Travel brands need to create immersive experiences, show their consumers empathy and provide them with the unexpected if they want to not only recover from the pandemic but be better than they were before, according to Hooray Agency’s Steven Seghers.

The travel industry is recovering faster than anyone anticipated, with many brands reporting a record-setting pace, soaring increases in occupancy, and massive demand for new staffing to keep up with the overflow.

According to the American Automobile Association, 47.7 million Americans planned to travel over the Fourth of July weekend, and 3.5 million planned on flying, equaling 90% of pre-pandemic traffic. The only year that saw more Fourth of July travelers was 2019.

This rebound is fueled by consumers’ insatiable need to travel, explore, and frankly, recover from the mental and physical toll of the pandemic. According to the US Census bureau, nearly 43% of those surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. In many studies, the impact of COVID-19 has been compared to post-traumatic stress disorder in war zones and depression from those that survived the 9-11 attacks.  Quite simply, consumers today are not “revenge spending” but instead “travel medicating” – and they desperately need the right prescription.

Unlike previous global recoveries, this is different; consumers have changed, and their interests go well beyond the simple needs of the past. For years, travel brands relied on tried-and-true retail positioning: product differentiation, price points, consumer reservation pacing to maximize sales and conversion. The formula of driving top-rated business to loyal customers, fill gaps with private sales, campaign offers, and distribution, remain important levers of success. However, in the post-COVID world, consumers expect more. They expect their travel brands to show empathy, provide inspiration, wellness and sustainability, and be stewards for positive global change. Of course, every customer wants their basic needs filled, a room or an upgrade, free breakfast, kicked-up service, comp parking, and so forth. However, to elevate your brand beyond price, beyond short-term incentives, you must be prepared to change, because your customer certainly is not the same one you had in 2019.

I was recently watching a story about Tiger Woods. During the height of his career, after winning three Majors in one year, he was asked why he wanted to change his “amazing” golf swing. His answer was short and simple: “I want it to be perfect.” Winning tournaments and Majors were not enough. He wanted perfection, not just then, but for his future. While most travel brands are not seeking perfection, the great ones understand they must evolve to satisfy both current and future consumer changes. But the majority of travel brands race towards the “book, book, book” when they should be looking at the “build, build, build.”

The reliance on touchless experiences, the digital-first focus, the need for everything to be on-demand, and the critical role of wellness are the obvious manifestations of a post-COVID consumer who has changed dramatically. The more significant changes are far more undefined. MasterCard’s Harris 2020 polling showed that nearly 84% of consumers expect businesses to have a positive effect on society. Over 90% of Gen Z worry about the environment and sustainability, and 82% of consumers are engaged in new hobbies (heavily weighted towards outdoor pursuits and wellness). Brands can no longer rely on simple product-driven messages to resonate with their customers. They must create real, positive, and authentic changes for their guests and for the global community.  This represents an exciting opportunity for travel brands to change the narrative away from price, and towards emotional engagement.

In practical terms, this messaging has an important revenue-generating upside. In the case of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, a hotel brand we work with comprising five luxury hotels and resorts around the USA, the message is all about “Moments that Matter” – a series of digital stories that focus on the small moments within travel that can have long-lasting impacts. Your child learning how to ride a horse, the cooking experience that opened up a new artistic avenue, the learning about sustainable gardening practices, or the positive impact travel has on marriage and family. The results have been incredible, with industry-leading response rates, record bookings, and deep consumer engagement.

The environmental sustainability segment has the potential to revolutionize the travel brand category. The post-COVID consumer wants to spend, be revitalized, and help to spur real improvements in the way we care for our Earth, our resources, and the future of the community. The Beyond Green travel brand is capturing this momentum through its collection of hotels and resorts, and related travel brands that want to pursue meaningful pursuits around their critical pillars of conservation, culture, and social/economic well-being. The power of this messaging is real, both in terms of impacting genuine action, but also supporting the long-term business prospects – yeah, bookings, and lots of them!

So, ask yourself a simple question: do you want to recover, or do you want to be better than you were before? If it is the latter, then consider making several important changes in your brand focus: 

  1. Create immersive experiences, not packages or promotions
  2. Lead with your heart – consumers want empathy and authentic engagement; and
  3. Be inspiring – now more than ever consumers want the unexpected.

Do not take this new demand increase for granted. Give consumers a reason to want more of your brand. Above all, focus on what will matter in the long term. Hopefully, it starts with love. The revenue will follow.