Successful Travel Marketing | Emotional storytelling and authenticity drives travel marketing success

by | Feb 29, 2024 | Thinking | 0 comments

Pent-up demand for travel continues to surge but the overwhelming choice of destinations and deluge of cookie-cutter marketing can leave customers with decision paralysis. Often, they can’t see the wood for the (palm) trees, so how can travel marketers promoting countries, regions or cities successfully stand out?

People are hungry for authenticity and real connections following the lockdown years. Destination marketing activity needs to reflect the traveller’s desire for a genuine experience at a deeper than surface level.

There’s a lot to play for – the World Tourism Organisation is projecting international tourism to exceed pre-pandemic levels this year,[i] while Barclays consumer spending trends data at the end of the year, revealed travel spend growth was up 14% year on year and 15% of people were planning more trips than in recent years.[ii]

Travel is an extremely competitive sector in and it remains a buyer’s market, so destination marketers have their work cut out to ensure they are on the consideration list and attract inbound tourism.

The goal is to bridge the distance both physically and emotionally between the audience and destination, so that when the customer closes their eyes, they can imagine themselves in that bustling, exotic city or on that beautiful, fresh mountainside. You want to create such a familiarity with the destination they can almost smell, taste and touch the experience before the plane touches down.

Look beyond stereotypes

Of course, that’s no easy thing. The crafting of an authentic brand positioning and message needs a deep understanding of the emotional drivers and motivators connected to travel and smart thinking about creative ways of cutting through the marketing noise.

There will always be holidaymakers looking to save money but destination marketing needs to offer more than a low-cost vacation. Albania features as one of this year’s holiday hotspots and while significantly cheaper than the Eurozone, sells itself on the strapline ‘Go your own way’ underpinned with other messages, including ‘Discover Europe’s last unturned stone.’ It’s an appeal to find adventure in a country that’s almost on your doorstep.

Travel marketers need to identify the audience segments they want to reach before shaping their brand messaging. This will mean actively dismantling existing stereotypes, understanding how travellers perceive themselves and researching what they really value.

Putting people in demographic buckets won’t work. Both Gen Z and the retired are looking for authentic experiences – and authentic ways of accessing those experiences. For Gen Z the hunt for the ‘meaningful’ in the present NOW outweighs the joys of shopping or saving for long-term financial security. And Baby Boomers are out to show they are not ‘old’ by society’s definition and that they retain a healthy curiosity about the world and other cultures.

The older generation want to switch on, not off 

Our own research into cruise passengers for Riviera Travel showed older travellers were not holidaying to ‘switch off’ and slide into a deckchair but were even more enthusiastic about exploring new places and connecting with new people, driven in large measure by ‘the lost years’ of Covid. The research insights powered the positioning of ‘Forever Curious’ and a campaign that paid back with an 18% increase in response.

The importance of friendliness and positive interactions with ‘front of house’ staff and local people cannot be emphasised enough. If a destination is confident it can deliver on this promise, then it’s a strong card for authenticity. Look how Visit Glasgow has made its strapline ‘People Make Glasgow,’ while going further back, calling on its whole community to unite helped Iceland’s tourism recover after the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010.

Visitor numbers were projected to collapse by a fifth and tourism leaders did not believe a conventional campaign would be believable or authentic and address negative opinion. Instead, they encouraged Icelanders to share their real stories on social media in the ‘Inspired by Iceland’ campaign.[iii] The loop between social media and purchase points was closed by collaborating with partners and between the start of the campaign and year-end, tourist visitors exceeded forecasts by 27%.

Authentic’ is more than a label

‘Authenticity’ has to be more than a buzzword. Visitors want to feel they are enjoying an individual experience even if several thousand people have already trodden the same path in recent months. It’s a tricky challenge for travel marketers and means making careful decisions, choosing the right creative approach, the best ambassadors and providing that compelling story that connects with audiences on a human level.

We’ve seen it work best when the marketing team and agency partners avoid selling other people’s holiday snaps with a photomontage and instead consider how to bring their unique holiday experience to life via a variety of stratagems and channels. These are deployed to reinforce the exceptional nature of the experience and lessen the mental distance between ‘home’ and the destination. Make them feel like an honorary local rather than a tourist.

Bringing Switzerland to London

Our campaign to promote tourism to Switzerland took such a creative approach. As a winter destination the country was beginning to drop off the radar and our research showed its offering was perceived as dated. To reignite interest and engagement we decided to drop a piece of Switzerland in London.

For our ‘Reach Out + Touch It’ campaign we placed five, four tonne slabs of ‘glacier’ ice at carefully chosen London locations with embedded audio and visual cues of the sounds and sights of Switzerland – from the creaking noise of glaciers to the eye-catching bright red of the Glacier Express. We augmented the attention-grabbing, multi-sensory ice blocks with field teams of Swiss ambassadors flown in, including ski instructors and other winter sports advocates, who talked with genuine passion and authority about their culture, lifestyle and the great experiences offered by their country.

The omnichannel strategy embraced the digital world too as we created the mobile game ‘Melt The Ice’ to reach a wider audience beyond the experiential and reinforced the message with blogger and social activity. The activity was a fraction of the cost of the lavishly shot TV campaigns they had historically run, yet engaged with over 300,000 highly targeted people and resulted in the first year on year increase in visitors for four years. Authentic storytelling and forging human connections with potential tourists meant we returned Switzerland to front of mind for a select audience and sparked interest in visiting the country.

To conclude 

Of course, there are multiple stakeholders involved in marketing and delivering a travel experience – from airports and airlines to tour operators and hotels. It’s a complex ecosystem and every touchpoint can reinforce the ‘promise’ of something new and authentic for the visitor in an engaging way. Destination marketing organisations orchestrate many partnerships but if the positioning and messaging of the brand can stay consistent throughout – and is backed up by the authenticity of experience – then everyone should be able to bask in the glow of a successful campaign.

[i] https://www.reuters.com/business/united-nations-sees-international-tourism-fully-recovering-2024-2024-01-19/

[ii] https://home.barclays/news/press-releases/2024/01/holiday-bookings-and-festivities-brought-december-cheer-for-hosp/

[iii] https://www.mrs.org.uk/pdf/iceland.pdf