The Azores Islands are an autonomous region of Portugal, located 1,000 miles off its coast in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, making them the closest point in Europe to North America - only a four-hour flight.
With diverse landscapes, historic sites, and an unspoiled feel, this string of nine islands makes an ideal vacation spot for travelers looking for a fresh destination. But US-based tourism has only developed in the Azores over the past few years, and to most Americans, the islands remain unknown.
Azores Express Airlines wanted to change that and lure more travelers by building awareness and a brand image. It enlisted the help of Louis Karno & Co. Communications and began a long-term campaign to let people know about this off-the-beaten-path paradise.
"The goal has been to build awareness about the Azores so that we can fill up planes and fill up hotels," says Monica Fernandes, US manager of the Bensaude Group, a collection of boutique hotels that partnered with the airline on the PR efforts.
The Azores are so little-known to most North Americans that Karno's challenge began with creating an infrastructure to supply information about the destination, from websites to guidebooks. The focus of the effort started in New England because there are a number
of people of Azorean descent there, and the region has a strong dose of Portuguese culture.
"There was a disconnect between this place that was so close and played an important part in New England history," explains Jayme Simoes, who handled the account for Karno.
The strategy for the campaign centered on building media attention and targeting opinion leaders, but there was one key limitation: Although the Azores are islands, they don't offer the traditional sand and sun options of places like the Caribbean. Because of that, "we don't promote it as a beach destination," says Simoes. Instead, the team chose to be "direct, truthful, and honest," he says.
To reach media, the team decided it was best to pitch individual journalists and send them on personalized trips, rather than run larger media tours.
The media relations component also included placing articles and making sure travelers could find and book trips on the web. Part of that involved creating hotel/airline travel packages, which the islands had never offered before.
To reach opinion leaders, "we partnered with NPR and PBS stations to give trips away via TV auctions and online programs, and we partnered with business groups to give them away at high-profile business dinners," explains Simoes. Fernandes says the nonprofit partner worked "great because our target market is that audience. People that watch public television are interested in a lot of different subjects, and travel is one of them."
Simoes estimates the campaign landed 7 million to 8 million media impressions this year, with major hits in outlets including Travel & Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and The Wall Street Journal.
But more important, the new travel packages were also a hit, selling more than 160 in a month. In addition, the island saw an increase in bookings, so much so that the airline added a second weekly flight. "We have a lot more Americans in the Azores," says Fernandes.
"The major articles and the outreach to opinion leaders has not simply raised awareness, it has helped us to cement a brand for our carrier, Portugal's second largest," adds Nuno Puim, GM of Azores Express Airlines.
The initiative's next phase will focus on niche travel areas, from weddings and honeymoons, to "active travel," Simoes says.
PR team: Louis Karno & Co. Communications (Concord, NH), Azores Express Airlines, and The Bensaude Group (both Azores)
Campaign: Building Recognition of the Azores Islands
Time frame: January to August 2005