Travel brands must put people first this holiday season

Travel has picked up in fits and starts since the pandemic began, but brands should be careful in their efforts to spur demand this holiday season.

In the past few weeks, I’ve gotten countless pitches from travel and hospitality advertisers around the holiday season.

It’s a big shift from the spring, when these brands shut off the spigot completely as COVID-19 hit the U.S. and travel ground to a halt in March.

Nine months later, we’re in the thick of the busiest travel season of the year, and those that have been able to survive the downturn are back in the market with advertising. But while some are communicating strategically, others are out with steep discounts that tempt people’s desire to escape.

Virgin Hotels, for example, released a series of spots featuring a sassy Santa telling consumers they’ve been “good enough” this year, followed by a 35% discount offer that expires Jan. 3. And Spirit Airlines ran a Black Friday/Cyber Monday promo offering flights for $20.21 that expire by March 4, 2021.

Other brands are looking to build awareness for revamped post-COVID experiences, like the Atlas Ocean Voyages campaign that shows off its new luxury cruise expedition with smaller boats, launching in July 2021.

That these brands are spending again is a great sign for the economy. It’s also in direct response to an increase in consumer confidence, as airline travel hit its highest peak since before the pandemic over Thanksgiving weekend.

Facing crippling restrictions all year, travel and hospitality brands desperately need the business. Tourism in the U.S. is projected to lose $24 billion this year thanks to a decline in foreign visitors, translating to more than 800,000 jobs lost in the U.S. travel sector.

But we’re not just in the busiest travel season of the year; we’re also in the midst of the worst surge of the COVID-19 pandemic yet. The U.S. surpassed 4 million cases in November alone, doubling the record set in October.

Despite the fact that the CDC urged people not to travel for Thanksgiving, more than one million people passed through airport security checkpoints last weekend. At that rate, the CDC projects between 1.1 and 2.5 million new U.S. cases will be recorded by mid-December.

In this context, the tourism sector needs to be thoughtful and strategic about its messaging.

There is still a place for advertising and communications if the brand has something valuable to say. United Airlines, for example, announced last month it’s returning to JFK airport in New York after five years, and is offering more direct flights to Florida to keep up with demand safely. In this instance, the airline is talking about strategic changes without pushing any promotions.

Others are meeting demand where it is. Kayak ran a clever out of home campaign in U.S. and Latin American airports that likened safe travel to a safe sex PSA. The campaign targets people who are already at the airport and have therefore made the decision to travel, and it's entirely focused on safety.

The savviest brands are adapting their overall experiences to consumer needs. Airbnb now highlights local destinations and cleaning protocols and offers monthly discounts in its app, picking up on consumer desires, risk profiles and top concerns while traveling.

Being contextually aware of the crisis and putting the health and wellbeing of people first isn’t just the right thing to do. Encouraging people to do things that could be construed as unsafe can do more damage to a brand long term than the short-term gains on the table.

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