Digital Advertising in Travel 2021

by Haixia Wang + Skift Team - Jun 2021

Skift Research Take

Travel companies slashed marketing budgets last year as travel in the majority of the world became an unknown future. Now that the recovery has begun, they need to double down on marketing investment to drive recovery and growth.

Report Overview

When the pandemic started and travel was immediately put on pause last year, marketing budget was among the first to undergo drastic reduction in travel companies around the world. We conducted a survey in late April last year to gauge the damage to the marketing team. Out of the 756 companies participating in the survey, 90% had already cut marketing spending. 

As the year went by, there were patches of recovery across different sectors and regions, determined by virus case numbers, and levels of government lockdowns and restrictions. Marketers were scrambling to find new data sources to capture the fleeting and fluid demand, sending the appropriate messages, all with much tighter budgets and a lack of a playbook to fall back on. 

The good news is 2021 is a year of recovery. The vaccine rollout has already made the U.S. travel rate in May higher than any time period during the pandemic, even surpassing the number of travelers in February 2020, before the pandemic started. As the rest of the world is now speeding up inoculating people,  the promise of ending the pandemic finally looks very real. This is a crucial time for travel chief marketing officers (CMOs) and their teams to reinstate themselves as the growth engine of their companies, to capture consumer behavior and needs and drive revenue as well as sustainable growth. 

With the unprecedented disruption behind us, what marketing leaders have in front of them are tough jobs of recalibrating still-limited resources and helping steer their companies in the right direction through their knowledge of consumers and actions to reach consumers. Where do marketing teams stand now in terms of budget allocation and marketing priorities? What has changed in the media mix and what should be the new balance and media objectives? To help address these questions, Skift Research conducted a survey of marketing professionals across major travel sectors and interviewed four senior executives, representing hospitality, metasearch and destinations. This report presents key findings from the survey and insights from these executives, and discusses focal areas in using media and marketing to drive recovery and long-term growth. 

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • Travel company marketing budget allocation and changes in focus on paid media, marketing technology, third-party services, and in-house staffing in 2019-2021
  • Travel company advertising budget allocation and changes in major media channels and formats in 2019-2021
  • Travel marketers’ digital maturity level as measured by adoption rates of advanced measurement and campaign management tools
  • Top media priorities and challenges for 2022
  • Skift’s recommendations on strategic and tactical focuses to optimize ad performance and drive growth

Executives Interviewed

  • Axel Hefer – CEO at Trivago
  • Nicolette Harper – Vice President of Global Marketing, Media at Marriott International
  • Staci Mellman – Chief Marketing Officer at Visit Florida
  • Sylvain Lierre – VP Marketing & Consumer PR EMEA at Radisson Hotel Group

Marketing Budget Reduction 

Deep Budget Cuts Ran Across All Marketing Areas in 2020, and 2021 Will Continue to Be a Year of Budget Restraint 

Back in April 2020 when most of the world was barely two months into the pandemic, we conducted a survey examining what companies were doing to their marketing team in response to the abrupt dry-up of travel demand. The result was stunning. Out of the 756 marketing professionals who responded to our survey, 90% of them said their companies had already cut spending across major marketing areas. 

More than a year later, we conducted another survey asking travel marketing professionals how much their companies spent on marketing in 2020 compared to 2019, and how much their companies are spending in 2021. The sample size is smaller, with 133 marketing professionals completing some or all the questions. On average, travel companies spent less than 60% of 2019 marketing budgets in 2020. Advertising and media suffered the most severe budget reduction, with companies spending 43% of their 2019 level. Third-party services such as agencies and PR were the second largest reduction category, at 45% of 2019 spending. Marketing technology saw the least damage, with 2020 spending at 61% of prior year levels. . However, this milder impact might not be a sign that marketing technology plays a more important role for marketing functions during the pandemic. It’s more likely because marketing technology is often priced on an annual subscription model, which can’t be terminated immediately when the market changes. 

Recovery is happening for real with the promise of the COVID-19 vaccines. According to our latest May U.S. Travel Tracker survey, 42% of Americans traveled in May, surpassing the travel rate in February 2020, the pre-pandemic month, and 18 percentage points higher than May 2020.This upward trend will continue in the summer vacation season in the U.S. as well as spread to other major travel markets with smoother vaccine rollouts. 

Travel companies are bringing back their marketing teams to capture this rising demand. Yet there is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty before full recovery is attained, and cautious optimism means budget increases will be slow. According to our survey, marketing spending in 2021 only increased slightly from the 2020 level. Advertising and media, which saw the biggest reduction last year, is up 14% in 2021, the highest percentage increase among all spending categories. However, this is still below 50% of 2019 spending.  

All Media Channels Suffered Similar Spending Reductions in 2020. However, the Budget Increase in 2021 Favored Digital Channels. 

When the pandemic started and people stopped traveling, performance marketing was among the first to go. It was seen clearly in our April 2020 survey. Of the companies who cut down paid media, 36% withdrew all search spending and another 23% cut 61-99% of spending, the highest among all media channels. 

The situation did change as we moved along month-over-month in a zig-zag manner last year. Many European markets had a semi-normal summer with borders opened among the EU countries, but since then suffered the lowest performance. The U.S. followed a similar trajectory to Europe, with a rebound summer and worst winter until January this year. As travel marketers scrambled to capture these fluid and fleeting demands, there was a constant near-real-time adjustment to their media strategies. In the end, the spending contraction was spread out pretty evenly across all media channels.  

With demand on the rise in 2021, digital channels were among the first to be reinvested in. Paid search, SEO, social, and digital video are all up from 2020 spending, while non-digital channels continue to contract. The shift to digital has been going on for the last decade or so, largely due to two major factors. First, marketers always follow the eyeballs. Consumer media consumption has been shifting to digital channels with traditional media, including linear TV, print and terrestrial radio, declining in usage. Second, digital channels have ushered in an unprecedented amount of data, and as a result, digital technologies and tools to target and measure advertising campaigns. When the budget is limited, it makes perfect sense to concentrate on digital channels where you can capture demand through connected data and measure results easily.   

Marketing Mix Shift 

Media and Third-Party Services Lost Bigger Budgets Than Other Areas in 2020. But Overall Mix Will Be Back to the Pre-Pandemic Level in 2021.

Marketing mix has been in flux for the last few years as marketers shift focus to digital channels, with the increasing investment in marketing technology being the leading trend. Skift Research conducted a survey of travel marketers in 2018 to gauge the levels of investment across all marketing areas and media channels. Discounting in-house employee payrolls, we found that advertising and media accounted for nearly 50% of all marketing budgets. Marketing technology was the second largest spending category, making up 25% of marketing spending, four percentage points higher than what travel marketers spent with agencies, PR, and other third-party services. For 2019, 48% of travel marketers surveyed planned to increase their budgets for MarTech, the highest of all three categories.

We asked the question again in our 2021 survey, only this time adding in-house payroll to the mix as it is a crucial element to track during the pandemic. Even with staffing in the mix, media still made up the largest share of marketing spending in 2019, with 36% of all marketing budgets going to paid media. In-house payroll came in as the second spending category, accounting for a quarter of marketing budgets. MarTech and third-party services each accounted for 18% and 15% of total budgets, respectively. In 2020, while all areas of marketing functions underwent reduction, paid media and third-party services had bigger cuts than the other two major areas, with paid media losing 6 percentage points in budget share and third-party services losing 2 percentage points in share. Marketers expect to see a return to the 2019 mix in 2021 as they bring back media investment and agencies to capture demand recovery.  

It’s worth noting that if we exclude in-house payroll from the budget count, the spending shares of the other three major areas were very much in line with what we captured in our 2018 survey. 

MarTech will continue to establish its central role in the next few years as data and analytics capabilities, marketing automation, and infrastructure building continue to shape how marketing teams and campaigns are operated and measured. Of the surveyed travel marketers, 76% expect to increase MarTech investment in the next five years, the highest of all areas. Advertising and media is the second biggest investment area in the next few years. However, it also stands out as the area where the most companies plan to cut spending, indicating bifurcated attitude on ad investment. 

Budget Restraint Made Channel Reduction and Concentration Necessary, with Search and Social Gaining Share in 2020 and 2021

In 2019, surveyed travel companies on average spent 81%, the lion’s share of their total media budget, on digital advertising. The digital share jumped to 88% in 2020 and is expanding slightly to 89% in 2021. Drilling down to digital channels, the two largest digital channels, search, including both paid search and SEO, and social, took in 67% of all media spending in 2019, expanded to 71% in 2020 and will hold the same share in 2021. 

In normal growth times, when budgets are abundant, marketers often diversify their channel selections and have the liberty to experiment with new channels and audiences. When the budget is being reduced  and there is greater pressure to deliver results, the stake of every single decision is too high to diverge. The media concentration on tried and true  lower- to mid-funnel channels is a logical result of the crisis mode. As Nicolette Harper, Vice President of Global Marketing, Media at Marriott noted: “we’re still in a state of recovery. So much of the focus still has to be on that lower- to mid-funnel. The folks that are raising their hands are interested in travel. They’re doing their search terms, and so things like search marketing, for example, naturally take center stage, and that along with our affiliate partners who are out there doing double duty trying to find, again, those folks that have the travel intent. So we use a ton of search trends to help predict those future and current demands. Social has been a consistent part of the mix throughout the customer journey, really based on their behavior, how much time they’re spending, which has only accelerated during the pandemic.” 

The question is: will the acceleration of the traditional media decline during the pandemic be reversed post-pandemic? We believe the downward trend will likely continue after the pandemic. 

One area that’s worth noting is the very low media spending on linear TV. On average, only 2% of media budgets were spent on linear TV in 2019. This is significantly lower than the average in other industries – according to Zenith, TV accounted for 28% of total media spending worldwide in 2020. The number is even much lower than what we reported in our 2018 digital advertising survey. In that survey, travel marketers reported an average of 8% media allocation to TV. 

In our 2018 report, we already detailed the likely reasons behind this gap. The biggest reason is that, unlike other consumer sectors, travel has traditionally been a commoditized industry, with much focus on filling a room or seat instead of what a brand association is and means. In addition, travel is comprised of a very small number of enterprise companies on the one end and a long tail of small companies on the other end, who simply cannot afford expensive TV advertising at scale. Our 2021 survey confirms this argument. Out of the 70 marketing executives who answered the ad spending by channel questions, 62 of them, or 89%, indicated they didn’t spend on TV advertising in 2019. But for those who did invest in TV advertising, on average they allocated 18% of media budgets to TV, not far behind the average outside travel.  

On the other hand, the growing interest in digital video advertising is indisputable. According to our survey, digital video ads accounted for 6% of all media spending in 2019. The share grew 3 points to make up 9% of media budgets in 2020 and is expected to grow further to 10% in 2021. When asked if they expect any changes in their media investment for the next 5 years, 76% of surveyed marketing executives said they would increase ad spending on digital video, the highest of all channels. The shift to digital will continue when looking at the entire media ecosystem, with all digital channels gaining more investment, at the cost of traditional media channels. 

Digital Maturity 

Along with the heavy investment in digital channels, travel marketing teams need to constantly invest in advanced ad tech and MarTech capabilities to improve the quality of ads. After all, consumer data enabled and enriched by digital channels and technologies makes it possible to map the whole consumer journey and plan media allocation based on very specific goals. In this section, we will take a very quick look at where travel marketers stand in digital maturity through the data we collected in our survey. Due to different sample sizes and company demographics between our 2021 survey and 2018 survey, we are not comparing the two to examine if there is an increase or decrease in digital maturity in the past three years. 

Measurement and Effectiveness

To drive revenue growth means marketers first need to tie their marketing and ad spending to measurable objectives. The evolution of digital channels and data accumulated in digital environments have greatly empowered marketers to apply better metrics to measure success. Clicks, traffic, brand lift, and direct sales are widely adopted metrics to measure effectiveness. It’s interesting to see that the top 3 most important metrics are a combination of branding and performance metrics, indicating many travel marketers are aware of the importance of balancing branding and performance in their marketing mix. 

All digital formats are rated more favorably than non-digital channels in delivering desired return on investment (ROI): 74% rated SEO as somewhat effective or very effective. Paid search and social are closely behind, with 72% rating search as effective and 70% rating social as effective. Earlier, we already noted that the number of travel marketers spending on TV ads is small. For those who use TV ads, they don’t seem to have a favorable view of its performance, either, with only 12% saying it’s an effective channel, even behind print.  

When asked to select the top three most effective formats/channels, however, there is some shift in order. Social took the top spot as the most effective channel in delivering the desired ROI, with 86% of marketers saying so, 20 percentage points higher than those who rated search as the most effective.

Mobile Advertising

Mobile is on its way to becoming the first screen for consumers, especially younger generations, and in many emerging consumer markets such as China and India, mobile-first is already prevalent (See our Millennial and Gen Z Traveler Survey 2019: A Multi-Country Comparison Report for details). And the pandemic has greatly accelerated mobile usage across all demographic segments, with more people preferring to use their phones to limit contact with others. This adopted mobile behavior is very likely to continue in the post-pandemic world. 

On average, travel companies spent 46% of digital advertising budgets on mobile in 2020, on par with mobile spending for other consumer sectors. For 2021, travel marketers expect to spend 53% of digital budget on mobile, a significant jump from 2020. And the shift to mobile will continue in the next few years, with 75% expecting to increase spending share on mobile. 

Customer Journey Mapping 

With the proliferation of interaction points and the data accrued at each interaction point, today’s marketers are empowered to see the entire customer journey, either through examining previous behavioral patterns or through behaviors that lead up to the purchase stage. We know there are still many challenges in the real world in finding the right data and connecting the right dots. But having a customer journey mapping mindset provides great clarity on the business goals and corresponding tactics best suited to achieve the goals. With that mindset, you can then identify hurdles and find ways to make the best use of what you have. 

Only 30% of surveyed travel marketers indicated they have already implemented customer journey mapping and allocated budget based on journey stages in marketing planning. More encouraging is that another 40% said they plan to implement journey mapping in the next two years. 

The sample size got very small when we drill down to budget share for each journey stage. Overall, for the companies who are using journey mapping in ad planning, there is a very high focus on the awareness stage, with nearly 50% of ad budget allocated to this stage on average. The percentage increased to 59% in 2020, when demand decreased significantly, but will fall back again this year with more focus on the planning and purchase stages to capture rising demand.  

The top- and mid-funnel priority will continue in the next five years, with mid-funnel particularly gaining more attention. Sixty-five percent of surveyed travel companies plan to increase ad budget on the planning stage in the next five years. 

On the other hand, there is very little ad budget devoted to the post-purchase stage, which garners only 3-4% of total ad budget. While post-purchase stage, including in-destination and post-trip services, generally falls under customer experience, media campaigns underscoring those services might play a crucial role in boosting consumer satisfaction. This is particularly important as more travel companies have started to look at the consumer journey through the lens of providing true travel experience. Sylvain Lierre, vice president Marketing & Consumer PR EMEA at Radisson Hotel Group, reflects on the importance of this expansion: “You have to look beyond the hotel. You have to look at where they come from and where they’re heading. It’s a step in a journey. Realizing also, especially for the big chains, that the location you’re in matters, and that it’s not just enough to be a hub where people from roads land and then go back. You also have to connect yourself to the culture of the location, filling your hotel or your restaurant, maybe, with more of the local craft.”

Customer Acquisition vs. Customer Retention 

Along with more measurable marketing objectives in place, marketing teams are increasingly asked to delineate marketing objectives along the lines of acquiring new customers and retaining (and growing)  existing customers. 

Similar to the customer journey mapping adoption rate, 30% of surveyed travel marketers are already allocating their advertising budget based on these two objectives and 46% plan to do so in the next two years. For the small number of companies who do so, there is a heavier focus on acquiring new customers than retaining existing customers, with 66% of budget allocated to customer acquisition on average in 2019 and remaining little changed during the pandemic. 

The greater focus on market expansion and customer acquisition will likely continue in the next five years, with 44% of surveyed companies planning to increase budget share on customer acquisition. However, 31% of marketers stated that they will increase their customer retention ratio in the next five years. 

This heavy focus on acquisition raises the question of downplaying the importance of customer retention. After all, various research has already demonstrated that a repeat loyal customer costs less to maintain, has much higher lifetime value (LTV), and serves as a brand ambassador, which virtuously leads to less marketing cost to acquire new customers. To travel marketers’ defense, customer retention is heavily driven by owned and earned channels such as email marketing, content and social marketing. So one-third of the advertising budget on customer retention might not be a bad number, as long as there is a bigger focus on customer retention in the broader marketing focus. 

Multichannel and Attribution

While it’s important to segment and set up different objectives for different parts of consumer journeys, it’s equally important to treat each individual touch point as part of the whole customer journey and deliver an integrated campaign throughout the entire customer journey.  And as a natural next step to multichannel campaigns, it’s important to measure the ultimate campaign success by looking at all the touch points and assigning appropriate credit to these touch points, hence multi-touch attribution.  

More than 41% of travel marketers surveyed are already running most of their ad campaigns in multichannel fashion and another 30% are using multi-channel for some campaigns. By comparison, multi-touch attribution tools are still at an early stage of adoption for travel marketers, with only 28% currently using it. Mass adoption seems to be on the horizon, with 42% saying they plan to use it in the next two years. 

Marketing Integration 

How a marketing team is structured reflects the company’s overall business strategy and can greatly impact marketing performance. While crucial in a marketing team’s advertising strategy, digital should be an integral part of the overall media plan. Well-planned and executed, multichannel campaigns can amplify the effectiveness of each individual channel/format more so than is possible when they are executed alone. To better plan and execute on multichannel campaigns, it’s important that marketing teams are structured to maximize integration. Long gone are the days when TV people didn’t talk with digital people and content people didn’t talk with advertising people. The cascade effect and billboard effect can only work when there is an operational structure to work together.    

Most travel marketing teams seem to have matured in operational structures that allow for optimal integration. Of all the travel marketers surveyed, 71% have their digital advertising team as part of the marketing team that manages all marketing and advertising campaigns, 14% have a digital advertising team separate from other marketing teams, and another 14% still have different teams handling various formats and channels.  

2022 priorities and challenges

With 2021 still full of uncertainties, it might be hard for travel marketers to think ahead and plan for 2022, especially when the market has just gone through a major shock and companies require new consumer intelligence and strategies. What’s certain is that there will be much higher volumes of spending and activities to restore growth. 

As we explained in the previous sections, marketers expect to continue to invest in areas that will make a bigger impact on marketing. MarTech and media in particular will continue to lead the growth for that purpose. As Harper of Marriott said, “Now that we’re turning a little bit of the corner, especially at least here in the U.S., we are looking at more of a full funnel strategy and activation and renewed focus on branding.” 

So when asked what are the top three advertising priorities for 2022, an overwhelming majority of marketers picked acquiring new consumers as their top priority. But, with the market disruption, the challenge of doing that is a lack of existing resources and experiences to do so. It’s not surprising that 64% of marketers believed the top advertising challenge for 2022 is executing on new strategies and priorities.

The Power of Advertising 

Marketing teams are increasingly tasked to lead business strategies and drive business growth. There are good reasons for that. The digital world that permeates every single part of our life means that if you don’t exist in the digital space, you don’t exist at all. Done well, marketing and advertising have the power to completely transform a company. 

Balance Cost Cutting and Strategic Investment

As we’ve discussed above, the depth and breadth of marketing budget reductions for travel companies was unprecedented last year. In our Travel Marketing During COVID-19 report published at the beginning of the pandemic last year, we warned of the risk of severe budget cuts on travel companies’ ability to survive the crisis. We cited a 2010 study led by two Harvard Business School professors of 4,700 public companies during and after the three global recessions prior to the 2007 recession to demonstrate the importance of mastering the balance between cutting costs to survive the revenue loss during the recession, and continued investment to prepare for growth after the recession. History has proven that selective cost reduction combined with continued investment in areas that could detect, adapt to, and respond to changes will set winners apart from the pack and drive for long-term growth.   

In our survey, we asked respondents how their company fared financially compared to their peers in 2020. Out of the 55 marketers who answered, 45% said they suffered less financial damage than their competitors and 51% said their financial performance was about average in their industry. While the sample size is small, it’s still worth noting that other than third-party services, high performers reduced their marketing budgets much less than average performers in all areas in 2020. Whether this proves the case of the importance of cautious reduction or not, remains to be examined when we are completely out of this crisis and have a larger industry sample to compare. But there is very likely a positive association here. 

Adopt Agile Marketing

One of the best things coming out of the pandemic is the increased agility across all companies and industries. The most common theme we heard from CEOs of global companies, including travel, is along the line of “decisions that used to take a year to make, now take a week, and it often works”. Once seeing what’s possible and what works, companies will continue to practice agile operations post-pandemic.

Agile marketing — the practice of using data and analytics to continuously source promising opportunities or solutions to problems in real time, deploying tests quickly, evaluating the results, and rapidly iterating — was particularly crucial for travel marketers last year, when there was no historical data to reference and demand was totally unpredictable. As Harper of Marriott told us: “We could no longer use historical data as a point of reference, and of course, the future outlook was shaky at best, and so we had to develop a brand new roadmap and tools.” 

Marriott worked with its Publicis agency to create a proprietary global dashboard that modeled every single market. It has COVID case rates, vaccination rates, government restrictions, customer mobility data from Apple and Google, and customer booking data.

Harper continued, “We built our own ad tech, … where markets around the world could respond in real time to trends that were happening. If your country opened up, they [regional marketers] could immediately see what’s happening locally and then create content on demand.”

To apply agile marketing requires a few key elements:

  • Marketing campaigns need to be multichannel 
  • There should be high-quality data to enhance targeting and segmentation capabilities 
  • There should be high-quality real-time measurement capabilities 

Balance Branding and Performance

Compared to other consumer segments, the majority of travel sectors and brands are very late to the brand marketing game. Until very recently, travel had been mostly a deeply commoditized industry and travel marketing is about filling a room or a seat. To make things worse, you have the powerful online travel agencies (OTAs) to help do that job. But the industry has turned the corner and travel companies are waking up to the fact that brand matters and your brand could be the most powerful tool for driving long-term growth. 

We’ve already seen companies making big shifts in that direction. Booking Holdings and Expedia Group, the two largest online travel agents, have both invested more in branding in an effort to mitigate reliance on Google. As reported by Skift, starting earlier this year, Airbnb has rolled out ambitious TV and video campaigns. As of early June, Airbnb was the largest online travel company spender in U.S. national TV advertising, with an estimated $29.4 million allocated. 

Now the questions are: How do you do branding? What do you want consumers to know you and like you about? What is your brand identity? Fortunately for travel marketers, they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are many brilliant marketers in other consumer sectors that they can emulate. To name a few: Apple, Starbucks, Patagonia. When we asked our marketing executives for the world’s top travel organizations on how to do branding, we got a unanimous answer: make emotional connections with consumers. Harper said it plainly: “At the end of the day, these emotional and these natural connections that we want to make with the consumers will be absolutely paramount to any tech or any new media format.” 

Building emotional connections with consumers 

Trivago, one of the pioneers of successful travel brand marketing through its famous Trivago Guy, decided to phase out its Mr. and Mrs. Trivago Ads in the first quarter of this year. Even before this official announcement, it had been testing different types of marketing campaigns since last summer. When we spoke with Axel Hefer, CEO of Trivago, he explained the thinking behind this and the focus of the new campaigns: “Over the next five to 10 years. I think all brands in travel will need to think about that [emotional connections] and what they want to stand for and what emotional connection they want to build with their customers. And it’s something where we started to shift gradually a bit more into that direction. So when you look at our campaign that we were running last year you can see that it’s already quite a bit different to the campaigns that we were running three years before. And that is the thought behind it, and it was very successful.”

Visit Florida launched a  Follow Your Sunshine ad in 2020 to remind people of the importance of having fun during challenging times and was selected by Adweek as one of the top 10 most accessible brand campaigns of 2020. 

Staci Mellman, Visit Florida’s CMO, spoke to us about how that ad campaign epitomizes the connection they want to build with consumers and the message they want to send to consumers: “I think it just really emotionally connects. And I think that’s the strength of our brand. What we have done and we will continue to do is promote inclusivity in all of our advertising…So for that spot, not only do you see well-represented individuals, there’s a woman in a wheelchair on the beach. We wanted to do that because Florida is a place for anyone, no matter where you come from, what you believe, who you love, or what’s your ability.”

Lead by Turning Customer-Centric to People-Centric

We built this TRUST framework to provide some food for thought for travel marketers when we were deep in the pandemic last year. We advised marketers to keep in mind these five words/phases in building their marketing strategies during the pandemic – Tune in, Relate, Update, Socially responsible, and Transparent. At the time of writing, we were amidst the worst humanitarian crisis of our lives, with no clue how bad it could get and how long it would last. And we were all in it together. We proposed this framework to pinpoint the fact that we were all on the same side of the pandemic and a customer-centric approach was not enough in speaking to and attracting consumers. Instead, brands needed to expand their relationship to include all of those affected by this: customers, employees, suppliers, partners, neighbors, and communities. Working with all these affected people and earning trust will have a lasting impact on building a strong brand.

Now we are almost out of the pandemic and we are all excited about the pent-up demand and a big travel bounce back. Yet the lead questions we asked during the height of the pandemic are still applicable and relevant. They are great reminders of what we’ve all been through and what long-lasting impact this experience might have on us. Many changes might not happen until much later when we have the luxury to digest and think again. 

If this sounds too abstract, here are a few examples to consider. The labor shortage backlash in the U.S. now reveals some of the deepest economic issues this country is facing. Climate change and sustainability action will become mainstream and disrupt industries and companies in the next 50 years. Diversity, equality and inclusion in the workforce amplified by Black Life Matters in the U.S. have already spread to the rest of the world. How can marketers and companies start to think now about those changes instead of waiting until they happen? We believe this people-centric framework can empower companies to act now for long-lasting growth. Opportunities abound.   

Additional Insights from our Industry Experts 

On the Key Elements of Adopting Agile Marketing 

Multichannel 

Staci Mellman, Chief Marketing Officer at Visit Florida: 

“Everything that we do is pretty much multi-channel or integrated…We found that a strong media mix works best for us. A video anchor followed up by digital exposure as a reminder, you can dive deeper into social with specific kinds of content. SEM [search engine marketing], really responding to search trends is a big part of that. And then we have a significant PR and content strategy. We partnered a lot with big publications this past year to talk about Florida for the non-traveling public. Things about Florida to keep Florida top of mind, but not specifically related to this is how you travel.”

Sylvain Lierre, VP Marketing & Consumer PR EMEA at Radisson Hotel Group:

“Until a relatively recent time, it was still a bit of social is doing that, and loyalty is doing this, and good luck if you’ve got matching things. Right now, everything that we do is completely integrated….So I see this both vertically and in different disciplines and channels working better together now. Because of the lack of budget, it’s better if we can all do the same thing at the same time. That’s kind of natural. And then also I see it at the geographical level where we want better coordination between central, which I represent, and the different markets, so better coordination.”

Targeting and Segmentation

Staci Mellman of Visit Florida, on segmentation: 

“So pre-pandemic domestically, we had built an audience segmentation strategy around 2017/2018 around traveler behaviors. And they weren’t mutually exclusive segments, they were just kind of the behavioral mindsets. So because we know that we’re multi-dimensional human beings, we can like a romantic getaway while at the same time, not wanting a family vacation… We had multiple campaigns that ran throughout the year, targeting specific people. So adventure seekers, experience seekers. Really focused on cultural, dining, heritage things. Winter vacationer, so really targeting our strong northeast markets during the winter.”

On using new data during the pandemic: 

“We partner a lot with first-party data providers. For example, during our winter efforts, there were different kinds of traveler mindsets. There were people who were open to travel. There were people who might be a little bit more hesitant, and there were people who were not open to travel whatsoever because safety was a high priority for them. So we had different messaging and different data targeting. And a lot of what we did was target them kind of on their behavior at home.”

Nicolette Harper, VP of Global Marketing, Media at Marriott International, on if there should be a single video strategy: 

“A single video strategy, the only thing that I would politely challenge that with is, you need to tell a little bit of a different story based on where that consumer is consuming that video. So in-flight entertainment, for example, you don’t want to just keep saying the same thing over and over and playing it, you want to tell a bit of a story during this trip… And then the other big difference is mobile consumption and mobile video, and there is a very distinct way to tell a mobile story in the story arc versus how you tell that in linear.”

Test, measure and iterate 

Axel Hefer, CEO of Trivago: 

“So we do produce our own spots and we have always produced many different variations of the spot, and then dynamically adjusted the ones that we wanted to show. So that has been quite flexible as an approach.”

Nicolette Harper, Marriott:

“We use data more now than ever versus putting in a campaign out there and just waiting to see how it does and optimize here and there. We optimize depending on the type of media multiple times a day and we’re getting into borderline real time.”

On the Importance of Branding 

Axel Hefer, Trivago: 

“The travel market is slowly but steadily commoditizing… So the growth is coming down, and in commoditizing markets, branding becomes more important… [So] what going forward would be more important [is], whether you build a connection to the brand, like in any other product. [So] when you’re buying Mercedes, you don’t buy just the car, you buy the brand in addition. 

Nicolette Harper, Marriott:

“You can’t outrun brand, you can’t direct response your way out of brand. Brand is what the company stands for, and in our case, being the largest hotel portfolio, we’re built on our brands. Our brands are what make us unique and our identity and our offerings and each individual brand contributes differently in the market and fills a different need for the consumer…. we believe in the power of branding and would not be where we are today if we just continued with a performance only mindset, there’s always a balance. “

Sylvain Lierre, Radisson: 

“There is a linear link to the scale of a brand and its success, especially in times of crisis… There is a demonstration through COVID that a strong brand is essential…. And I think also, every big hospitality brand will need to up their game in terms of marketing, to be more specific, more precise, more consumer centric, more consumer journey driven, not just thinking about the sale right now.”

Appendix: Survey Respondent Demographics