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TRENDSPOTTING

Travel destinations start strategizing how to get consumers to come back

They’re doing everything from offering deep discounts to calling on celebrities to ‘emotionally convince’ visitors to return.

San Francisco has launched a campaign to woo visitors back called "Our Gates Are Open."
San Francisco has launched a campaign to woo visitors back called "Our Gates Are Open."Eric Risberg/Associated Press

With inspiring vistas and soft music, the new promotional video from the San Francisco Travel Association is an early sign of how destinations will try to get Americans to travel again.

There are lots of images of outdoor activities in sparsely populated cityscapes and people carefully wearing masks, while celebrities — Francis Ford Coppola, former San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence — appeal to visitors to come back.

Especially locals. Titled “Our Gate is Open,” the campaign is a recognition that when people venture out again, many will be going only as far as they can drive.

These are among the strategies the travel industry is starting to deploy as it begins the long slog to getting customers to return when the pandemic wanes.

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They’re featuring images of visitors outside, with no crowds — even in cities — and offering flexible bookings and liberal cancellation policies with insurance included to cover not only cancellations but also emergency evacuations, medical expenses, and quarantine costs.

They’re giving deep discounts and pitching packages to celebrate missed anniversaries and honeymoons, and subscription deals for “workcations” and other long stays under the watchful eyes of “guest guardians.”

They’re featuring remote locations with no crowds, touting high square-footage-to-guest ratios and zeroing in on families and friends who they expect will prefer to travel and stay together, using gift cards that never expire.

Even places likely to remain out of reach the longest are trying to stay connected with their customers through everything from e-mail updates to virtual tours, wine clubs, cooking destinations, and “wanderlists.”

“You will not rationally convince someone that it’s safe to go on vacation,” said Allen Adamson, managing partner of marketing strategy company Metaforce and author of the book BrandSimple, who has studied how the travel industry promotes itself. “You have to emotionally convince them.”

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That’s what’s behind subtle images of wide open spaces and such things as free trips for travel agents to Universal Studios in Florida, which asked in return that they post photos of their visit on social media.

Visitors at Universal Studios, in Orlando, in June.
Visitors at Universal Studios, in Orlando, in June.John Raoux/Associated Press

“The idea is that if people see that the travel agent thinks it’s safe, then they will think it’s safe,” said Jonathan de Araujo, owner of the travel agency the Vacationeer in Watertown, who took up the theme park on its offer.

Eighty percent of Americans say they are willing to pay more for privacy and distancing, and nearly 60 percent that they’re more likely than in the past to travel with close friends, according to a survey by the travel division of the public relations firm Ketchum, which found that cleanliness is also a deciding factor.

The people whose job it is to fill airplane seats, hotel rooms, restaurants, and package tours are paying unprecedented attention to findings like those.

“Travel marketers need to be much more nimble in understanding what’s in their target audiences’ minds right now,” Adamson said.

That’s why the guided vacation company Trafalgar is adding “well-being directors” to its trips and the Anantara hotels, resorts, and spas are hiring “guest guardians” to ensure that health protocols are being followed.

“People want to know that they can travel safely and that they can travel wisely, so we’re communicating health and safety precautions,” said Jessica Bradford, who handles public relations in the United States for the Bangkok-based luxury chain.

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And while people once may have been drawn to destinations that were wildly popular, such as Amsterdam and Barcelona, now Anantara is expecting they’ll prefer to stay at villas it operates deep in the Abu Dhabi desert or on its private islands in the Maldives and the Bahamas, where “you can easily socially distance from other guests.”

Cities have a bigger challenge, densely populated as they are, and with recent histories as COVID-19 hotspots. That’s one of the reasons San Francisco’s new campaign is focusing on outside activities and reminding people of the rural and mountainous open spaces close by.

The Beltline near Piedmont Park featuring the Midtown Atlanta Skyline.
The Beltline near Piedmont Park featuring the Midtown Atlanta Skyline. Gene Phillips/AtlantaPhotos.com

“Probably the thing we’ve tracked more than anything is how afraid people are to travel,” said Howard Pickett, chief marketing officer at San Francisco Travel. “So our creative challenge was, how do we encourage them to come back?”

Viewers of the new “Still Atlanta” campaign could be forgiven if they come away thinking that the city is deserted except for the featured couples, who are shown exclusively outdoors and almost entirely alone.

Atlanta’s convention and visitors’ bureau walked a line between travelers concerned about their safety and others who bristle at restrictions, said chief marketing officer Andrew Wilson. “So we took the deliberate approach of striking that middle ground of showing few people, no crowd shots, almost all outside.”

While the effort has already attracted some visitors, many still are cautious, he said, and the idea is to at least remind them that “we’re still here, we haven’t gone away.”

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Travel operators whose business hasn’t yet resumed are striving to do the same thing.

“By definition, when you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind,” Adamson said. “But if you can go on a virtual tour of Florence, it reminds you of what a great experience it is, and makes you consider traveling again.”

Adios Adventure Travel is posting YouTube videos of its guides in Peru taking viewers on tours of historic sites, and arranging for the guides to speak directly with “wishful travelers.” Discover Puerto Rico’s “It’s Time to Plan” campaign is hosting virtual salsa and cocktail tutorials and online tours of Old San Juan. Experience Sicily has offered online pasta-making workshops and a virtual chocolate tasting.

“The key here is not to lose people’s interest,” said owner Allison Scola.

Tourissimo Travel, which also runs tours to Italy, has started an Italian wine club; proceeds go to its largely idled Italian staff and guides. “Our challenge right now is to stay engaged with our customers,” said cofounder Heather Dowd.

The Virtuoso network of travel agents who create custom trips and cruises is inviting customers to create “wanderlists” of future travel experiences, many of which are not available now.

“It keeps the thought alive until that moment comes when they feel comfortable traveling again,” said Bettina Garibaldi, senior vice president who specializes in destination marketing at Ketchum.

“Having a vacation plan makes people happy — thinking about something positive in the future,” Garibaldi said. “And there’s a lot you can do as a marketer to inspire people.”

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And to reassure them.

Travel advisers are seeing a rise in private villa rentals.
Travel advisers are seeing a rise in private villa rentals.Exclusive Resorts

Small-ship Atlas Ocean Voyages is adding emergency medical evacuation insurance for every guest. Etihad Airways is bundling COVID-19 insurance with each ticket, which covers medical expenses and quarantine costs.

Most major brands are waiving or reducing cancellation and change fees. Tahiti has taken that one step further, with a promise that reservations made through June at almost every property there can be canceled without charge if COVID-19 is to blame. Belmond hotels, trains, and river cruises are selling gift cards that never expire.

Marketers are also betting that more consumers will be opting for the security of traveling with long-separated family and friends. Marriott resorts in South America and the Caribbean are promoting packages to travelers who want to celebrate missed birthdays, anniversaries, or honeymoons.

Already, said Angela Rice, cofounder of Boutique Travel Advisors, “we’re seeing a rise in private villa rentals where families are sharing homes or renting next to each other and planning activities together.”

The US Travel Association projects that travel spending will be down 45 percent, this year, or by almost $500 billion, and won’t recover fully until after 2023.

“It is an unprecedented time that requires unprecedented marketing,” Garibaldi said.

Still, said de Araujo, the travel agent in Watertown, all the marketing in the world won’t bring that rebound any faster than one thing.

“A vaccine,” he said. “That will be the real game-changer.”


Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.