How to make up for surprises in travel marketing? Plan long.

min read
October 9, 2023

By Eric Camardelle, senior brand & communications strategist

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Travel marketers haven’t had it easy over the last few years. We’ve persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, airline meltdowns, and rising inflation, all while tasked with rebuilding and growing and visitation. The furious pace of adaptation has led many of us to be more reactive than proactive, overcoming short-term crises at the expense of long-term vision.  

This has worked to a point, but economic indicators and cultural trends are sounding the alarm: We need to look long term.

Long-term planning builds your brand and mitigates crisis

Short-term planning can be effective for evoking immediate responses, but true growth begins with building a brand that can influence minds and behaviors. If we want visitors to return to our destinations and services again and again, we need to cultivate strong emotional associations and memories. This not only helps us achieve growth, but it makes our brands resilient. When the “unprecedented” and the “unforeseen” come rolling in, we can mitigate the impact on our brand and sustain it for the long term.

Research has proven that investment in building and maintaining a brand’s image can both turn profits and sustain a brand against unforeseen challenges. Look no further than the “Godfathers of Effectiveness,” Les Binet and Peter Field, for insight. According to their research, short-term strategies can boost average ROI, but the largest profit growth comes from long-term strategies. Additionally, research from McKinsey showed that those organizations exhibiting healthy, resilient behaviors were better able to withstand major disruption throughout 2020 and 2021.

Brand building doesn’t happen overnight. It takes broad reach, long-term vision, emotional priming, and mental brand equity (we have a whole guide on it here).  

Making travel experiences essential

My colleague Adam Meyerhoff wrote a recent story about the return of minimalism in American culture—and specifically how more Americans are prioritizing experiences over things.

The travel industry has been at the forefront of this trend for years. We know that our business growth as travel marketers is intricately tied to the memories and feelings that we can produce within the hearts and minds of our visitors. By leaving a mark, we can turn a visitor into an ambassador that returns to our brand and shares their love for it with others.  

Now we’re seeing high inflation and interest rates squeeze would-be travelers into making difficult decisions on how to prioritize their spending. As they cut back in other places, we could also see the end of revenge spending, which has helped buoy the industry during the COVID-19 recovery. In a more competitive market, travelers want to feel that the dollars they are spending on our experiences provide them with value—value derived from their personal experience.

Responding to increased personalization in travel

Travel brands—whether DMOs, hospitality, transportation, or otherwise—are purveyors of emotional experiences.  

Expedia’s 2023 Travel Trends Report found that vacationers are ditching travel conventions to go off-course for experiences that offer something new, different and exciting. They’re losing themselves in culture capitals rich with activity and action. As-seen-on-TV locales and destinations are fueling the set-jetting movement. And we’re seeing entirely new niche segments evolve—alongside the expansion of existing ones—like eco-travelers, wellness wanderers, adventure advocates, solo sojourners, and roaming workers.    

Think about it like a CPG brand: Travelers are increasingly walking past off-the-shelf experiences toward more authentic journeys that are personal to them.

Brand-building success stories in travel and tourism

We can look to travel brands that have successfully stuck to their long-term vision for the blueprint to success.  

Pure Michigan, perhaps the most iconic example of sticking to a long-term vision, has been a lightning rod of success for the state since it launched in 2006. It’s become one of the most widely recognized and lauded advertising campaigns in the travel industry, an unofficial state motto, and branding on everything from license plates to agricultural products. In 2022, an outside study found that the advertising influenced nearly 2.1 million leisure trips to the state, generating $3.1 billion in total spending and over $195 million in state tax revenue, yielding a 11:1 return on investment—the highest in Travel Michigan’s history.

More recently, Travel Oregon has shown how you can build fame and resonance in our category in new and exciting ways with their Only Slightly Exaggerated campaign. Launched in 2019, the campaign took adventurers on a vibrant, animated journey through Oregon, cleverly blending the real and unreal to set the state apart and build clear emotional equity. Since then, the campaign has evolved from Only Slightly (More) Exaggerated to (Still) Slightly Exaggerated to last year’s Extraordinary is Ordinary. According to results, the campaign drove more website traffic than any other to Travel Oregon’s website, delivered the most engaging content in Travel Oregon’s social history, and was a massive public relations success.  

Differentiate brands and destinations to unleash brand joy

Differentiating a brand in any industry is a challenge, particularly so in the travel category where so many of our products and experiences can appear similar. Developing a distinctive positioning that shows travelers how your brand can uniquely deliver experiences that produce joy and memories sets the stage for one-of-a-kind behaviors that only your brand can own.  

Those travelers that are making the tough choice on where to spend their squeezed dollars need to see what makes your brand different and special. By creating a brand that’s personal, experiential and meaningful, you can begin to resonate with them. That all starts in the planning process with an emphasis on the long-term vision for our brand.  

Reacting to the latest news and trends or chasing short-term gains can serve to meet sales objectives. We must be careful though not to get lost there and neglect an overall vision for our brand and the long-term gains that vision can bring. We should be looking ahead and challenging ourselves to think about where our brand will go in the next three years, five years, and beyond.  

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