Shortly after the global outbreak of the coronavirus, one thing became glaringly obvious: Travel will never be the same.
However, this year has not only put health and safety practices under the microscope. Rather, several issues have become top of mind. Tourism professionals have amplified a need to operate more sustainably for the benefit of local communities and the environment. Increased visibility related to diversity, inclusion and accessibility has surfaced as a priority within this industry, which is often affiliated with privilege and elitism. And the pandemic pause has also highlighted the ongoing urgency of the climate crisis.
Indeed, people’s mindsets have changed. Destinations are not what they used to be. Travel is different. Travel advisors are frontline providers representing the tourism industry to their clients, and they need to think carefully about how and what to communicate. As travel slowly starts to come to life again, agents can reach for the following strategies to market more responsibly now and in the post-pandemic world.
Humanize the Brand
The pandemic has been a great equalizer: No one had the answers, and everyone suffered from uncertainty. No brand or person was left unaffected. That is a wake-up call — and an opportunity — for companies that have previously been strictly defined by their brands. Travel advisors are people, too, and they should put themselves at the forefront of their companies by leaning into empathy, compassion and connection.
“I think we’ve all had to let our guard down a bit as we open our home to people via Zoom calls and webinars, and my tone has also gotten a bit more personal and relaxed,” said Amina Dearmon, owner of travel agency Perspectives Travel.
Showing vulnerability indicates you acknowledge the day-to-day struggles people are currently going through. This authenticity can then guide the way an advisor interacts with clients.
“We’re sensitive to email fatigue, and have made adjustments to frequency,” said Carol Wilhems, an advisor with Rendevous-Elite Travel. “I am aware that bombardment can cause pushback with deleting and unsubscribing. Also, we try not to create a sense of urgency too often. That can be a total turnoff in an environment dominated by trepidation.”
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Emphasize Duty of Care
Current conditions pose a tricky situation for those in the tourism industry. Agents are hurting for business, and some clients are eager to travel. On the other hand, travel introduces a high level of risk and exposure while the coronavirus still runs rampant in many parts of the world.
Renata Tilkian, account director at Sparkloft Media, a creative agency that works with many destination marketing organizations and convention and visitor bureaus, acknowledges the struggle.
“Travel advisors need to make sure they educate themselves about the health and safety protocols and procedures of different destinations, while also understanding how travelers must prepare for their trip to protect local communities within the destination,” she said.
Travel advisors need to make sure they educate themselves about the health and safety protocols and procedures of different destinations, while also understanding how travelers must prepare for their trip to protect local communities within the destination.
This means having transparent conversations with clients about what it means to travel during a global crisis: whether they are prepared to be responsible for themselves in their destination of choice, and even whether its ethical to travel at all right now. Travelers are visitors in someone else’s backyard, and that is a responsibility to take seriously.
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As time passes, however, communicating this duty of care needs to be woven into travel agents’ marketing by extending to the communities where clients travel. Revisit pre-trip messaging and begin incorporating information about social and environmental issues such as water scarcity and the exploitation of Indigenous people while also educating travelers about what they can do to be more responsible consumers of resources, culture, and products and services while traveling.
Honesty Is Essential
Hopping on the next available flight to a far-flung destination is no longer an option, and pretending that’s the current situation is not only ingenuine, but could be downright dangerous.
“It’s important to recognize that there is indeed a pandemic, so sharing relevant information is key, rather than just providing beautiful mixed-drink content or potentially tone-deaf ‘Did you know?’ information,” Tilkian said.
Be transparent about everything during the customer’s journey, and don’t create unrealistic expectations. Clients need to know and understand cancellation policies, nonrefundable fees, risks and procedures. But travel advisors should also inform them about what their vacation will realistically entail, such as whether spas, restaurants and activities are open and available.
“Preempt customer concerns, be clear about your policies and tackle the difficult questions head on,” said Marc Christensen, founder of tour company Brilliant Ethiopia. “Customers are going to need more support from their travel agent, and you should be prepared to work harder to make sure your customers have all the information at hand and feel safe.”
The truth is that now may not be the time to realize certain travel dreams, and advisors need to help clients accept this. Agents should continue focusing on trips for 2021 and beyond.
“I’m not encouraging international trips in 2020,” said Mimi Lichtenstein, custom travel advisor and founder of Truvay Travel.
Instead, Lichtenstein has been inspiring future travel for clients by hosting virtual cooking classes and gifting virtual tours, as well as recommending books, movies and recipes related to destinations where her clients have shown an interest.
Let Clients Lead
As clients begin to take their first tentative steps in travel planning since the lockdown, avoid applying pressure to book.
“I personally believe that it is tone-deaf to be hard selling travel destinations,” said Emma Major, a luxury travel advisor and owner of Major Traveler. “Right now, the decision to travel should come from clients.”
Right now, the decision to travel should come from clients.
Listen mindfully to clients’ questions, feel out their comfort level and plan accordingly. Major recently started using the questions tool on Instagram to surface the inquiries and concerns that are top of mind for her clients and to better meet them where they are.
“The planning process is more client-led than ever before,” she said.
Similarly, Lichtenstein has approached her role differently than before the pandemic.
“Be more of a resource than an active marketer,” she said. “Be available to help answer questions and make suggestions.”
This means staying as updated as possible on restrictions and advice issued by organizations such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and making that information available to clients when appropriate.
Rethink Your Focus
Travel advisors who have not changed course in some way need to do so now. Instead of large-group travel, focus on individual or family travel experiences. Provide options that offer additional safety measures, such as casitas with their own entrances and outdoor activities. While border crossings and restrictions continue to change, consider retooling messaging to emphasize that now is a great time to explore destinations close to home — or even at home.
Dearmon of Perspectives Travel spent most of lockdown on Instagram, recommending small businesses for her clients to support as well as fun ways to have a staycation.
“Pre-pandemic, I would have focused more on selling, adding more ‘contact me to book’ verbiage, and ‘let’s get started planning now’ language,” she said. “I also shared more about the day-to-day of my business and the proposals I was working on. Now my tone is more about education. I am sharing the positive aspects of working with an advisor.”
With more travelers taking road trips or staying close to home, travel advisors can create do-it-yourself content to make it easier for clients to plan their own travel. Though it may not result in advisor sales, this kind of marketing can foster relationships for future bookings.
“A high level of client service will likely be a make-it-or-break-it differentiating factor for travel advisors over the next few months,” Major said.
Perhaps a novel question for many travelers in the planning phase is, ‘Which destinations need me the most right now?'
Coming out of the lockdown, Christensen of Brilliant Ethiopia suggests advisors consider shifting clients’ way of thinking about where to travel next.
“During a crisis, a lot of attention is given to the travel companies struggling to survive, but what is too often overlooked is the impact of market shifts like this on the people on the ground, who rely on hand-to-mouth tourism and for whom this is a much bigger problem,” he said. “Perhaps a novel question for many travelers in the planning phase is, ‘Which destinations need me the most right now?’”
Carry Today’s Lessons into Tomorrow
If there is a silver lining to the current pause, perhaps it’s the chance to think critically about the imagery and language used to market travel. While travel advisors continue to share inspirational stories and photos to drum up interest for future excursions, being discerning in what is shared has a greater impact than simply stimulating wanderlust.
“In the post-COVID-19 world, I see myself continuing to share ideas, but with some tweaks,” Truvay Travel’s Lichtenstein said. “I will be more mindful of selecting lesser-known destinations that are not overly crowded for my articles and journal, or if my client is interested in a popular spot, I would encourage them find a time in a shoulder season when it’s less crowded.”
Coming out of this pandemic, people will be more conscientious about the impact tourism has within local communities, how it affects the people and how it supports socially responsible, environmental and sustainable initiatives.
Travel advisors can begin this transition to more mindful marketing now by avoiding language that turns places into two-dimensional attractions. Build interest in destinations by providing cultural context. Find new ways to tell common stories. Provide alternatives to popular destinations so they can avoid becoming destructively overrun, as was the case for some places coming into 2020.
This is also the time for agents to more mindfully incorporate diversity, inclusivity and accessibility messaging and imagery into their marketing — especially if they posted black squares to their social media accounts in support of the Black Lives Matters movement, and committed to showing up more thoughtfully in their business practices.
“The unexpectedly long quarantine has made people realize how much of a privilege traveling really is,” Tilkian of Sparkloft Media said. “And many more now understand the value it provides, both personally and professionally. Coming out of this pandemic, people will be more conscientious about the impact tourism has within local communities, how it affects the people and how it supports socially responsible, environmental and sustainable initiatives.”