This is not another article about general 2021 predictions for the travel industry. As marketers, we are more curious about the challenges and opportunities companies are facing as they strive to acquire and retain customers in the current environment.
What new platforms are CMOs and travel marketing leaders leveraging to engage with consumers or enterprise clients? How are marketers thinking differently about their 2021 strategy? What has changed, or perhaps stayed the same, when it comes to launching new products, testing new markets, or crafting customer experiences?
For insights into these questions, we reached out to our clients and other executives across leading b2b and b2c travel and technology brands.
Here’s what they have to say about the emerging marketing trends for the year ahead...
Andrew Stein | Sr. Director Marketing and Innovation, Fareportal
In terms of the partnership channels I oversee, Affiliates and API, this year is all about building on the goodwill and trust that formed during the height of the downturn. But, it will no longer be primarily about issues like how to apply commissions on canceled bookings, or dealing with massive demand shifts. In 2021, travel tech marketers will look towards building products and services to help travelers ease back into the skies.
For example, we’re launching a new API that will allow affiliate partners to price match flights via a web extension. It also enables companies to pass cash back amounts to the customer in real-time. Fareportal will be the first to crack this, I believe.
Flexibility will remain a key consumer benefit. I expect pay-over-time products, like those from Affirm, to have a very strong year. Also, travelers will expect dedicated call center support as these uncertain times persist.
Lastly, I see continued growth and importance of affiliate marketing platforms like Commission Junction, Rakuten, and Impact. For example, a language app can offer flights and we can offer the app to our customers. These networks help companies move quickly to find new ways of working together through a central tracking system, without the hassle of large e-commerce integrations.
Geetika Agrawal | Founder & CEO, VAWAA
Community building and engagement are the most fundamental marketing tools for any brand, and we'll see more of it in 2021. Over the past year, the travel landscape has changed drastically, but the desire to travel hasn't. Customers want to support their beloved brands and are seeking tiny ways to get a window into the world, until they can travel again.
It is a brilliant time to understand and serve customer's needs - really engage with them - to make them part of the recovery journey. This hopefully creates loyal customers in the process. It feels like the most grounding and long-lasting marketing strategy when everything is constantly shifting.
Andrew Steward | Digital Lead, Explore Worldwide
The last year has been tough on us, as with all travel businesses. In 2021, companies will have fewer resources and reduced budgets, and need to work smarter and more efficiently. I expect more marketing teams to adopt automation and AI learning tools that will help automate and improve current activities.
For example, we’re using a tool called parabola.io to take an extract of our previous month's customer reviews, format the data, and run the customer quotes through a Google sentiment analysis. The finished product is then forwarded to relevant parts of the business.
COVID-19 will also continue to impact customer communications. This will require customer service and marketing teams to be able to quickly adapt to changing scenarios, and then disseminate these changes to customers. For us, the issue is compounded since we travel to 120 different countries and entry requirements are still so fluid. We’re using data visualization tool Awesome Table to capture and format the latest entry requirements by destination.
Finally, with reduced budgets, retention will be key for marketers, as there aren’t resources to acquire a customer multiple times. We’re using tools to survey customers at key points of our e-commerce flow, to ascertain why they did or did not book.
Kelly Soderlund | Senior Director of Communications, TripActions
The pandemic has changed everything about corporate travel marketing, especially when it comes to PR and social media. Previously, we might approach travel marketing rather blithely; our biggest concerns usually centered around loyalty programs, low pricing, or clever gimmicks. Now, every piece of communications must be in the context of health and safety.
My biggest priority these days is thoughtfulness. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to provide users and companies with product features they need to make personalized travel decisions.
As vaccines are distributed, what are we doing to enable travelers to return safely? Are we equipping them with the right tools and information about requirements and restrictions? Are we providing the most comprehensive level of duty of care? What real-time data can we offer so that travel managers and finance teams can better understand their teams’ travel behaviors?
With a more distributed workforce, what are we doing to make sure employees are able to stay connected to their team? We've had this reset for the environment — what are we doing to enable a sustainable return to travel? These are the main questions that marketing and communications teams will need to answer this year to stay relevant and engage their customers.
N.F. | Senior Brand Leader, global hospitality company
For travel marketing in 2021, it’s all about identifying new relevant touchpoints. How can you maintain a relationship with your customers or guests when they can’t travel? This is currently the case for many airlines and hotels. American Airlines' recent announcement of their new wine club program is a great example of continuing to build customer loyalty and goodwill through a new relevant medium.
Treating your brand truly as a lifestyle brand vs. just a travel brand, gives you a competitive advantage. If you know your customers well and understand their interests and lifestyle, you can continue to find relevant ways to engage with them.
Luxury travel advisor Indagare is another great example. They’ve launched their Indagare Clubs, which provide loyal customers exclusive access to some of the most sought-after artisans in everything from mixology to fashion. Travel will rebound to an extent in 2021. But, brands must continue to create relevant, engaging touchpoints like this to stay relevant far into the future.
Vanessa de Souza Lage | CMO, Rentals United
Marketing on niche channels is paramount in 2021 as property managers move to expand their visibility and focus on more diverse customer segments. Today’s property manager needs to be more varied and creative when it comes to their distribution needs - by attracting customers to niche outdoor markets, which are still trending up. Other areas of focus include pet-friendly, LGBTQ, and even cannabis travel.
Property managers can no longer rely on one or two channels to generate all of their bookings. While price optimization to maximize revenue is crucial, this must be matched through length of stay manipulation to maximize opportunities.
Mikey Sadowski | General Manager, Global PR & Communications, Intrepid Travel
While I don’t want to oversimplify the future of marketing, it’s become abundantly clear that successful organizations will be the ones that are closest to their customers. How you get closer to your customer should be among the first questions you ask as part of any 2021 marketing strategy.
For some brands, it can be about creating an emotional connection through a clear value alignment. For others, it may be using UGC to bring customers into the company’s storytelling. And for many, it will be about a heightened focus on delivering a seamless and superior digital customer experience.
Regardless of how you tackle it, the idea of “getting close to your customers” can no longer be looked at strictly through the lens of retention. Keeping customers close should be a core component of any 2021 acquisition strategy.
Christian Wolters | CMO, TourRadar
Marketing during an ongoing global pandemic is a bit of a paradox. On one hand, budgets and resources are constrained like never before. But, at same time, its never been a better time to experiment as there is literally nothing to lose. I also believe that these lean times present fresh opportunities for marketing partnerships, since everyone in the industry is looking to get creative to generate business. This is especially true if you're a startup approaching more entrenched, larger organizations.
At TourRadar, we have launched into Germany and expanded our custom offering. At the same time, the reduced load on our customer service team has allowed us to improve our system and processes, which will be a theme across the board in 2021. Even at a time of border closures and forced cancellations, our actual NPS is higher than ever. Going forward, companies will look to take care of their customers like never before. I think the communications between customer and company will improve, since there is more understanding of the current challenges on both sides.
Saniya Shah | CEO, Pilota
One significant trend we are tracking this year is the rise of ancillary services. Many travel providers have increased the number of insurances, protections, and flexible policies that they provide to travelers. Travelers want peace of mind and travel companies need new revenue streams. I anticipate that travel brands will be increasing their marketing efforts behind these ancillary services to attract more travelers who are still uneasy or on edge about traveling.
Also, 2021 necessitates better and more communication between travel providers and travelers. This includes more direct marketing efforts with health and safety at the core. Airlines, airports, and travel providers have all introduced new methods to keep travelers safe. However, this data is highly fragmented and hard to consume. When asking a typical leisure traveler about new health and safety regulations, most of them couldn't tell you what these methods were or the differences between measures from each touchpoint in the traveler’s journey.
Many travelers still feel uneasy taking a flight, and providing a central data source for customers and brands alike will go a long way towards normalizing the travel experience.
Tom Buckley | Cofounder, Dune7
The sequence of events that unfolded in 2020 finds America, in particular, at an inflection point. A critical mass of exposed systemic injustices has brought topics like racial justice, gender equality, and sustainability to the forefront. More than ever, brands are expected to show up on the issues important to their customers; and not just by paying lip service.
Beyond the brand marketing implications, companies will need to communicate and integrate social causes at the product level. This will require additional focus from tech and product marketing teams. The ingestion of new data sets to surface product attributes around social and environmental impact is one place to start. For example, APIs that can display safety standards and risk factors for LGBTQ or BIPOC travelers, are becoming more relevant than ever. Considering sustainability, tools that empower customers to neutralize their carbon while in the booking funnel will help encourage conversion, and ultimately, brand loyalty.
In 2021, technology will need to work hard to surface and tag new products for the conscious, modern consumer. This will enable travel brands to win back much needed consumer confidence.