If you ever want to be immediately overwhelmed, just Google “how to build a brand.” Millions of books, articles, step-by-step guides, infographics and videos on varying branding topics exist — from social media tips and how to use search engine optimization to “marketing without marketing” principles and existential philosophies.
But don’t let the gargantuan pile of information intimidate you. While there’s certainly no limit of tactics you can try and no “right way” to create a brand, there are a few fundamental best practices that most experts agree on.
We’ve collected advice from some of the travel industry’s best and brightest on the key factors in launching and maintaining a successful travel brand. It’s our hope that these strategies can serve as building blocks for your business.
One thing to keep in mind: A great brand isn’t built overnight. It takes time (and money, and risk, and working overtime, and hair-pulling), but if you’re truly invested in your venture, the payoff will be all worth it.
Start With the Heart
Building a brand from scratch — or even with a few resources already in your tool belt — is a daunting undertaking.
Where do you begin?
For starters: With your passion.
It’s important to make sure the building blocks of our brand are solid and that we can continue the impression we have started from the beginning.
If you ask successful entrepreneurs or business owners their No. 1 motivation, a response you’ll almost never hear is “money.” Passion, they’ll tell you, is the key driver to creating something sustainable. Money may — and hopefully will — follow, but it should never be the goal.
“If you have the passion, it won’t feel like work, and you’ll want to do it more,” said John DiScala, aka Johnny Jet, a travel influencer and the founder of JohnnyJet.com, a platform he created to share travel tips and deals.
DiScala’s website, which he started in 1999, grew from a newsletter he was sending out to friends simply for fun. As demand for his travel tips grew outside his personal circle, he began his website, working on it at night while by day serving as a college admissions officer. It took years for JohnnyJet.com to make him any money, he says, recommending that if you don’t have the financial resources to go full force into your branding venture, maintain a regular source of income and work on your project after hours as a labor of love. Once you start making money, then you can quit your day job, DiScala says.
“There’s a lot of competition out there, but if you come up with a concept you truly believe in and you put out good information, people will respond to it,” he said.
Establish Your Identity and Pinpoint Your Audience
Establishing your brand identity is key: It will be the basis for everything you do and the type of client you’re looking to attract, according to Mary Pingpank Clifford, director of marketing for Valerie Wilson Travel, a travel consulting firm headquartered in New York that has branch and affiliate offices throughout the U.S.
“Begin by answering these questions: ‘What makes me unique? What is my goal? What do I want to be known for and stand for?’” she said.
There’s nothing wrong with starting small and with a particular niche; in fact, it’s recommended. If you throw everything against the wall to see what sticks, you’re spreading yourself too thin before you’ve even begun.
“Especially as a new brand, it is better to start out as a small-scale expert and slowly expand than try to start out by doing too much but poorly,” Clifford said.
Once you establish your brand pillars, find your “tribe” — your ideal clientele — and research what resonates with them. Targeting a specific type of client will help build a following that will generate the business you want, says Megan Peri, director of eleven|four experiences, a division of Southern California-based travel agency Plaza Travel.
For eleven|four, that target client is the millennial traveler. Peri says she did thorough research on other brands — both within and outside of the travel industry — that connect with this demographic, as well as relied heavily on Instagram for inspiration. She also continually assesses whether a brand partnership will be in line with what millennial travelers are seeking.
You’re not for everyone and everything, says Erina Pindar Chamberlain, managing director of SmartFlyer, an international host agency and lifestyle-driven travel curation service.
“Be OK with that. Narrow down what it is that you do best, and do that.” she said.
Get involved in the community of your target market. We’re not just talking about networking; establish deep, authentic relationships with both members of that demographic and with fellow travel industry players who genuinely interest you. Strike up conversations in real life or on social media. Sign up for newsletters from those with whom you’ve connected and admire. Participate in conferences, trade shows, panels and charity events that relate to your market (or maybe even ones that don’t).
“If agents aren’t out marketing themselves, no one will know they exist,” said Beth Schulberg, owner of Oswego, Ore.-based Cruise and Travel Specialists and All About River Cruises.
Don’t neglect your supplier connections, either.
“It’s through our supplier relationships that we make the magic happen for our clients,” said Chad Clark of Phoenix-based Chad Clark Travel Ventures, an affiliate of Camelback Odyssey Travel, a Virtuoso Agency. “Whether it is traveling to a trade show; participating in a fam; or conducting a self-directed scouting trip, face time with suppliers is ultra-important."
Meeting with a vendor? Take a selfie with them and post it on your social media channels, says Eric Hrubant, president of Los Angeles and New York-based travel agency CIRE Travel, a division of Tzell Travel Group. If you promote their brand along with yours, he notes, it can be a great way to get yourself in front of their followers.
There’s a lot of competition out there, but if you come up with a concept you truly believe in and you put out good information, people will respond to it.
Although it may not initially seem like the most effective ROI method, social media marketing can be one of the best free ways to advertise — and it’s essentially risk-free, according to Clifford of Valerie Wilson Travel.
But be careful you’re not using the relationship solely for self-gain; there’s a delicate balance to strike when using your connections to market yourself — and your audience can tell when it’s disingenuous.
“Any travel agent should be focused on a relationship-driven business, not a transactional one,” Hrubant said.
Lastly, never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth marketing. When you put yourself out there, engage with your demographic and demonstrate your value, there’s nothing quite like the organic buzz it can generate.
“Word-of-mouth is truly the best marketing strategy and cannot be valued enough,” said SmartFlyer’s Pindar Chamberlain. “We’ve seen great success in inspiring travelers through gorgeous content on our brand and agent social channels, layered with strong PR efforts and good ol’ networking with like-minded people.”
Once you develop your brand pillars, stick with them.
For Steve Orens, president of Plaza Travel, this has been of the utmost importance in launching eleven|four alongside Peri. The agency saw a need to sell to a new demographic but didn’t want to subvert its established brand, audience and culture; thus, the new travel company was born, allowing Plaza Travel to pivot without undermining its original purpose.
“With eleven|four, we’re making sure we’re consistent from the start,” Orens said, “with the way we post on Instagram, for example, or with the look and the feel of our website. It’s important to make sure the building blocks of our brand are solid and that we can continue the impression we have started from the beginning.”
Remember your brand at all points, Peri echoes. From customer interactions and social media posts to multichannel marketing methods and brand partnerships, everything you do should be in line with the brand identity you began with.
“If you start shifting and doing things that might make sense financially or be easy financially, but it’s not true to the brand and the original client you were speaking to, you start to unravel it,” she said.
Having a relevant digital online presence that very simply tells your story allows consumers to see immediately if you are the right match for their travel needs, according to Stacy Small, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Elite Travel International, a Virtuoso Agency.
“Porsche customers wouldn’t go to a Honda dealership to buy their next car, and we aren’t the travel firm for budget travelers or deal-seekers,” she said.
To maintain a constant brand message, Small says travelers will never see deals advertised or any supplier promotions on Elite Travel International’s website.
“That’s not what it is there for,” she said. “The website is there to tell people who we are and how to find us to strike up a personal discussion about their upcoming travel needs.”
Branding your digital presence in alignment with the vision of the type of travel you want to sell is a simple and effective — not to mention free — marketing strategy, Small notes.
Inject yourself into the culture, the moment, the conversation, the technologies and the digital environments people are using.
And show, don’t tell, what your brand stands for. Help clients connect with you emotionally by tangibly demonstrating the value you provide.
“It’s all about storytelling,” CIRE’s Hrubant said. “If you had a group whose flight was canceled, but you got them where they needed to go, put it on social media. When the snowstorm or hurricane comes, post online and say, ‘My team has been up for 18 hours to make sure we get someone on the first flight out.’ If you planned a cool trip for clients, show pictures of how you made it work.”
But Don’t Forget to Be Open
Maintain a solid base for your brand, but keep in mind that innovation is one of the best ways to compete in an ever-changing world.
“Trends are constantly changing, and it is our team’s responsibility to stay ahead of the trend and ideate creative solutions to remain a force in the travel marketplace,” Clifford said. “Inject yourself into the culture, the moment, the conversation, the technologies and the digital environments people are using.”
This doesn’t mean changing who you are as a brand, but rather adapting to your audience’s shifting needs. Just because something has been done one way the last two years — or 20 years — doesn’t mean it should be done that way in the future, Peri says.
“Look at opportunities that are going to enhance your clients’ experience with you,” she said. “Even though it might be painful to make those changes internally, change is what generates buzz.”
This openness to change should be part of your company culture, as well. At eleven|four, Peri and Orens place a high importance on thoughtfully considering the perspectives of others.
“Have dedication to, and confidence in, the direction you decided to go while remaining open-minded to hearing constructive criticism,” Orens said. “For example, Megan and I will have a different opinion on something, but we’ll both walk out of a room and feel satisfied with the change in the path based on our conversation.”
Don’t shy away from new things, Pindar Chamberlain says. Your business — inside and out — must evolve with culture and technology.
“We are constantly reinvesting in the business,” she said.
For SmartFlyer, these changes have been as small as tweaks to the client process to ensure it’s as smooth as possible, or as large as remodeling offices so staff continues to feel energized and excited to come to work, she says.
Enjoy the Ride
Creating a brand is neither simple nor easy, and it can be quite the balancing act. But have faith that what you’ve invested into your business will come back to you.
“Once you’ve put in the hard work to brand yourself as an expert, and you have become involved in everything possible in the community, you will get phone calls — and if you prove your value, you will get repeat business and referrals,” said Schulberg of Cruise and Travel Specialists.
Above all, one thing that our experts can agree on: If you love what you do, it won’t feel like work.
“Life is short,” said Small of Elite Travel International. “Find your joy.”