-April compared to the prior four weeks. Live streams from parks and other destinations have also been successful.

Two virtual wine-tasting events by Justin Vineyards & Winery in April led to more than 4 million impressions for the brand.

Armchair aspirations

“We’re seeing a shift toward a much more aspirational traveler—the armchair traveler,” says Lemaire, noting more engagement. Some destinations, like the Florida Keys, are also using social media to encourage customers to post videos recreating their favorite moments on vacations in a sweepstakes contest for a future trip, for example. Lemaire says some of the activity is resulting in bookings for clients. “Some people out there, immediately after receiving emails, they are following up, inquiring, and booking,” he says, noting that most booking is for next year.

While most efforts are free and designed to continue a connection with consumers and keep travel top of mind, experts say there’s an added bonus when a virtual event leads back to an uptick in sales. A Napa Valley vineyard, Larkmead, reports that a recent virtual tasting resulted in more than $10,000 in revenue as tasters bought different bottles. Juliana Colangelo, west coast director of Colangelo & Partners, an agency focusing on fine wine and spirits brands whose clients include Larkmead, says brands have begun using influencers in virtual happy hours. One recent initiative that resulted in a sales uptick included giving influencers the wines to promote and setting up a retail link for attendees to click on. “We’re trying to have every initiative tie back to some sales component,” says Colangelo.

Airbnb is hoping customers who are bored at home will still shell out for its new Online Experiences, a pivot from Airbnb Experiences, which it debuted in 2016. Originally, the offering was designed to get travelers out the door to new places where they could immerse themselves in other cultures. But now, the home-rental giant is selling classes and workouts that consumers can do from their own living room couches. Airbnb started with 50 experiences from hosts in 30 different countries and will expand to thousands more through the spring. Options include $28 to make pasta with a grandma in Italy, $10 to meditate with a Japanese Buddhist monk or $25 to spend a day with an Olympic bobsledder (who is at home in Los Angeles).

“Human connection is at the core of what we do,” Catherine Powell, head of Airbnb Experiences, said in a statement. “We want to provide an opportunity for our hosts to connect with our global community of guests in the only way possible right now, online.”

The gamble is big for Airbnb, which many expect to have to delay a planned IPO due to coronavirus- related losses.

Knowledge adventures

Many of the offerings are more about education and keeping travelers excited about trips than actual money-making endeavors. In April, Marriott reached out to members of its Bonvoy loyalty program with an email encouraging them to take a “virtual vacation.” While the hotel company, which has been forced to furlough tens of thousands of employees, has had virtual tours long before the coronavirus, this is the first time it is promoting them via Bonvoy, a spokesman says, noting that the email had one of the highest open rates for the brand. Customers can tour homes and villas by Marriott International or take previously filmed classes with athletes including Alex Morgan and Shaun White. “For our Marriott Bonvoy members, these are challenging times, and the joy of traveling and exploring the world is a missing part of their lives,” David Flueck, senior VP of global loyalty at Marriott, said in a statement. “Marriott Bonvoy Traveler virtual tours are meant to inspire them as we look forward to better times ahead.”

The American Automobile Association has also been digitizing its typically in-person events, in an effort to encourage families to plan trips and learn about new destinations. The organization recently hosted an event with Viking Cruises and then hosted its own class on how families can plan a road trip. Family members from different quarantined households were encouraged to attend the class together, with their old-fashioned maps and atlases.

“We’re trying to get people excited about traveling again,” says Suzanne Aresco, director of travel at AAA, noting that customers have been asking questions and participating in chats during events. “We’re imagining the new normal.”

Similarly, Vrbo, the home rental company owned by HomeAway, is pushing its trip boards and virtual tours that help customers plan ahead. The company is also running a sweepstakes where winners receive a Visa card to spend on home staycation activities.

While these virtual offerings were birthed from emergency, experts don’t expect them to go away anytime soon. Rather, they will continue to be part of the travel planning process moving forward as consumers increasingly become more comfortable with taking trips in the digital realm. In some limited cases, an online class or wine tasting might even replace an in-person experience, where customers are reluctant to spend or travel, for example.

“This is actually something that will have a lasting impact,” says Colangelo, the wine and spirits marketer. “There are plenty of people who would love to learn about wine, or visit wine country, but don’t have the time or resources to physically travel—this is a lot more of an accessible way to have that experience.” Adage End Bug

Web production by Corey Holmes.