by Jake Steinman
With the UK probably America’s most mature inbound market, the value proposition for World Travel Market held every November in London seems to be trade public relations and networking and schmoozing at the 4:00 p.m. receptions.
During the day, appointments with buyers often include, as they have for the past 10 years, a pitch for marketing support that travel suppliers view as a shake-down—openly wondering how they can justify the expense of attending an event where the line between buyers and sellers is so blurred. One person we encountered at WTM openly mused about other ways she could have spent her marketing dollars for a digital marketing campaign that can precisely target her most likely prospects. Instead, she and those like her believe that the same expenditure makes them feel as if they are on the proverbial hamster wheel–running hard but going nowhere.
After observing three days of WTM, it dawned on me that shows such as WTM, ITB, IPW and others are gathering places for the industry to engage in networking, public relations and learning about trends as much as they are about sales. And then there are those who worry that their very absence may have buyers asking about their whereabouts, not to mention that they could be opening a door for a competitor. When actor-writer-director Woody Allen once said “85 percent of success is just showing up,” he could have easily been thinking about the tour and travel industry.
But while the environment has changed dramatically in the past five years, the UK industry has not. In the worlds of one destination marketer, “the industry lacks evolution.” It has stayed in place.
The Tour and Travel Industry Distribution Chain: In conventional product marketing, there are distributors who take the product to a retail network that sells to consumers. The travel trade’s version of these distributors is a chain that usually involves receptive tour operators who sell to in-country wholesalers who, in turn, sell to travel agencies who reach the end consumer. Major retailers such as supermarkets or department stores usually add “slotting fees “or additional margin for products that don’t sell themselves. Our industry’s answer to this is the offer or, in some cases, the demand for funds to cover brochure support or ad programs on their websites–funds that are nothing more than subsidies which contribute little to generating demand for the product needed to help the “sell-through” phase.
Major brands (i.e. Disney, Universal, Florida, California), invest millions in marketing while niche brands use online marketing tools to find the most likely targets to buy their products. Imagine—if the Russians can spend $150, 000 to reach 126 million Americans on Facebook by sending posts so precise that they reach only those in your neighborhood who may be disposed to dislike Hillary Clinton—just what can be done with a modest budget to reach prospective visitors by structuring a digital marketing campaign using some of the over 1,000 targeting options on Facebook or Google.
While international consumer budgets are limited, the UK is an extremely mature market in which consumer marketing is the best way to achieve the demand that will sell through product. Yet, we found at WTM that tourism marketers remain mired in the sell-in phase and still try to use conventional FAM trips by journalists (and now bloggers and self-professed “influencers”), and travel agent training which, considering the extremely high turnover rate, becomes a task that lives somewhere between Sisyphean and whack-a-mole.
A New Vision: We spoke with Billie Moser, vice president of marketing for Travel Portland, a forward thinking and highly respected industry professional with a different grasp on mature markets and a vision for international marketing that goes beyond in-country representation and Brand USA’s off-the-shelf programs.
For example, after much analysis, in 2013, Travel Portland’s China strategy began with a five year sell-in effort targeting Chinese tour operators and receptive operators positioning Portland as a hip, young destination that was safe, affordable and well located between San Francisco and Seattle gateways. As more direct airline connections began serving the Seattle gateway, Portland became part of an integral part of any Pacific Northwest package. Sometimes a destination’s product can evolve faster than tour operators are willing to recognize.
In its analysis prior to hosting the Active America China Summit (AACS) and its 60 Chinese tour operators last spring, Travel Portland found that operators were selling their city as a tax-free shopping destination for fashion apparel. Realizing that many destinations offer similar shopping products, she used the AACS, including its FAM day, to define Portland and the surrounding regions as a nature-and-outdoor wonderland. This primary message is key to a strategy that involved direct-to-consumer content marketing.
The pivot to a content strategy to help create demand that will help operators sell-through the product began by hiring a local Chinese “influencer” to record life in Portland through blog posts and videos and images that would be pushed out through Chinese social media channels in the hope that operators begin to offer more nature product in the coming year. Said Moser: “We do, however, know that the messages we are putting out there are resonating as we can see from our Online Audit.”
What does Moser recommend with markets such as the UK and Germany? “I’m hands-on with the entire international budget and select the best programs from Brand USA that meet the individual markets’ strategies,” she told us. “I work with them as though they’re another one of our agencies and try to mold their existing programs to fit our needs.” And what advice would she have for tourism marketers with limited resources? “Find two or three operators who ‘get’ your destination and work to help them sell your product to their customer base.”
When that happens, you’re no longer running hard just to stay in place.