Business travel has nearly vanished during the COVID era, but there are glimmers of hope as pandemic-fatigued consumers seek relief from their virus-induced blues. The question: how to find them. Smart travel brands using analytics and targeted marketing can begin to fill the travel volume gap with intelligent investments in hyper-local campaigns.
The demise of frequent and higher-paying business customer volumes has put travel brands in a bind, with a return to normal levels pushed out indefinitely. Many travel companies have invested heavily in courting this business traveler segment with advertising and targeting strategies, loyalty programs and perks, and higher service levels. The leisure segment, while long an afterthought, is now the only game left. But re-tooling rapidly for the leisure market may be the key to interim survival.
But unlocking this puzzle requires a different collection of efforts, focus and analytics using an underpinning of hyper-local marketing. Why is local so important? Travelers have reduced the distance of travel and in some cases, options have disappeared via international travel bans. Furthermore, travelers have shifted their modes — flying less, driving more, staying closer to home. Evidence of this can be seen in severely curtailed flight schedules, empty planes and hotels, and even surprising spikes in RV rentals.
The next layer of the puzzle relates to marketing mix, targeting, pricing and promotion strategies. Beginning with the consumer, targeting strategies are needed to identify a completely different consumer — or at least completely different than a business traveler profile. Digital advertising strategies must shift as paid search keyword and campaign structures move to leisure-oriented themes, while programmatic social and display efforts require a complete overhaul from an audience standpoint. Traditional media presents a different set of challenges: longer lead times constrain flexibility and speed a brand needs during highly uncertain pandemic and pandemic-recovery periods.
Channels such as print and OOH that were geared to reach businesspeople (think USA Today ads or billboards in airports) are no longer feasible. All media channels that were previously national in execution now need to shift to DMA-level geographic allocations, which allow a brand to execute around local pandemic shutdowns, avoid virus hot spots that travelers will avoid, or simply provide more precision around local events. A media mix model built using historical media data and aimed at business travels is no longer useful either, and may be too slow to update for more recent- and relevant- pandemic era behavior shifts. And of course, a leisure traveler is more price sensitive and deal-driven, which requires a new set of promotion approaches, methods and financial forecasts. And promotions must tie into local events — Autumn leaf viewing weekends in the Northeast, Oktoberfest socially-distant beer gardens in the Midwest, or mountain trail rides in the Southwest — to capture travelers in location-centric opportunities.
The complex shifts outlined here are only achievable with a commitment to and investment in marketing analytics combined with an agile methodology. Successful new targeting strategies require data, segmentation and profile-based predictive models. Who (and where) are our most price sensitive consumers and are they even comfortable traveling right now? Marketing mix shifts towards geo-location plus an entirely new leisure segment requires entirely new models, as well as agile scenario planning. What happens when we shift from national print and OOH into heavier programmatic display and video across high priority DMAs? And can we make these shifts quickly enough to take advantage of the ups and downs that are a certainty of the pandemic and pandemic recovery periods? Companies that have committed to analytic agility will fare much better than those who have not, and the most agile travel brands will have the information advantage to first survive, but secondly thrive in the coming months.
Matt Voda is the CEO at OptiMine Software, a leader in cloud-based cross-channel marketing analytics and optimization. He joined the company from United Health Group, where he led consumer marketing and analytics within the $40 billion Optum division, developing and deploying sophisticated analytics-driven approaches to yield significant gains in consumer engagement and ROI. Matt also spent 11 years at Digital River as vice president of product management, helping develop the world’s first cloud-based e-commerce platform.