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: https://partners.horizonguides.com/covid-support

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