TRAVEL: Holiday wars

With tourism becoming more cut-throat by the week, effective PR support is crucial, says Alastair Ray

It must be tough being in travel. If it's not the global concern about terrorism or the threat of a contagious disease, then it's the paperwork that could discourage people from going to the US.

But it's not just global crises. In the past, travel operators could be confident of early sales post-Christmas for the summer season. Now, as consumers are increasingly focused on price and value for money, packaging up their holiday themselves or researching and booking online, companies can no longer rely on traditional booking periods to fill their summer bookings. For the past couple of years there have been regular news stories about holiday operators having to slash prices in a bid to attract sales.

Top that with an increasing emphasis on topicality within the travel sections of the national media, and holiday companies and destinations are having to fight their own wars to gain a greater share of voice. With all this thrown at the industry, it comes as little surprise that PR campaigns are having to get a lot more sophisticated to ensure their clients' cash flows increase.

Consumer activity for the start of a year is planned at the end of the previous year, with other key times being April and September, when brochures are launched. But it's topical reports, celebrity endorsements and tie-ins with films - such as Tourism New Zealand's successful campaign piggybacking on the success of film trilogy The Lord of the Rings - that are now being used in a bid to boost coverage. In the aftermath of England's Rugby World Cup victory, for example, VisitBritain and retained agency Weber Shandwick put together a guide to UK rugby grounds so fans across the country could see the stars even if they couldn't attend the London victory parade.

The holiday of the future

Rachel O'Reilly, head of PR at Tui UK, the parent company of Thomson Holidays and Lunn Poly, recently brought together travel industry experts to talk about the holiday of the future and to predict what the trip of 2020 would be like. This was part of a plan to show that the company is more than just a 'bucket and spade' operator.

The company has also taken the celebrity endorsement route. Last year it asked Linda Barker to design 20 cabins on a new cruise ship. This led to 80 per cent of Barker's suites being sold for the summer of 2003 in record time. Freelance travel journalist Jane Archer says this celebrity endorsement hit the spot. 'Having a "real" person such as Barker on the front of your brochure, rather than a model, helps update the image of the cruise,' she says.

'Websites such as Expedia and Opodo are doing creative things to get themselves onto the news pages and not just the travel sections,' adds O'Reilly. 'We need to be competing with the likes of these guys as much as Thomas Cook.'

With travel websites taking up much-desired space in the nationals, a fresh approach to targeting journalists needs to be taken. But one of the key challenges in travel is keeping abreast of who's who in the travel sections. It's all very well inviting the travel editor of a Sunday supplement to experience a press trip set up by a high-street travel company, a cruise liner or a hotel chain, but with so few staff writers now on board it becomes logistically impossible to send out the desired headcount.

Furthermore, with a trend towards articles being turned around a lot more quickly, PROs are having to come up with ideas just as rapidly. Will this curb the creative process?

That all depends on how the client is looking to position itself. Sarah Lloyd-Morrison, managing director of start-up Magnetic PR, whose clients include holiday operators Bridge the World and Cottages to Castles, believes solid, reliable, well-established holiday operators are in demand.

'These companies are looking more for straightforward coverage that will affect their bottom lines than for awareness building,' she says. 'It's hard to get into the travel sections of the nationals. What these clients want is their telephone number at the end of a round-up feature.

'So it's just as essential to hone those media relationship skills and offer journalists stories that they want: basically a new travel product. And most tour operators have to have something they can talk about.'

Press trips are still the backbone of gaining media coverage. Shearings Holidays' press programme takes a traditional stance, says UK marketing manager Heidi Kettle. Press trips are the main focus, alongside releases to trade and retail titles. Nevertheless, according to SRF creative director Stephen Forster, press visits are changing. Rather than focus on the all-singing all-dancing experience, the aim now is to get journalists to experience what their readers do.

Such change might be no bad thing. The spectrum of travel PROs' media contacts has changed; with staff writers thin on the ground, it's the freelance pool that needs to be cultivated. 'A given freelance might be writing for three or four titles, so the client is getting better, broader coverage,' says JJ Angove founder Julie Angove, whose clients include the Bahamas Tourist Office UK.

Getting through to travel editors remains imperative, however; they are the ones, after all, with the power to dole out commissions to freelances. But trying to be too creative doesn't help, claims The Independent travel editor Simon Calder. 'I'm not desperately taken by suggestions that Lvov is the new Krakow is the new Prague,' he says. For him, personalisation of the message is vital. 'I do try to look at every press release,' he adds. 'But I'm unlikely to cover something if it's been sent to other people.'

Perhaps more crucially, Calder also believes some travel PROs are slow to catch up with changes in editorial offers. 'I get called more often than I want by people who say they have something for the late deals section - the last time we ran one was in 1994,' he says. 'That does not show a tremendous grasp of the medium.'

Bullish about the future

Despite the difficult state of the travel market, many PROs are optimistic.

To start with, there's a greater sense of security about budgets. 'They might not be getting bigger, but perhaps they are a bit more secure because people are becoming more aware of how important media coverage is,' says Angove.

Travel operators might well be having to face more global obstacles, but after three years of tough times, they seem to believe that clients are ready to increase their investment in PR.

STAYING AT HOME: WHY THE UK MARKET IS BOOMING

An uncertain world and bright and sunny weather in 2003 are just two reasons why UK travel PR is booming.

Add in the fact that the Euro-zone is expensive and going to the US could involve a strip search, and staying at home can seem even more attractive, particularly now that people are taking more holidays than ever.

'The trend is for more than one holiday a year,' says Weber Shandwick account director Fenella Grey. 'People are taking a lot more short breaks.'

VisitBritain corporate PR manager Orla Farren corroborates this. The organisation predicts the value of domestic tourism to hit £22.1bn in 2004.

'We've had almost three full years of difficulty in the industry, starting with foot-and-mouth,' she says. 'But we are optimistic from a PR point of view.'

Investment is coming through, particularly from smaller operators that did not traditionally spend much on PR. In the past year, King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council appointed Beattie Communications, the Welsh Tourist Board brought BGB & Associates in and Totally London hired Good Relations.

Travel editors are now more willing to cover UK trips and destinations than before. 'The media are embracing domestic holidays,' says one travel PR veteran. 'It's not the sad cousin that it used to be.'

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