Travel Marketing: Bringing back the magic
There's no denying the simple truth: tourism in Asia Pacific is under attack. But despite the turmoil the industry has been able to produce some truly exceptional and effective marketing. Ben Burrowes profiles the best and brightest examples of innovation in the region, and examines how these big ideas just might restart an ailing industry.
The Asia Pacific tourism industry is flying its way through the perfect storm right now - with few signs of blue skies and a safe landing in the foreseeable future. The global economic slowdown terrorism threats and political instability in choice markets like Thailand is forcing consumers to rethink their travel plans. While these conditions won't last forever, they've handed travel marketers one hell of a challenge in the meantime.
All sectors involved in the industry have been hit hard by the turbulence and all have witnessed consumer demand slip away, as leisure travelers become increasingly cautious about their options and exactly what to do with their discretionary spending. At the same time, businesses continue to further tighten their belts on travel expenditure and look to carry out their international communications over the wires. The demand for long-haul travel has dropped dramatically to be replaced by short-haul, the average length of trips has fallen away and all these elements have combined to create a distinct lack of confidence among travelers in 2009.
No travel-affiliated company has been spared while governments throughout Asia Pacific, typically so reliant on the tourism dollar, have seen that all important revenue increasingly slip out of their grasp.
Tourism arrival data released by the Hong Kong Tourism Board shows that tourism numbers while still strong have backed off in the last quarter of 2008 and the early months of 2009. Visitor arrivals in February this year reached 2.1 million, down a significant 8.1% from February 2008. While the total arrival number for the first two months of 2009 neared 5 million, the data shows that Hong Kong tourists are staying and spending less. The early months of 2008 saw tourism dollars flood into Hong Kong at an 11% increase on 2007, but the second half was a very different story.
"Starting from the second half of the year, when the global financial crisis began to affect economies worldwide, visitors' spending started to decrease, especially for those from the long-haul regions," HKTB chairman James Tien, says.
"By the last quarter, we saw negative growth in spending across different market regions, with the exception of Mainland China. We expect that the trend will continue into 2009."
The formula for success is not brain surgery. Those who have made ground have identified their problems early, they've researched the emerging trends and most importantly, they've developed the right message to send and delivered it across all the right platforms. They've focused on growth areas, whether it be new markets or existing ones, focused on innovation and been creative with their use of media.
And perhaps not surprisingly, taking into account that the tourism industry has always been at the forefront of online advertising, and that the numbers of online travel transactions are increasing at an exponential rate, all forms of digital are playing prominent roles in tourism marketing strategies.
So as more and more people begin to search online for the best travel bargains, the marketing dollars continue to follow the users. Be it hotels, airlines, national tourism offices, travel media or any other sector of the industry, a majority are funneling a decent proportion of their budgets into a medium from which they can track the return on every single dollar.
THE BIG PAY-OFF
According to Saurabh Varma, chief strategy officer at Arc Worldwide, the exact message you want to convey should carry the highest importance when launching a new campaign in this environment.
"The big challenge in terms of what travel and tourism marketers should be doing at the moment is actually focusing on emotional pay-offs," Varma explains.
"Most people will feel the need to indulge in travel but at this point in time, they'll need permission to do that. A big emotional benefit for a small investment has to start becoming your promise."
It therefore becomes imperative to have a very clear message which your travelers can understand and connect with because in this age of cheap deals, low airfares and value packages, some key strategies might be simply forgotten in the madness. "It's going to become so tactical and promotional that people might forget the concept of the brand," Varma says.
"Marketers sometimes forget that a lot of people travel because it fulfills something in them. People still travel because it's magical and a lot of tourism brands tend to forget that in a time of recession."
So once the clear message is laid out, it's then all about delivering it in the most effective manner possible to sell your specific product in the current climate.
One big player in the region, Hilton Hotels, has carried out its research into its consumer trends and is focusing much of its regional marketing on domestic and short-haul travel - leveraging the power of digital to do so.
"Even before this recession came about, we had already embarked on a channel shift, moving quite a lot of our marketing online," Alfie Yee, Hilton Hotel's Asia Pacific marketing director, says.
"We're moving towards a more targeted approach so in a lot of our marketing campaigns we're going towards contextual advertising."
Yee explains that a lot of money has been invested in search engine marketing, with one entire division devoted to optimizing search terms.
Vincent Kobler, managing director of EmporioAsia Leo Burnett, who has worked with clients such as Hilton, The Ascott, Conrad and Marriott, has a clear philosophy on where hotels will look to advertise in 2009.
"Hotels do more in terms of below the line - especially digital - and I think going forward into '09 that's really where they're focusing on right now in terms of maximizing their revenue."
Kenny Lim, the general manager of Club Med Singapore, explains that the tremendous pressure across the industry has forced everyone to watch costs and find new opportunities within the market.
He says that while Club Med has seen an upsurge in its regional destinations, the business is still taking no chances and contingency plans have been put in place with marketing activities. One of Club Med's key strategies in the next few months is to communicate its all inclusive concept even more clearly than it has done in the past.
"We're looking at the possibility of a TV campaign to bring an emotional association to the Club Med experience in the latter half of the year. We're also communicating with consumers right now - whether it's on the internet or taking out newspaper ads.
"We're very interested in growing the Brunei market because we feel it's a market that's overlooked. I think they have a very strong expat base - Singapore is also such a natural transit point for them."
LOOKING OUTSIDE THE SQUARE
Competition among accommodation brands, which is already fierce, is set to get stronger with the opening of The Ibis on Bencoolen hotel and plans for nine other new hotels to open this year.
Expansion into new markets like Shanghai, in the case of CTC Holidays which this month opened a hotel in China and is planning to build around 20 more across the region in the next five years, makes sound commercial sense.
Singapore Airlines is also focused on targeting new markets through different marketing activities. While its primary response has been to reduce capacity to match demand, vice president of public affairs Stephen Forshaw says one of the markets they've been putting capacity into during the last two or three years is Russia.
"The world's a big place - we need to go looking for the opportunities around it to try and develop those new markets," Forshaw says.
The first goal in markets like Russia and the Middle East is to get in and introduce the brand, principally through visibility campaigns and advertising on a tactical level.
"Obviously these days there will be a fairly heavy online component but for a market like Russia where the online penetration is still fairly small, we're still going to rely on perhaps more tried and true methods to introduce the brand.
"In other markets like Saudi Arabia where online penetration is growing at an exponential rate, we're clearly going to want to be a part of that.
"In order to promote destinations, you need to have transport links so in this case airlines are the arteries to feed the destinations with demand. Frankly, with the amount of money the government's putting in through stimulus packages to promote tourism, if we can use some of that to open access to markets then we do not have to reinvent the wheel ourselves."
For low-budget outfit Jetstar Asia, the challenge is different - leverage on its cheap airfares and effectively get that message out to the consumer.
According to Leslie Ng, head of commercial at Jetstar Asia, the airline will be using more traditional mediums such as television and print - two platforms which have proved successful in the past.
"Airfares have come down quite a lot so in all of this, our challenge will be to keep repeating that message to the market and that's what I intend to do.
"How do we go about doing this? We just removed our fuel surcharges which gives savings to the consumer so our fares are quite low to start off with. We're actually embarking on a new campaign soon which will be very technical."
Ng says Jetstar Asia will keep working hard in the area of business travel, having previously actively engaged SMEs to fly with them by way of customised benefits to its corporate clients.
Online travel group Zuji is another player which has been flat out in recent times. It's been under the pump getting the cheap deals to the market, though as its Asia Pacific marketing director Tai Parata explains, Zuji recently developed some products to place the company in a good position and keep up with the massive demand for its services - both from users and suppliers - that has grown tremendously over the past few years.
Zuji launched its Trip Saver Technology around the middle of last year - a program which pulls together all of its available flights and their own hotel suppliers, which amount to around 60,000, and combines them automatically online with package deals.
"The soft launch was the middle of last year and we're going a bit more above the line in the next few months," Parata says.
"Most of our marketing is online - it's cost effective, it's measureable and there's a lot of organic growth in the Asian markets. We still have a lot of ground to cover just in achieving brand recognition and penetration in the online market let alone going offline.
"Basically we've pushed it through our internal channels, worked out how consumers respond to it and now we're taking our Trip Saver out to the consumer."
Asian travel magazine DestinAsian is trying to captialise on the online travel boom. The publication is re-launching its website with booking capabilities and as Asia Pacific marketing manager Liz Reading explains, it's a sign of the times that they are now looking to generate most of their advertising revenue online.
"We're finding that our more traditional advertising clients are looking away from block advertising and more towards targeted approaches," Reading says.
"I think they're looking for a higher return for their investment so rather than putting out a full-page advert where they can't really tell what the return is, they're looking to channel their resources into events or direct database access - they can actually register if a person has visited their website through our website."
"Our online presence is definitely something we feel is a bit overdue but we're investing heavily in it. We feel that this will give advertisers a much clearer way of being able to assess their return on investment."
A significant proportion of BBC Worldwide Channels Asia's output is around travel, with shows like Fast:Track and Holidays in the Danger Zone attracting a large audience and commercial sponsorships have played their part.
"Away from sponsorships, we have created advertising campaigns for travel industry clients too," says Sunita Rajan, BBC Worldwide Channels Asia's vice president of advertising sales Asia and Australasia.
Rajan says some of the broadcaster's most interesting work for travel clients has revolved around multi-platform campaigns, which has involved "linking a sponsored TV series with print and online advertising, PR, podcasts, events and a range of cross-media activity".
Competitor CNN is also seeing growth in cross-platform deals and William Hsu, CNN's vice president of advertising sales Asia Pacific, believes 2009 will see the highest number of tourism groups ever advertising with CNN in online, TV and its CNN Traveller magazine.
In Hsu's opinion tourism groups in the region are "still a little bit more traditional because most are still leaning towards magazines and television".
"They haven't quite fully understood the internet yet," he says. "They are spending but proportionately not as much as television.
This year I also think people are going to take fewer risks. Obviously the ones who have tried it out and had success will continue to spend online but the people who are just learning about it won't experiment with it this year."
Flexibility, innovation, integration, creativity and daring to be different. These are the five mantras that will see the great tourism industry rise triumphantly from the canvas.
BOX: Tourism Queensland - Best Job in the World
Due to its huge popularity and even larger media exposure, this innovative word-of-mouth campaign from Tourism Queensland certainly doesn't need too much more explaining here. But its success comes down to the fact the campaign managed to identify a common desire in all of us - to get paid a lot of money to do very little at all. Following this, everything else simply fell into place.
The campaign, created by CumminsNitro, kicked off with its job advertisement - a A$150,000 six-month contract to become a ‘caretaker' on Hamilton Island - immediately garnering massive international media coverage. In doing so, the campaign got people everywhere talking about the Great Barrier Reef, consequently lifting its profile as a holiday destination.
It then used the power of social media to make it completely interactive. Applicants were instructed to upload video applications, due to the staggering amount of traffic jumping online to have view the ‘Best Job in the World' applications, the site crashed in the first few days.
"No one has done anything like this before and the concept aims to showcase Queensland's unique island experiences and provide something different in what is a very competitive global travel environment," Tourism Queensland's CEO Anthony Hayes says.
"We want to show the rest of the world just how amazing the islands of the Great Barrier Reef are through the eyes of someone who is exploring the destination first-hand."
It's no flash in the pan either. The successful applicant will post blogs and upload video content to the Tourism Queensland website for the six months - further promoting the region as a tourist destination. The campaign kicks off a three-year, A$1.7 million global marketing strategy aimed at increasing the profile of Queensland's Great Barrier Reef islands.
Disc over Hong Kong - Reality tourism TV
For tourism bodies across the region looking for the best way to leverage the power of social media, the discoverhongkong.com website would be an ideal place to start.
The site's interactive corner is outstanding - including a link to its "Hong Kong Reality Channel" on YouTube. The Hong Kong Tourism Board has developed the page with close to 50 videos, welcoming feedback and personal contributions, as well as links back to its website which highlight vacation packages, tours and the exceptional MICE component of the site.
The interactive corner also has a link to the "Discover Hong Kong Group" on Flickr.com, a group with close to 5,000 posted photos, as well as up-to the-minute webcams from some of Hong Kong's most popular tourist attractions.
- Leo Burnett
- Hilton Hotels
- Hong Kong Tourism Board
- Arc Worldwide
- Club Med
- Jetstar Airways
- BBC Worldwide
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