A year ago, Booking.com, the Amsterdam-based travel and leisure portal, faced a Covid-led wipeout of its business. As the pandemic swept across the globe, the brand faced an unprecedented maelstrom. To survive, it cut its staff by a quarter and slashed its marketing budget to keep the business afloat while it rode out the storm.
Cut to April 2021 and the platform, long reliant on the boom in global travel fueled by the internet and the rise of low-cost airlines, has scrambled back to the drawing board to seek fresh ideas to keep itself relevant. From a time when it was among the go-to destinations for global travelers, Booking has attempted to pivot into a platform for local holidays and experiences. From catering to wide-eyed travelers finding their way around the globe, its emphasis has now shifted to keeping an eagle’s eye on each of its local markets and providing safe travel options to them.
“Like any company in the travel industry, we were hugely impacted,” Arjan Dijk, Booking.com's CMO tells Campaign Asia-Pacific, adding that the job cuts, though difficult, were necessary. “It's the right thing to do, because we need to be ready for the future. We need to be able to to survive and be able to serve our customers and partners in the best way possible.” Despite spending most of the year keeping the business alive, he believes that thanks to growing vaccination numbers, “there is light at the end of the tunnel.” In his opinion, the travel industry—and the world at large—won’t slingshot out of the pandemic, but will endure some “bendy curves” before things return to normal.
Some of this optimism may stem from a survey the company did of more than 28,000 travelers across 28 markets to uncover what they feel most hopeful about as it becomes safe to travel again, and what support they believe the travel industry needs to get back on its feet. According to the survey, two-thirds of Hong Kong travelers feel more hopeful about traveling in 2021 because of vaccines, even as a similar number stated they will only travel to countries that have implemented vaccination programs.
Booking.com—and rivals such as Expedia—are all counting on pent up wanderlust as they prepare for markets to open up. According to the survey, 77% of travelers went so far as stating that they would rather go on a vacation in 2021 than find true love. And 68% would prioritise traveling over success at work, preferring a vacation more than a promotion. Half the respondents feel confident that they’ll be able to hit the beach by summer 2021, and 15% say a relaxing beach or spa trip will be the first type of trip they book when it’s safe to do so .
Over the past year, Booking has sought to keep the memories of travel sites worldwide fresh in the minds of homebound leisure and business vacationers. “I think [the pandemic] was a big reminder that you can make wonderful plans, that you can have the best marketing plan for a year, but you have to be flexible, and adjust in every country very rapidly,” Dijk says. He also points to the platform’s campaign, 'The world will wait for us', which sought to build demand for destinations.
Even as Booking.com has sought to tread water in a tough year, Dijk has been watching specific opportunities open up and has tried to quickly piece together local campaigns to reel in travel-thirsty consumers. One such campaign was the Japan 47 Discovery initiative, which used KOLs to showcase hidden gems across the 47 prefectures of the country.
Among the items showcased were the Karatsu Burger, which is familiar to locals in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture; Triangular Oil Fried Tofu Store in Miyagi Prefecture; and La Collina in Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture. Elsewhere, the campaign also showed off Yumori Park Ryujin Falls in Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture and a luxury camp on an uninhabited island in Arida City, Wakayama Prefecture.
“We really adapted our marketing strategy to be very local, and really see what we can do within the context of government restrictions and travel restrictions,” Dijk explains. “It's actually quite exhausting to really monitor more than 180 countries across the world and say, OK, we can dial up on marketing a little bit here, but here, we have to be a bit careful.”
Besides its initiative in Japan, Dijk has retuned his team’s focus to keep an eye out to minutely detect shifts in travel regulation that could allow the platform to run local campaigns there. For example, the Australia-New Zealand bubble (which burst soon after launch) or the impending one between Hong Kong and Singapore are both opportunities. Globally, the steady growth of vaccines seems to have also catalysed summer travel between the EU and the US, even as China’s domestic market is rebounding sharply. Despite this, Dijk is also aware how quickly things can shift under his feet—the dramatic escalation of cases in India has seen the market for local holidays evaporate almost overnight.
“We have pivoted our marketing approach to really reminding people that, you know, you might not be able to travel internationally, but you are able to travel within your country,” says Dijk. “It’s a big trend here that people travel more local, and actually explore their own countries and our own backyard a bit more.”
In addition, given how nervy consumers are about making bookings, the brand has also focused on marketing its flexibility—pointedly allowing cancellation. And in a time of social distancing, Dijk says campaigns also stress easy filters to be able to select properties with more and higher cleanliness standards. The numbers seem to support the local shift: domestic room nights represented 85% of Booking.com's reported room nights in Q4, up significantly versus less than 50% in 2019.
Part of the challenge for Dijk is not just to switch Booking.com’s focus from being a provider of global travel and experiences to being a hyperlocal one, but also to cater to a wide swathe of tourists—from scrappy backpackers to well-heeled holiday goers—on the same platform. “We're always trying to give people a great deal," he says. "And then on top of that, we want to make it very easy."
Modelling his strategy on Amazon, where “people buy almost everyrhing”, Dijk argues that Booking.com is “a brand for people with a big budget and people with a small budget. We're always trying to give people a great deal.”
This story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.