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The State of Content Marketing in Travel 2017

by Jeremy Kressmann + Skift Team
Digital Marketing
Digital Media
Social Media

Skift Research Take

Content marketing has evolved from a novelty into the mainstream of the travel industry. Not only are more travel marketers creating content as part of their broader advertising strategies, they’re also spending more to produce it. But as more travel brands ramp up content marketing initiatives, there are challenges, including how to measure the ROI of such programs, dealing with influencers, and determining how to create content in a cost-efficient manner. Which content strategies are gaining traction with travel brands in 2017 as they look to evolve their efforts in the year to come?

Executive Summary

The entire discipline of marketing is in the midst of a sea change. Changing consumer attitudes toward advertising, combined with the growing importance of social media, are forcing marketers to adapt to a new reality. For the travel industry, this means focusing on the creation and promotion of content, a discipline that is seeing huge increases in budgets, interest, and attention. Marketers say the inspirational appeal of such content, combined with its increased credibility, helps it succeed with travel customers.

But even as content marketing becomes the travel industry’s dominant approach, lots of concerns remain about how to make and measure great content. Figuring out what type of content to create remains an open question, even as images and video continue to grow in popularity. Finding great content creators is another key challenge. Many travel marketers say they are spending more time partnering with so-called “influencers,” though doubts remain about how to measure their effectiveness and ensure high-quality results. There are also larger questions about how to measure the ROI of content marketing and where it should sit along the traditional marketing funnel, plus a growing need to localize content for new audiences in places like Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Because of the growing popularity of content marketing, there are nearly as many approaches to executing such programs as there are companies in the travel space. That said, several new approaches and trends in content marketing are gaining widespread appeal in 2017. Among those trends, more brands are bringing their content creation efforts in-house, more traditional travel media firms are becoming hybrid content marketing agencies, and travel brands are experimenting with old-school media formats like TV advertorials and magazines to cut through the digital clutter.

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • Why is content marketing gaining popularity with marketers in contrast to more traditional forms of advertising?
  • Why does the growth of social media make content marketing more important than ever for travel brands?
  • What types of content should travel brands think about creating, and how should they create it?
  • What are the best ways for travel firms to partner with influencers on content creation?
  • How should travel marketers measure the ROI on content marketing campaigns?
  • How should travel brands think about localizing content for international audiences in regions like Asia-Pacific?

Executives Interviewed

  • Kate Appleton, director of branded content, AFAR Magazine
  • Ali Daniels, vice president, marketing, Visit Seattle
  • Joe Diaz, co-founder, AFAR Magazine
  • Jeremy Jauncey, founder, Beautiful Destinations
  • Amar Lalvani, CEO and managing partner, Standard International
  • Joe Slattery, senior vice president of global marketing and sales, Holland America
  • Karin Timpone, global marketing officer, Marriott International


Much like the oil industry in the early 20th century, the travel industry is in the midst of a boom. But unlike the fossil fuels that powered the cars and factories of American industry, this travel-focused boom is actually powered by content. The deluge of short films, Instagram images, and Snapchat confessionals fueling this “content boom” are helping to lubricate a very different kind of business model: consumer attention.

The truth is that in 2017, a majority of consumers don’t pay attention to traditional advertising. Amidst the news that one in five Americans has stopped paying for TV, one-third of web surfers have installed ad-blocking technology, and signs that most consumers ignore ads, advertisers have to fundamentally rethink their methods of promoting products to customers. And rather than just focus on creating more ads, they’re redesigning their marketing messages to “add value” to their their target customers by entertaining, inspiring, and informing them with content.

Nearly a third of U.S. internet users will install ad-blocking software in 2017, a phenomenon that forces travel marketers to shift their approach to creating original content that’s less intrusive, more useful, and harder to ignore. (source)

For travel marketers accustomed to the old world of seasonal ad campaigns and media buys, this new world is still a mystery. What kind of content should they produce? Who should they rely on to create this material? How do they keep up the pace now that social media followers demand near-daily infusions of new material? Most importantly, how can they ensure that their organization’s business goals are still being met? In this new age of content marketing, where a so-called “social media influencer” can demand $100,000 for a single sponsored Instagram post, the answers to these questions are still frustratingly unclear.

This report examines the growing ubiquity of content marketing as the industry’s preferred approach and seeks to understand the forces that contributed to its rise. It also uses extensive first-person interviews with industry insiders from tourism boards, travel magazines, hotels, content marketing agencies, and cruise lines in an attempt to understand the challenges facing content marketers in 2017, along with the approaches helping these organizations build successful content strategies to address today’s content marketing “boom.”

Content Marketing Hits the Mainstream

Content creation by travel brands evolved from a niche strategy into one of the industry’s most popular marketing approaches. Executives in the industry long knew that content had a powerful emotional pull for consumers, thanks to the industry’s built-in vocabulary of tropical beaches, exotic bazaars, and luxurious resorts. But what’s changed in recent years is that marketers are putting significant budgets into creating and promoting high-quality content. One recent forecast by PQ Media estimated that marketers worldwide would spend well over $200 billion on content marketing in 2017, with an expected annual growth rate in spending of 15 percent or more.

Global Content Marketing Spending

Worldwide spending on content marketing has been growing at double digit rates. (source)

It’s not just that marketers say they’re spending more on content marketing efforts. More executives from consumer-focused companies also say they’re incorporating the discipline more deeply into their marketing mix. According to another study by the Content Marketing Institute, 86 percent of business-to-consumer (B2C) marketers said they were currently using content marketing, offering yet another sign of its growing ubiquity.

The percentage of consumer-focused marketers who say they use content as part of their marketing efforts hovers at close to 90 percent. (source)

But what is it about content marketing that’s turned the format into such a dominant tool for travel marketers? One aspect of the rise of content-focused marketing is the credibility it gives brands with their consumer base. Rather than simply making an advertisement, which today’s media-savvy traveler quickly sees through, brands are realizing there’s an opportunity to operate more like “equals” with their customers by providing content that entertains, informs, and inspires rather than just hawks product.

“There’s a credibility component,” said Joe Diaz, co-founder of AFAR Magazine, a travel publication that expanded efforts in recent years to create content on behalf of travel advertising partners. “It’s one thing for Holland America to say this, or Westin to say this. It’s another thing when AFAR says it… this is what we do every single day, creating content.”

Increasingly this statement is echoed by marketers incorporating content into their own approach. One recent marketer survey by Altimeter Research, which investigated the main goals of brands producing content, found that attaining some form of “credibility” was a key objective for around half of respondents. Thirty-two percent mentioned they wanted to be “thought leaders” or “subject matter experts,” while another 18 percent mentioned they wanted to “inspire trust” and “loyalty.”

Marketers say they produce content because it helps them build credibility with customers and demonstrate their expertise. (source)

Another factor in the sudden ubiquity of content marketing is the rapid pace of today’s social media environment. As many travel industry executives emphasize, the relentless demand for fresh social media posts forces brands operating in these channels to change their creation and publishing process. “Content is a major part of how we think about our social media strategy,” said Karin Timpone, global marketing officer for Marriott International.

This new content-creation approach to social stands in contrast to how marketers typically thought of advertising in the past, choosing to design one-off campaigns rather than focus on ongoing connections with consumers. “It’s such a fundamental change for a travel marketer to effectively market on social,” said Jeremy Jauncey, founder of image network Beautiful Destinations. “If you’re only doing these campaigns every quarter, you are completely irrelevant [in consumers’ minds].” But as he admits, executing on this expectation for continuous content is not something brands necessarily know how to do well. “Social has set up this system where [brands] need to be producing relevant, high-quality content every single day. Most travel brands are not set up to do that,” said Jauncey.

Keeping up with the relentless pace of social media is just one challenge for brands trying to build an effective content strategy. Even as content marketing moves from a novel strategy to become an essential weapon in the travel marketer’s arsenal, more realize the challenges related to making it successful. Problems related to quantifying the success of such efforts, sourcing high volume, and high-quality, content and localization for key target audiences are just some of the roadblocks facing travel marketers.

Content Challenges Remain for Travel Brands

Content may be “king” when it comes to effective travel marketing, but that doesn’t mean the content marketing process is easy. Instead, executives from travel brands and media companies that spoke with Skift highlighted a number of challenges, including how to source and create great content, how to partner with influencers, lingering questions about how to measure the success of their efforts, and how best to localize content for today’s growing audience of travel consumers in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and beyond.

Sourcing and creating great content

For any travel brand engaged in content marketing, the most pressing question is often what to publish. The truth is that there’s no single answer to this question. The types of content posted by brands are nearly limitless, and the best answer depends on a number of factors, including business goals and the digital distribution platforms where the company focuses its marketing efforts.

That said, there’s a number of content formats that tend to perform better than others. As illustrated by research compiled by Altimeter, more marketers engaged with content marketing say that static images like photos and infographics are among the most effective at engaging customers, mentioned by 47 percent of marketing executive respondents. Other formats like short-form blog posts (41 percent) were also listed in the top five. Long-form and short-form video, which were mentioned by 23 and 18 percent of respondents in Altimeter’s survey, are also popular, even though they were mentioned less frequently.


In fact, despite the “low” interest mentioned in Altimeter’s survey, video is one content format where interest is growing significantly among travel brands. Later in Altimeter’s same report, for example, 53 percent of respondents indicated they were planning to increase the time and money spent on creating video content, a response that placed it among the top three initiatives for marketers’ content plans in 2017. “Video’s so sexy,” said Ali Daniels, vice president, marketing for Visit Seattle. Daniels and her organization made a significant investment in video content through a recent short films partnership with Sundance and a video content hub called VisitSeattle.TV. “We know that people watch video. YouTube is the number two search engine in the world.”

Having the right content is obviously important, but so is finding the right partners and resources to help create it. Sometimes travel companies are not set up to handle these functions internally, so it makes sense to work with others to simplify the process and ensure the output is high quality. Much like the wide diversity of content formats that different brands use, there’s also a wide variety of options for travel brands that want help producing content. The four main options typically include:

  1. Partner with media companies. An increasing number of travel media outlets offer not just travel journalism and ad placements, but also “branded content” teams that help sponsors plan, design, and launch a wide variety of content opportunities.
  2. Work with an influencer. A growing collection of professional and semi-professional photographers, filmmakers, and writers can be identified on social media. The benefit for travel brands is that they often get high-quality content created by the influencer, along with the built-in audience of these influencers to help the content get easily shared and seen by potential customers.
  3. Retain an agency. Advertising agencies, digital agencies, and other specialized content marketing agencies help travel brands bring together the business know-how of a traditional marketing campaign with the expertise to design effective content assets.
  4. Produce the content in-house. As content marketing grows in importance, more brands are bringing the responsibility for producing high-quality content into their marketing departments. This includes everything from full production film studios to dedicated teams that handle social media from company “war rooms.”

Among these four methods, the use of influencers, referring to individuals with large followings online, has recently grown in popularity. But it’s also a method that’s not without controversy, as travel marketers rightly worry about the business impact of these partnerships. Stories abound of travel brands that feel like their influencer partnerships were too expensive or simply not effective. What best practices should travel executives consider for a successful influencer relationship?

Working with influencers

More travel brands are working with influencers to help them generate high-quality, shareable content. But there are a number of best practices companies should follow to ensure such relationships serve their business goals. (source)

As more travel brands form relationships with influencers, the question is how should they do it in a way that drives their business goals. For many travel marketers, bad experiences with influencers in the past created a negative association with influencer marketing. Tales abound of influencers who charge exorbitant fees, prove unreliable, or ignore client requests, and many have trouble justifying their effectiveness. But as many travel executives that spoke with Skift emphasized, influencer marketing can be highly effective. It simply needs to adhere to several guidelines in order to perform as intended.

The team at AFAR notes that influencers can be very useful as long as they’re used responsibly. “We have worked with influencers, and we approach it with caution. But we have found that it can be very effective,” said Kate Appleton, director of branded content for AFAR. “It’s also a way to put a fresh spin on a destination that’s been covered a million times before, because now we’re telling it through someone’s personality and unique viewpoint that’s relatable.” Even though they can be effective, the team at AFAR also suggests it’s worth trying to avoid problems related to influencers’ fees and work schedules up front.

“Even understanding the cost of working with different influencers, and the schedule challenges, it’s definitely also an important part of managing the client relationship and setting expectations,” said Appleton. One recent report suggested that an influencer campaign for an individual with several million followers can cost as much as $100,000, though a growing crop of “micro-influencers” who are popular with one specific interest group often ask for much less.

Perhaps most importantly, marketers need to properly vet individuals to determine if they match their brand’s tonality and target audience. Appleton mentions the challenges of sourcing the right influencer for a recent partnership they did with Four Seasons. “We’ve learned that we need to be very thoughtful about who we’re presenting to them, because it’s the Four Seasons. Yes, they want to work with someone on Instagram, but it has to be someone who has an ‘elevated’ style and someone who looks like they could be staying at the Four Seasons… It’s great if someone has 50,000 or 500,000 followers, but if none of them would ever stay at the Four Seasons, then what’s the point?”

Beautiful Destinations is a hybrid content platform and creative agency that’s reinventing the model for how brands collaborate with content creators. (source)

Other organizations like Beautiful Destinations are creating new methods of working with influencers altogether. Rather than partner up with content creators on a single project or freelance basis, Jauncey assembled an in-house team of full-time, salaried creators that they offer up to clients for content projects. “We’re very much on the side of building creators in-house,” said Jauncey. He cites a number of benefits to this approach rather than finding creators on an ad-hoc basis. “A lot of them charge large amounts of money, and it’s really difficult to measure their impact. For brands it’s hard to tell if you’re getting value from someone that just does a post.”

Meanwhile the executives at Marriott say influencers need to be thought of much like any other marketing campaign or asset. “Just like you would do in any marketing plan: what is your message, where is the [paid] media and what’s the most effective way to get that return?” said Marriott’s Timpone. She also reiterated the importance of finding individuals with the right audiences to align with Marriott’s brands. “From a business perspective, we also need to make sure that we’re finding influencers that bring the right audiences and areas of interest.”

Measuring success

Nearly as important as finding the right content to publish and the right people to create it is measuring its success. How should travel marketers evaluate the success of their content efforts? As many travel executives admit, there’s a variety of methods and models to help answer this question.

One of the most common methods of measuring and quantifying the role of content in travel marketing is to think about its position within the marketing funnel. Using this metaphor, the idea is that travelers undergo a distinct process when deciding to make a travel purchase, passing from an “inspiration” phase early in their trip-planning journey through the research phase of a specific destination or product, and then on to the actual purchase of a trip. A great visualization of how content fits into this marketing funnel can be seen below, created by Caitlin Domke of content marketing agency NewsCred.

More marketers are thinking about where their content efforts fit within the traditional marketing funnel as they attempt to define such efforts’ return on investment. (source)

The longstanding industry perception of content marketing in the travel industry is that it’s a discipline mostly designed to reach consumers at the top of the funnel, meaning that it’s intended to build brand awareness and inspire consumers to investigate further, not to make a sale. “It really is mostly about brand awareness,” said Visit Seattle’s Daniels.

However, the increasing diversification of performance metrics used to measure content marketing programs suggests that marketers are starting to think of content as a marketing tool that can help boost a variety of business goals both at the top and bottom of the funnel. As a survey of B2C marketers by the Content Marketing Institute discovered, the majority of marketers (73 percent) now use increases in website traffic as one key content marketing goal, while another 66 percent also said they use social media sharing as a key performance indicator (KPI). Other metrics like time spent on website, sales, conversion rates, and SEO benefits all were mentioned by at least half of respondents.

Marketers mention metrics like website traffic, social media shares, and time spent on website as key measures of their content marketing success. (source)

It turns out that many travel executives that spoke with Skift also think content marketing can serve a variety of business objectives. “It could be anywhere [along the marketing funnel], because content is everywhere,” noted Marriott’s Timpone.

For AFAR, the goal for most of the publication’s sponsored content is inspiration. “Ultimately any client wants to have ‘heads in beds’ and ‘butts in seats,’ but they come to AFAR because they understand travelers come to us before they know where they want to go,” said AFAR’s Diaz.  “Roughy one-third of travelers that come to Google don’t even know where they want go when they search. And 80 percent don’t know where they want to stay or how they want to get there. There’s still so much uncertainty, and the value that we add is helping brands get travelers inspired about where to go before they’re too deep in the [marketing] funnel.”

Although inspiration is key, AFAR also mentions they sometimes focus on goals like referrals, as they did for Booking.com. “We did a campaign with digital content and a custom widget embedded in content on AFAR.com,” said AFAR’s Appleton. “As people are browsing a story about romantic travel destinations that mentions different accommodations, you can actually type in the name of a hotel or yurt or boat rental and see the availability and pricing, and we were able to track those referrals [to Booking.com].”

For Beautiful Destinations, goal-setting takes more of a “test and learn” approach. “What we try to focus on is building really world-class content, testing it across as many different channels as possible, buying Facebook and Instagram advertising, and then measuring with the client all the way across the transaction funnel where we’re having an impact,” said Beautiful Destinations’ Jauncey. “We have a big partnership with MasterCard where we’re creating content for their ‘Priceless Cities’ campaign… and we worked very closely with a data analytics tool called Omniture to track all the people that were coming out of Instagram after seeing messaging on our site.”

Meanwhile, Visit Seattle works closely with its hotel stakeholders to demonstrate how content encourages room bookings. “If you think about who our stakeholders are, they’re hoteliers. Impressions don’t mean a whole lot to them,” said Visit Seattle’s Daniels. “Right now we’re looking at a 67 percent view-through (completion rate) for all of our content across all of our pieces… We [also] look at RevPAR (revenue per available room) and RevPAR year-over-year, and then a five-year average to make sure we’re going in the right direction. And then we look at social sentiment. What are people saying about Visit Seattle?”

Localization for key audiences

Another challenge facing travel brands as customer bases become more global is how to create content that appeals to users from different regions and cultures of the world. The social platform or video strategy that might work for a travel consumer in the U.S. won’t necessarily apply to a different travel consumer in China.

For brands that have resources like Marriott, their approach to this problem has been to decentralize their content publishing and deputize regional “command centers” to handle outreach to specific regions like Latin America and Asia. An example of this is how Marriott handles social media. Since 2014 we’ve had something called M Live, which is basically a social media command center for real-time marketing,” said Marriott’s Timpone. “We have one at our headquarters here on the East Coast, we also have one in Miami for Spanish language, and we have Hong Kong, London, and soon to be other locations around the world. The idea there is to do real-time storytelling through social media.”

Marriott also extended this approach with original content initiatives to target consumers in specific regions of the world. The hospitality chain recently launched the newest version of its short film series Two Bellmen using one of its properties in Seoul, Korea to help appeal to the company’s growing customer base in Asia-Pacific. “What we’ve found is that by including characters that resonate within a culture… we’re able to connect with an audience and make our brands known in a deeper way,” said Timpone. “We select those markets where there’s an opportunity to make a larger statement.”

The latest iteration of Marriott’s film series Two Bellmen was filmed in Seoul, Korea, just one of the company’s initiatives to help localize its content marketing efforts for key markets. (source)

Other brands like Beautiful Destinations are finding there are opportunities to expand distribution to new publishing platforms in target regions. For example, the company is now experimenting with the Chinese microblogging site Weibo. “We just launched in China earlier this year on Weibo, and we have a completely different strategy for how we’re building the Beautiful Destinations brand,” said Jauncey. He notes that there are key differences with non-Western social platforms, where followers prefer to have lots of content posted at the same time. “With Instagram and Facebook, you’re only supposed to post one piece of content… on Weibo they like for you to post nine pieces of content.”

Other executives from the hospitality sector mentioned that the pace of creating content for consumers in China is often much faster than in the U.S. or Europe. “We need to create content and campaigns at a much faster pace in China than we do elsewhere,” said Steven Taylor, chief marketing officer for Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts. He also said collaborations with local experts can help brands quickly grow their customer base. “We focused much more heavily on collaborations, and that actually increased our engagement on social channels globally, but especially in China, by more than 10 percent. Gone are the days when you can spend three months creating a perfect film or a perfect movie. Consumers have an absolute thirst for content.”

Three Content Marketing Approaches for 2017

Challenges continue related to creating great content, measuring success, and localizing for key audiences. But there are plenty of brands finding ways to succeed in today’s always-on content marketing environment. Which strategies will see more success in 2017? Based on Skift’s interviews with a number of executives from across the travel industry, here are three key approaches worth highlighting.

Brands take control of the creation process

Standard wisdom in marketing is that brands should delegate the creation of content to others. Why take on the cost and time involved with content creation when a third-party agency or individual could do it more efficiently? Marriott International is one brand that’s pushed back against this philosophy. Since the hotel chain launched its in-house content studio back in 2014, the company earned considerable industry attention, media coverage, and a number of notable successes with consumers.

For executives at Marriott, the decision to take over much of this work was the result of two key factors. One factor was the emotional aspect of travel, which made it important that Marriott had the right storytelling tools. “When it comes to travel, it really lends itself to this emotional connection of why you go somewhere, the experience you have, and how you share that with other people,” said Timpone. “What’s missing is the ability to do storytelling. [Marriott] has enough chefs to fill many Food Networks. It’s not that we don’t outsource to someone else, but part of rethinking our marketing mix is having storytellers throughout the organization.” The other factor was the changing nature of today’s digital distribution tools. “There are no longer the technology barriers to getting that story out there versus in the past. Why not have that as a competitive advantage?”

In order to make this in-house approach work, Timpone suggests that finding the right people with content expertise is essential. “We now have people inside [Marriott] from the news business, and the media business, who are experts at listening to what is happening from a business perspective and how to shape that in a way that can directly get to our audience,” she said. “We absolutely do work with agencies and production companies, but we want that directed by our business goals to get the optimal result.”

A look inside Marriott’s M Live social media command center. M Live is just one of a number of content capabilities like film production that the hotel chain brought in-house. (source)

The results of this effort are numerous and well publicized. In addition to the ongoing Two Bellmen film series, the company now has a dedicated social media command center called M Live to enable 24/7 real-time listening and publishing, and a web publication called Marriott Traveler. This is on top of new content storytelling initiatives in which Marriott is planning to highlight its hotels and events.

Timpone suggests that these efforts will only continue to expand, with the goal of generating conversation about hotels at the center of it all. “Whether it’s through original films, online publications, or real-time social media, our whole purpose is to ensure that our hotels are part of real conversation,” said Timpone. “We think that’s been very successful, because we’ve seen engagement on our original films exceed [traditional ad units]. It’s expanding the definition of how we engage with travelers.”

Publishers become agencies

On the flip side of what Marriott is doing, more travel media companies like magazines offer their content creation services to brands. Call them “branded content studios” or “native advertising,” but they work much like a traditional marketing agency structured within a media company, with publishers offering up a team of experienced storytellers, journalists, and photographers to brands looking to make an impression. One travel publisher that’s found considerable success with this approach is AFAR.

“AFAR has a very distinctive approach to covering travel and storytelling and design. As much as possible I’m trying to bring those same editorial standards and perspective to the content we’re creating for clients,” said AFAR’s Appleton. This also applies to the way AFAR has staffed the team that creates custom content for advertisers. “When they were hiring for [AFAR’s branded content director] they only talked to people with editorial backgrounds because they’re serious about their commitment to quality, custom content.”

For those travel brands looking to do more than just place a print ad in a magazine, AFAR offers advertisers a number of options. In addition to getting mentions in AFAR’s digital channels like social media and newsletters, brands have the opportunity to design custom content projects that adhere to the same content guidelines as AFAR’s editorial. There’s no single type of asset that’s generated from these content projects, which has included everything from image campaigns created by Instagram influencers to helping cruise lines design destination guides for their ports of call.

In fact, one brand that partnered up with AFAR to make use of these sponsored content capabilities is Holland America. In 2015 the cruise company was looking for ways to refresh its port-of-call destination guides and realized it might make sense to outsource the work to a partner. “When we recalibrated our brand in 2015, we said we need to provide better content about the places we visit,” said Joe Slattery, senior vice president of global marketing and sales for Holland America.

A preview of some of the destination recommendations created by AFAR on the Holland America website. (source)

As Slattery explains, AFAR had the right credibility to make their refreshed destination guide believable. “This idea of a third-party ‘authority’ goes a long way with our guests, who need more than a couple paragraphs of ‘marketing fluff,’” said Slattery. “The guiding philosophy that’s driving their development is completely aligned with us. It’s about real engagement, authenticity, and going deeper beyond the surface.” Slattery and his team at Holland America partnered to remake all of the company’s port-of-call guides using the expertise sourced from AFAR’s network of local content creators around the world.

For Slattery, the project was less about having a direct linkage to a sales goal than creating the right impression about the Holland America brand for its experience-hungry passengers. “It’s not 100 percent commercial. When you look around [the travel industry] it’s so blatantly commercial and stereotypical and clichéd,” said Slattery. “When you look at the destination guides, you’ll see things in there that don’t have a direct commercial correlation to buying a trip.”

Ultimately the Holland America team feels like the quality of the work generated by AFAR was worth the extra effort rather than creating the guides themselves. “People believe a third-party content provider as a source much more than content that’s created directly by the brand… we pay a premium to AFAR to do this work — we could have done it ourselves, but these guys are the experts.”

What’s old is new again

One interesting side effect of today’s saturated media environment is that it’s harder than ever to break through the clutter. But rather than trying to focus on technological novelty, more travel brands seem to be returning to their roots, launching a series of content marketing campaigns using tried-and-true marketing vehicles like hardcopy magazines, email newsletters, and TV advertorials in new, unexpected ways.

One example of this approach is a resurgence of hard-copy print magazines created by travel brands — at the end of 2016, Airbnb partnered with Hearst on a new print magazine. “It’s to be on every coffee table, to be on every nightstand, it’s to accompany you on every flight you take. And it’s to connect you, to inspire you, to transform you,” said Joanna Coles, chief content officer at Hearst, during an Airbnb event announcing the magazine launch. “Why a magazine? Well, a good magazine is a journey in itself; it’s a voyage of discovery. You turn the page and you find something magical you weren’t expecting and it transforms you.”

Carnival Cruise Line is taking its message straight to TV viewers thanks to a new partnership to create original cruise-themed programming. Ocean Treks with Jeff Corwin is one of three shows the company is producing for ABC, NBC, and The CW. (source)

Another approach comes from Carnival Cruise Line. Following in the vein of Madison Avenue’s glory days, when network TV shows branded with a single sponsor were the norm, the cruise company recently launched programming partnerships with NBC, ABC, and The CW Network featuring Carnival ships. Rather than simply launch a TV ad, Carnival instead chose to pursue these minimally-branded shows in the hope of getting more consumers excited about the idea of cruises. As some executives at Carnival admit, not every portion of the show has Carnival branding, and that’s fine by them. “The reality of TV production is it’s not always ‘one for one,’ but the spirit of everything we do is experiences that are available to all our guests so we can truly show the world what they can experience,” said John Padgett, chief experience and innovation officer for Carnival.

Carnival’s CEO Arnold Donald noted that the initiative was meant to create an emotional engagement with cruising in a way that wasn’t possible with an ad. “These programs are all part of our continued focus on expanding the cruise market and further stimulating consumer cruise demand,” said Donald in a note to employees about the effort. “By showcasing the exciting adventures, exotic cultures, and popular global destinations that are part of our itineraries, the experiential content will engage millions of viewers on an emotional level.”

Interview With Amar Lalvani of Standard Hotels

For some travel brands, content marketing is not a new idea. In fact, boutique hotel brand Standard Hotels has been producing their own content-focused editorial projects since the launch of their much-loved Standard Culture initiative back in 2010. Skift spoke with Amar Lalvani, CEO and managing partner of Standard International, about how the company’s content approach to Standard Culture has changed over the years, why the hotel uses almost no traditional advertising, and the importance of celebrating people and places.

Skift: Standard Culture was arguably one of the first hotel projects to embrace the idea of content marketing. How has the brand’s approach evolved over the years?

Lalvani: It’s much more than a project now. If we go back in history, it started as a blog and it was something that was independent of the Standard Hotels website. And we found that people really enjoyed it, it was getting a lot of visibility and that it represented [our brand] well. So what we did over time is realize the culture is what we’re about.

We love our hotels and we love their offering, but we’re about much more than just the physical place. It’s who we are, what we do, what we’re interested in… So about two years ago, we decided to take Standard Culture to the next level, so that from a web perspective there wasn’t a disconnect between Standard Hotels and Standard Culture. If you look at our website now, it’s as if Standard Culture subsumed and took over Standard Hotels… I would venture to say we’re one of the only ones in the industry who has put culture at the absolute forefront of our online presence.

A preview of an article from Standard Hotels’ content marketing initiative Standard Culture. (source)

Skift: Does Standard Hotels still use traditional ad campaigns? Or is this content creation the focus of your marketing efforts now?

Lalvani: Very little. This is the bread and butter. We do almost no traditional ad buys. It’s really about the content creation and the culture of who we are. Obviously there’s a public relations aspect, which is natural because of what we do at our properties, which attracts a lot of attention. You won’t see traditional advertising by us, virtually at all.

Skift: What you’re doing with Standard Culture feels almost more like a pop culture magazine than website or blog for a hotel.

Lalvani: It really is content creation. Our team that does Standard Culture is referred to as the editorial team. We have a unique point of view that people have come to enjoy over the years because of what we like, what we do, and who we hire, and those interests that are core to us are what come through and guests appreciate.

I would also say that we try to make [the content] “of the place.” We’re experts on New York, Miami, and L.A. We also have so many interesting people coming through our doors and staying at our hotels, one of the greatest sources of content is those people. Whether that’s our team, people that stay at our hotels, and people that perform at our hotels. But it’s not “marketing” in that way. We’re lucky to have those people, and we like celebrating those people.

Skift: Is all the content for Standard Culture developed in-house, or do you work with any partners?

Lalvani: It’s all in-house. The way I think about it is there’s been this evolution of boutique “lifestyle” hotels that really started with people like Ian Schrager and André Balazs. What they realized is that design matters, and they did a fabulous job bringing design into hotels, which never existed before that. The next stage of that was the public spaces: food and beverage, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. [Competitors] have caught up to those amenities, even though we still think we do it better. So the next level for me was that culture matters: who you are, what you represent, who you interact with…

This culture piece with editorial and content is the differentiator between us and some of the other big [hotel] brands. If you look at our office, there’s a ridiculous amount of space dedicated to [content creation]. Other hotel companies wouldn’t do that. They couldn’t find those people, they don’t know how to motivate talent like that, and (I say this with all due respect) it’s hard to find that level of creativity and talent to work in Bethesda, Maryland or White Plains, New York.

All we’re doing is harnessing this spirit within our team and crafting something that we think represents us. We don’t think of it as marketing. If people look at it from a traditional hotel lens, they can’t even understand why we would do it and how we would do it.

Skift: There are so many new channels for travel brands to “publish” now, whether that’s Snapchat, virtual reality experiences, or short films. Where does Standard Hotels like to distribute its Standard Culture content?

Lalvani: The biggest areas are the website, which we put to the forefront. The website is good both on desktop and on mobile… then we have Standard Culture as an actual print edition, and that comes out quarterly. That’s [distributed] in all the hotels as well as for free through partners like interesting retail stores and boutiques.

To us, there’s something nice about the tangibility of [print]. When everyone’s on their phones and online, we like when you go to a hotel that there’s something you can look at and physically feel in the morning over your coffee. Then we have our culture newsletter, which is quite popular if you go by open rates and click-throughs… and then on social media we are very active. For us we’ve found that Instagram is the format that represents us best, because what we do is very beautiful and visual by nature. It also allows us to display our culture in a very good way. We just passed 100,000 followers on Instagram.

Skift: How has your email newsletter been performing? Do you find that email gets forgotten sometimes as marketers pursue more “novel” content opportunities?

Lalvani: We find email is extremely effective. The reason why is because of what we send people. We’re very conscious that our email is not about promotions. It’s not something a recipient would send to their spam folder. It’s something that you really care about… Most of the stuff that we send is not about marketing or promotion.

It’s about music, culture, fashion… all these things that we care about and are good at. I’d say we’ve become a trusted source of “what’s new” and “what’s interesting.” We’ve been doing email in the same way we do editorial… Sure, when we have something to offer to our subscribers, we offer it, but it’s not about that. That’s a relatively modest component.

Key Takeaways

  • Great content needs to be paired with great promotion. Too many marketers assume that once they create a compelling piece of content, just post it on social media, sit back, and watch the views roll in. In reality, some of the most successful pieces of “branded content” are heavily backed by a paid distribution strategy that often includes PR and media buys to spread the word.
  • Traditional media doesn’t always mean “out of date.” One of the paradoxes of today’s content marketing boom is that many old formats like television, print magazines, and email are getting a second look. Ultimately what matters is not whether a specific content format or distribution platform is novel, but whether or not it allows brands to meet their business goals and grab consumers’ attention.
  • Marketing strategies still matter. In an era where consumers have disregarded traditional advertising and brands are gravitating toward content to tell their stories, it’s tempting to throw old marketing tactics out the window. But the truth is that it’s just as important as ever to think about the key “levers” of a campaign. Think hard about what message you’re trying to deliver, what distribution tools you’ll use so people can find your work, and what are the most efficient ways to create the content.
  • Social demands a new content approach. One of the biggest reasons content marketing has become dominant is the relentless pace of social media publishing. But rather than thinking about social media like other media channels, where the goal is to run a “campaign” with clear start and end dates, think of social more like a never-ending conversation with your audience. That has key implications for how content is created and published.
  • Influencers matter if used effectively. As much as those in the travel industry like to criticize poorly designed influencer programs, the truth is that influencers can be highly effective. The key to using these individuals effectively is to make sure they are aligned with your brand’s audience and that clear expectations are established up front with regard to cost, timing, and business goals.

Endnotes and Further Reading

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