The coronavirus has made marketing travel and tourism a tricky business. Destinations and marketing agencies are having to rethink many strategies.
Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jack Wert says up through March, the area was having another record year. Several others in tourism reported similar projections.
Then things started to fall apart, courtesy of the pandemic. The impacts will continue to be felt for months, industry officials say, and some have reverted back to a line from the 2008-2009 recession, when many business owners lamented flat revenue is the "new growth."
In April, for example, Wert says tourist tax revenue was off 83%. “My guess is this year if we could get back to 50% of where we were, I think if we can achieve that goal, we really are doing well,” Wert says.
In a sign of the coronavirus times, many convention and visitors bureaus, as well as marketing agencies that focus on destination marketing, have shifted efforts quickly. In some cases, that’s meant pausing digital marketing campaigns. In others, it’s meant putting out new campaigns to address evolving consumer worries. One key: They've kept a close watch on data and consumer sentiment, using the travelers themselves as their guide.
Sarasota-based marketing agency Miles Partnership, which specializes in travel and tourism promotion, saw many of its clients immediately pause media campaigns. Miles shifted to focus on developing tools and resources its clients would need to weather the storm.
The company, for one, developed an online marketing academy that provides resources for business owners and operators. It includes tips about search engine optimization, evaluating analytics and more. It’s a product Miles is selling to destination marketing organizations, so they can offer it to their businesses, from restaurants to retail establishments.
“For us as an organization, we see it as our job not only to support the destination marketing organizations, but ultimately, we’re reliant on the health, stability and well-being of the businesses within the community,” Miles Partnership Vice President of Marketing Andrea Wood says. “Without those businesses, there is no product, no travel and tourism offering within the destination. It’s important to us to get businesses back on their feet in order to have thriving communities that are working for locals and travelers.”
Miles has also been busy helping clients develop marketing campaigns that promote safe travel. “The sentiment currently has been, ‘We’re here when you’re ready,’” Wood says. “Just in the last week or so, the message is shifting to safety and reopening protocols.”
That can be seen in the company’s work for the state of Colorado. Recent marketing efforts there include visuals and an animated series with characters, like a moose and other wild animals, that set examples for how to be a considerate and thoughtful traveler.
Wood says there’s been a huge shift in consumer sentiment in terms of how people are choosing destinations. Research shows people want to understand the safety protocols and what to expect when they arrive. People are also looking at more rural destinations since larger metro areas might be a concern in terms of exposure to the coronavirus. “The state of Florida is well positioned as are other destinations that have a more rural outdoor offering," Wood says. "We dug in really quickly in developing road trips and itineraries for outdoor activities.”
The coming months will also bring concerns about how marketing dollars will be impacted by the decrease in tourism thus far. “Our greatest concern is the uncertainty over funding,” Wood says. “Destination marketing organizations are funded through the bed tax. Revenues from the bed tax are down significantly this year due to the shutdown, so that’s going to have a direct impact on our clients’ budgets and their ability to really be part of the solution in bringing travel and tourism back to our local economy.”
The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau, on cue with Wood's statement, pulled back its national and international advertising as soon as the first governor’s order came down about the coronavirus.
But the CVB didn’t stop advertising completely — following a marketing truism to always keep your brand top of mind. It put together a video it shared on social media with the message: “We know you’re not going anywhere right now, but just know — neither are we.” It’s had several iterations of that messaging and plans to continue using it through June.
It’s also promoted a local message. The CVB has a spot running on local broadcast television encouraging residents to get off the couch and head to their favorite restaurant for dine-in or takeout. “That’s really the first time we’ve ever messaged anything locally,” Wert says. “Our residents are probably the most important people we have to market to right now.”
The agency also unveiled a Paradise in Place section of its website with virtual experiences from attractions, beach webcams and a guide to restaurants offering takeout and delivery.
In July, Wert plans to reach out further, targeting coastal Florida cities as well as Orlando and Jacksonville. “We get in-state business from a lot of people this time of year,” he says. “We think that will continue, but it won’t be the numbers it was before.”
One major impact Wert expects this summer is the loss of international traffic. About 20% of the area’s visitation is from Europe and the U.K., but there’s no point in marketing to travelers there now. “The direct German flights we’ve had for almost 30 years now are just almost nonexistent,” he says. “There’s almost no way for Europeans to get here.”
It won’t go totally dark with efforts in that part of the world, though. The organization will continue to reach out to tour operators and agents, so people will keep the area top of mind. “When we get flights back, we want people to remember this destination,” Wert says.
Visit Sarasota County also paused its digital campaigns when things went sour in March. Vice President Erin Duggan says the organization still had a presence on social media; it just didn’t have a call to action because it wasn’t appropriate at the time.
Its partners in Sarasota County, like the ballet and circus, started creating virtual experiences that Visit Sarasota pushed out to its audience. “You didn’t have to be a resident to take advance of the virtual experiences,” Duggan says.
Now it’s targeting people by using behavior marketing. “For example, if you are dining out in Tampa or Orlando, that would be a behavior that would say to me you might be interested in a Sarasota vacation versus a person not leaving the house at all," she says. "I wouldn’t want to waste marketing dollars on them.”
In the next few weeks, Visit Sarasota will market to travelers in driving markets. “We are not looking to start back in air markets until we see that consumer confidence in air travel goes way up,” Duggan says.
To encourage people in and near Sarasota to patronize area restaurants, Visit Sarasota adapted its summer restaurant campaign, Savor Sarasota, to the pandemic. This year, it's marketing both dine-in and to-go options to customers.
Tickets to paradise
Like many peers, when travel essentially stopped in mid-March, St. Petersburg-based Paradise Advertising & Marketing reacted immediately, pausing campaigns and assessing the situation, says Rudy Webb, senior vice president of client partnerships. The firm does destination marketing for a number of destinations in the state and throughout the Southeast.
Webb thinks there will be two types of travelers — the resilient traveler ready to make a decision to travel and the reluctant traveler who might need more information, coaxing and time to make a decision. Paradise is developing strategies to communicate with both.
“The only thing we can do is let the data lead and drive our decisions,” Webb says. The firm is studying traveler sentiment studies that show statistics like where people are traveling and the distances they’re traveling.
Paradise and others in travel marketing will work with clients to analyze those sentiments as well as keep in mind local sentiment about welcoming visitors back. “Obviously, tourism is such an important economic driver to the state of Florida and the nation,” Webb says. “It’s important to keep the economy running but at the same time be safe and smart.”