Business as unusual: Post-corona travel marketing

At a time like this only idiots or people much smarter than me should be making predictions. But with the entire travel industry on hold, what was impossible last month is suddenly worth thinking about.

Most of this is wildly unrealistic: when the time comes, urgency and recovery will overrule everything else. But the basic question is: if we were starting from scratch—which, effectively, we are doing—how much of the status quo would we choose to rebuild?

Flocking back to the self-imposed Google tax

Google search results suddenly look very different. Big brands have turned off the PPC taps and minnows are getting impression shares they could only dream about last month. Times like this reveal Google’s one weakness: when the auction grinds to a halt, the constant price inflation stops working in their favour. For the few campaigns we’ve still got running, our average cost-per-click has fallen from around £4 to £0.80.

But when demand eventually picks up again so will the ad budgets, with everyone likely over-bidding to make up for lost time and forcing click prices even higher.

But what if we stepped off the escalator? If we were recreating things from scratch, would we willingly hand back unfettered control to a monopolistic gatekeeper that is intent on controlling as much of the value chain as it can? We’d probably think about building some healthy diversity and competition into our acquisition channels.

Such as? There could be a beefed up role for forward-thinking DMOs as marketing channels or marketplaces for their local operators and suppliers. Lots already do this but with very limited visibility. Trade associations such as ATTA, AITO, ASTA, LATA, etc., could do something similar for their members. They already have member directories but few have consumer-facing marketplaces, and none (that I’m aware of) drive actual traffic.

In short, fewer entities buying traffic from Google and distributing it at, or near, cost to smaller/local operators and suppliers to take the heat out of PPC auctions for everyone.

(This is the basic premise of our project, Horizon Guides: aggregate lots of independent tour operators and enable them to compete with the bigger incumbents for audience share.)

Rebalancing demand generation and demand capture

A deeper/structural aspect to this is that Google, OTAs and other big gatekeepers that hoover up the majority of the marketing investment have an inbuilt bias towards demand capture vs demand generation. They exist to give people what they want and are searching for (demand capture) but they have no interest or capacity to inform or educate people and help them discover things they don’t already know about (demand generation).

This is one of the root causes of “overtourism” and unsustainable mass tourism in general. The mainstream tourism industry is tooled to give the masses what they want, which tends to be in conflict with what’s best for communities, the environment, and cultural heritage.

I’ve blathered about this before. Even if it were affordable, paid search is no use for a micro trekking operator in northern Peru because not enough people know about their product to be searching for it in material numbers. Conversely, there’s plenty of demand for Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, which creates a self-reinforcing marketing loop that drives demand, competition and visitor numbers to unsustainable levels.

If we were starting from scratch we’d probably think about finding the right balance between demand capture and demand generation as a way to manage tourism and avoid oversaturation. Again, a role here for enlightened DMOs to nurture diversity in their local markets, and work with the travel media to spread consumer awareness away from oversaturated locations rather than just relentlessly flogging what already sells.

Will “content” become premium again?

On the subject of travel media, what happens when an entire strata of bloggers and independent publishers/content creators have to quit and get “proper” jobs? If we started from scratch would we go back to the mainstream travel media being an arms-length branch of travel marketing? Would we recreate the hamster wheel of every travel brand churning out futile attempts at “content marketing” with no measurable returns?

The economics for all this were already broken before the crisis (do we really need 2.5 million results for “things to do in Amsterdam”?) Will the pendulum now swing back to travel content being (relatively) scarce and premium? I’d be happy if we waved goodbye to “travel influencers” and went back to paying journalists with actual expertise and a discernible ability to write. 

These aren’t petty issues, they tie closely into the previous two points: Digital travel content could serve a purpose beyond hoovering up cheap SEO clicks; it could and should be a driver for consumer education and a more sustainable industry. More Travel Fish, less Culture Trip.

Back to reality

But it would take a lot more optimism than I can currently muster to imagine any of this actually happening!

In his recent Phocuswire interview, Doug Lansky pointed out you can only put in the rope lines before people start queueing. This unprecedented pause might be a time to daydream about the rope lines we could put in now for the eventual recovery, but it’s hard to imagine in the absence of any meaningful leadership and coordination.

The best I can offer is Horizon Guides, our small attempt at correcting some of the market failures outlined above. We were working on this before Covid-19 kicked off, and we’ll be here afterwards ready to help independent tour operators with the recovery. For more on what we’re doing to help see:

“Overtourism” and the neglect of demand generation

A couple of years ago I did a tiny piece of pro-bono consulting for Project Cordillera, a social enterprise promoting community-based trekking in the Andes and alternatives to the oversaturated Inca Trail.

The problem was that although there’s enormous demand for trekking in Peru, consumer awareness is concentrated almost exclusively on the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. Operators offering a new activity, even for the same audience in the same destination, find it hard to get their product in front of their target market.

There are roughly 33,000 Google searches a month for the “Inca Trail”, which makes it easy (if not cheap) to advertise via SEO or Adwords. The market exists, people are proactively searching for the product, and marketing is about demand capture or, in simple terms, being in the right place at the right time.

But if you’re developing a brand new trekking route, say the virtually unheard of Qhapaq Ñan trail, SEO and Adwords will be of little use – the market is too small (or nonexistent). No one is searching for the product, and there isn’t enough demand out there to capture.

Demand capture vs Demand generation in travel marketing

In this scenario the challenge becomes one of demand generation, or creating a new market entirely from scratch. You have to reach the target audience(s) and educate them about locations and activities they weren’t previously aware of. Only then can you nudge them into the consideration phase of the purchase decision and, hopefully, get them to book something.

Good content strategy anticipates and answers questions throughout the customer journey. Great content strategy addresses things they didn’t know they didn’t know.

But travel marketing is uniquely challenging, and large-scale demand generation is beyond the abilities and budgets of most tour operators. In reality the lion’s share of travel marketing expenditure goes into demand capture, with advertisers slugging it out in competition for consumer awareness and attention.

And because mainstream travel publishing is now an unofficial branch of travel marketing, the entire problem seeps out from advertising and into the media that people see and consume, further stimulating demand where it already exists.

This is one of many contributing factors to the “overtourism” crisis. The industry as a whole has neglected new markets in favour of chasing easy money and pageviews. The result is unsustainable consumer demand in a relatively small number of destinations, while lesser-known locations struggle for visitors.

Stuart McDonald, cofounder of the Travelfish website, charges people for travel consulting, helping them figure out where to go and what to do. As he puts it: “One of the biggest challenges is steering people away from place A to place B – not because B isn’t as “good” but because Aunt Nancy went to A, so my client has to go there too. There’s a big part of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ to this. It’s not all the fault of the industry, but there’s this self-perpetuating cycle that keep popular places popular.”

This is a gap that tourist boards and DMOs will need to cover. Rather than driving ever greater visitor numbers, tourism authorities in popular locations will have to shift towards managing and spreading demand within their destinations.

But this represents a fundamental retooling in content strategy and marketing tactics. And although we’re moving in the right direction, the execution is not always there:

This opens up some blue ocean that independent publishers and startups can occupy. Everyone wants a solution to this problem:

  • Consumers are fed up with mass tourism and saturated destinations.
  • Travel companies and tour operators find demand capture too competitive, while creating demand for new products is difficult and expensive.
  • Tourist boards will need new approaches to destination marketing to make their local markets more sustainable and differentiated.

This is something we’re very interested in at Horizon Guides. Our marketing solution for tour operators and tourist boards straddles the boundary between demand generation and demand capture.

We acquire most of our readers in the early stages of travel research when they’re in-market for a destination, but aren’t entirely sure where to go, what to do, or how to do it. This means we can do the heavy lifting in demand generation to promote new and emerging activities and locations.

We’re starting with our guide to trekking in Peru which we’re reissuing with a heavy slant on alternatives to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, plus some new partners who offer amazing experiences that most people will never have heard of.

In the era of overtourism, “getting off the beaten path” has changed from a pithy but empty marketing slogan into an imperative that affects the entire industry. We think that by rectifying the systemic neglect of demand generation, Horizon Guides can help make a difference.

Tour operator trying to launch something new? DMO seeking to spread demand? We can help you reach and inform your audience – get in touch to find out more!

Case study: Content marketing made easy

How a specialist tour operator used smart content strategy to achieve a 97% saving on digital ads costs.

mapi-gala-tablet-coverLOST WORLD ADVENTURES is a boutique tour operator specialising in small group trips to Latin America. Like many operators they’re keen to expand their direct business and have been cautiously navigating the minefield that is direct-to-consumer travel marketing.

As every small travel business knows, direct marketing can quickly turn into a black hole for cash.

Adwords, the most common channel, has a punishingly high cost-per-click, in the $7 to $8 range for keywords targeting Machu Picchu and Galapagos. With industry average conversion rates that could work out at a cost-per-acquisition of $190 for a single enquiry!

Not liking those numbers, LWA got in touch with us to find a different approach.


  • We had to find a way of capturing targeted traffic–i.e. people who were demonstrating an interest in the destinations–without paying top dollar for Adwords clicks.
  • With content creation costs at an all time high, we had to find a solution to make high quality content more affordable and accessible.

What we did

We started out by putting ourselves in the audience’s shoes. What are they looking for when they research and plan a trip to these destinations? From that exercise we commissioned a team of expert travel writers to create an ultra-high quality, 65-page travel guide.


The guide gave us the raw material to start generating new audiences. Instead of paying $7 for an Adwords click we were able to acquire traffic at much lower cost using SEO, social media ads, display advertising, and more.

Using our hyper-optimised landing pages we achieved download conversion rates of 80%+. Virtually unheard of and surpassing even our own expectations!


With each download users were invited to request direct follow up, sending enquiries straight to the sales team.

In addition we were also able to use email and remarketing to bring even more people into the funnel. Each new user was a qualified lead with a demonstrated interest in the destination and product.


  • The campaign started to generate new leads immediately, working out roughly at $6 per lead. That’s an incredible 97% saving on comparable Adwords costs.


Many small travel tour operators find direct marketing and sales a daunting prospect, preferring instead to rely on other referral channels. Indeed, it can be a horrendously expensive waste of money! But when done right, a combination of good content and smart strategy can produce incredible results.

Does a 97% saving on ad costs sound good to you? Give us a call to discuss your options!

Travel marketing is a $@£$%

Digital marketing is a great way to burn lots of cash, now more so than ever. It used to be that SEO and Adwords were the only game in town. These days we’re scrambling for mobile strategy and attribution models; first we needed a plan for Pinterest, then it was Instagram, now it’s video. Even when you (sort of) know what you’re doing it can make your head spin.


Are you doing content marketing or just chucking spaghetti at the wall?

And then you have to do it all in travel. Admittedly I’m biased, but is there a more challenging B2C industry for marketers? Over the years I’ve noticed three fundamental features to travel marketing that are the bane of many businesses—especially SMBs—and the downfall of many a travel startup.

Here’s my take from a decade or so in travel marketing. What’s yours?

Acquisition costs are ridiculously high

Until fairly recently, even smaller travel businesses could expect to do okay on the “free” traffic generously supplied by Google. A few meta tags here some cheap content there, throw in a shit-ton of dodgy links and up the rankings you went.

For better or worse those days are largely over. SEO gimmickry is too risky and the first page results for any vaguely competitive travel query are stitched up by top tier brands.

When I started out in travel SEO ten years ago a query like “Peru vacations” would yield a mixed bag of independent operators and specialist companies. Try it now and you’ll get a monoculture of aggregators and top-tier OTAs, occasionally punctuated by some of the larger operators.

SEO isn’t “dead” but it has changed beyond recognition.

This trend forced the minnows into paid channels—originally Adwords, more recently Facebook. But ad networks are auctions where higher demand means higher prices, so having been forced into paid traffic acquisition these companies simultaneously faced an ever increasing cost per click (CPC).

These days an Adwords CPC for travel queries can range from $2 to $7 and beyond. Depending on a website’s conversion rate that can shake out at a cost per acquisition (CPA) at anywhere from $40 to $200+.

With non-ecommerce websites an acquisition is usually a lead or enquiry that must then be closed by a sales team. That’s an awful lot of money to be paying for an enquiry.

This isn’t just a travel thing—the exact same process has unfolded across all industries and the collective response has been the move towards content or “inbound” marketing. Roughly speaking this is about acquiring eyeballs further up the funnel where clicks are cheaper but less purchase ready, and then creating ways for some of them to come back later when they’re ready to make a purchase.

When done right this approach can certainly work. But for travel companies, the second big problem is that:

The customer journey is ridiculously long

There’s plenty of research on the time and length of travel purchase decisions, but we intuitively know that the process from an initial spark of inspiration down to actually booking a trip can take months, years or even decades.

And at each step of that journey people are drawing on 3rd party sources of information, reviews, distractions and competing offers.

So once you’ve been forced to shift your acquisition efforts earlier in the customer journey, you’re instantly plugging a leaking funnel and battling exponentially diminishing conversion rates.

Using content to “build audiences” is fine in theory, but it’s painful to think that many of these people could be months or years away from making a purchase.

(This, coincidentally, is why most “influencer marketing” has such a thorny relationship with attribution and ROI. “Impressions” up in the inspiration phase of the customer journey have a tenuous connection with bottom line KPIs like bookings and revenue.)

But it’s not impossible! If you’ve got the resources to create great content and the expertise to use social media, email and retargeting in a strategic, joined-up way, content marketing can definitely work for travel companies.

But the third fundamental problem is that:

Purchase frequency and customer retention are ridiculously low

All of this would be okay if leisure travel, like many other consumer industries, had reasonable purchase frequencies and high retention rates. But even in the biggest markets, people typically travel only a few times a year, with just just one or two international trips at most. Single destination operators are at a further disadvantage—how many travellers go back to the same place with the same company every year?

Even for the few companies with loyal customers who repeat book each year, that’s still a punishingly low retention rate compared to the up-front acquisition costs.

This means that even after being forced further up the funnel, where customer acquisition becomes more indirect, longer-term and leakier, the few people who do eventually book may never come back again!

Put these three factors together and you’ve got an extremely challenging environment for travel marketers, especially those on limited resources.

What to do?

There is a way through the morass, but you’ve got to work with these fundamentals, not against them.

High funnel acquisition efforts should have a relentless focus on delivering value and embrace the fact that, at this stage of the customer journey, people usually aren’t ready to book.

See Compass Magazine from Cox & Kings or Travel by Lightfoot, an email magazine from Lightfoot Travel; both are classic demand generation activities. Neither is overeager to force enquiries and bookings; instead they are used simply to bring early stage audiences into each brand’s funnel.

For those on more modest budgets, think in terms of demand capture rather than demand generation. Use content strategically, such as downloadable assets, to capture audiences when they begin to research a destination or experience. This is still high funnel activity with relatively low acquisition costs, and it gives you an easy way to convert casual audiences into qualified prospects.

Paid channels are cheaper when the traffic is less purchase-ready and the competition is less intense. Use digital ads earlier in the customer journey, and be smart with email and retargeting to build as watertight a funnel as possible.

The key to all these activities is providing as much value and quality as you can afford, and not prematurely forcing people towards bookings. They’ll book when they’re ready, not because you’ve filled their inbox and Facebook feed with promotions. Use different channels strategically and with restraint to provide a compelling, consistent experience as they make their own way down the journey to purchase.

A lot of this is anathema to marketers on tight budgets. But, when done right, it works out more cost effective than throwing ever more cash at Adwords and Facebook. It takes restraint, patience and plenty of added value. All things that, in an era of splogs, spam and relentless retargeting, can go a long way to win over your audience.

Using automated email to convert new subscribers into customers

Good old fashioned email is still a great marketing channel, allowing direct, personalised communication with your customers in a place where they still (for better or worse) spend plenty of time–their inboxes!

put email on autopilot with autorespondersAutomated email (otherwise known as email autoresponders) is a great way to put some of that activity on autopilot.

With automation you can send pre-written emails on a predetermined schedule, timed to reach each subscriber at just the right time.

Used properly, this tactic can make email a major component of your customer journey, i.e. the path to purchase that people follow before making a booking with your company.

When people first subscribe to your mailing list, they may not be ready to book. You can use email automation to ‘drip’ emails into their inbox, gradually giving them the information they need to make a decision and book.

There are several big advantages to this approach:

  • You can split big messages into smaller ‘bite-size’ emails, and drip them out over time. This prevents overload and avoids people zoning out.
  • It helps keep your brand at the forefront of people’s minds for an extended period of time.
  • You get total control of the delivery and timing. Social media channels in comparison make it much harder to reach the right people at exactly the time you want.

This is especially powerful in travel marketing. We know that it takes time for people to move from the “inspiration and dreaming” stage of the customer journey down to actually making a purchase.

Email autoresponders are a smart way of priming new subscribers and moving them through this process towards the “purchase” stages of the travel purchase decision. You can use an email sequence to start with trip planning content, and gradually get more specific about particular experiences and tours, before finally ending the sequence with an offer.

travel customer journey to purchase

And what’s more, it’s fantastically easy to set up! Most email service providers (ESP) offer email automation features that are intuitive and straightforward to use.

Email automation best practices

Provide value

Getting people to read an entire sequence of emails is a pretty big ask. Before you do anything, think carefully about what you want to send, and why. For it to be effective it needs to offer genuine value to your audience, beyond just getting them to book a trip. Empathise with their needs and interests and use your expertise to provide content that they’ll enjoy and value.


Make sure people know what they’re signing up for, and that they can expect to receive a sequence of emails. Be clear on the duration of the sequence (so they know it won’t last forever!) and clearly explain the purpose of the emails. Show them where and how they can opt out.

Be concise

You’ll usually get better mileage from more, but shorter and simpler, emails. Each email should pivot around a single issue or question that is relevant to that phase of the purchase decision.

One approach may be to frame each email in FAQ style, with each email answering a single question from ‘real life’. You could even include an element of user generated content (UGC) from your previous customers–take the questions or concerns most commonly fielded by your sales team and answer them in these emails.

This allows you to put a ‘human face’ to your emails–real questions from real people. It also lets you demonstrate your expertise and credibility with well thought out and compelling answers.

It’s all in the timing

You need to find a balance in your email timings. Too frequent and you’ll just annoy people, too infrequent and they’ll have forgotten all about you when the next email comes around.

Generally speaking the first ‘welcome’ email should come immediately upon sign-up. After that you can move onto an email every two or three days.

Simplicity works

Aim for just one action or outcome from each email. The ideal action is either a reply or a click to your website. Give people just one thing to do–if it’s click, give them one link to click on. Don’t dilute the objectives with lots of different objectives.

Test and optimise

Email automation metrics fit into two categories: email performance/engagement and conversions (leads, enquiries, etc).

Performance is easy: your ESP will give you open, click and reply rates. You can use those to benchmark each email performance and compare with industry averages.

You should be constantly evaluating your email performance and testing variations in things like your subject lines, images, headlines, and body text to improve your numbers.

Monitor outcomes

To fully understand the impact that your email sequence is having on the bottom line (enquiries and bookings) you’ll need to tag your URLs for Google Analytics to know where the clicks are coming from.

This is straightforward enough using Google’s URL builder. You’ll also need to have goal tracking configured in Google Analytics. (Give us a shout if you need any support with this.)

Setting up an email autoresponder sequence is very easy. But perfecting and optimising your campaign takes time and effort. Start by putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and thinking about what sort of emails they might appreciate. Once you’ve solved that, you’re halfway there!

Questions? Need some help? Get in touch any time!