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!