BATTLE OF THE BRAND: The price war is on the wane as brand values take prime place in travel PR. Lexie Goddard reports

While the rest of us are daydreaming about whether to pick Acapulco, Belize or Zanzibar, this summer the holiday companies are waging a bloody battle to be the ones to take us there.

While the rest of us are daydreaming about whether to pick

Acapulco, Belize or Zanzibar, this summer the holiday companies are

waging a bloody battle to be the ones to take us there.



The task of marketing holidays is becoming increasingly tough. Consumers

are now far more sophisticated travellers in comparison with those of 20

years ago. Instead of settling for Marbella, they want Barbados, Florida

and even Cuba. They have a greater thirst for information on travel and

the number of newspaper pages devoted to foreign pastures has tripled in

response, resulting in a better informed, more demanding public.



Fierce competition among the main operators has meant their profit

margins are now surprisingly low. One estimate is that they make just

pounds 25 from every pounds 1,000 per sale.



Bronwyn Gold Blyth, managing director of BGB Associates, which advises

Lunn Poly and First Choice, claims there is no sign of recession yet, at

least not at the top end of the market. But, she adds, ’we are all

holding our breath’. So what is the PR advice in these difficult

times?



According to Gold Blyth, one tool travel companies and their PR agents

are using far more to monitor and target this sophisticated and

increasingly segmented market is research.



Research is also being used more now to evaluate advertising and PR

campaigns which simply cannot afford to miss the mark.



For instance, BGB is currently investigating the changing family and how

the fact that women are having children later in life means they will

have less disposable income in their 50s.



Another strategy travel firms are taking more seriously in order to

differentiate themselves in a crowded market place is brand-building.

The desire to be seen as a brand, says Gold Blyth, is changing the job

of travel PR personnel from ’fairly light and fluffy’ advisers who

produce press releases to valued members of the team. BGB now spends an

increasing amount of time working with promotional agencies on campaigns

to cultivate brand values.



Thomson, the UK’s leading travel operator, has opted out of the

traditional low price promotions war this year to focus on the brand

values of quality, reliability and heritage. The company has a new

advertising campaign that uses the strapline, ’Look after number one,

let number one look after you’. The campaign suggests it is worth paying

a little more for quality even though many of Thomson’s holidays are no

more expensive that those of its rivals’.



’The traditional battleground has been price,’ explains head of PR Sonia

Haines. ’But price has been promoted as an issue over its real worth.

You need to choose quality first.’



Thomson’s five-strong PR team launched the new campaign at Christmas and

supported the brand messages with a PR drive, as well as running a

reactive press office. Asking consumers to pay extra may seem a strange

tactic to adopt before a recession. But while Haines is mindful about

the future, she appears undaunted that the travel business will be badly

affected, claiming that consumers now see their holiday as a right

rather than a luxury. ’If there is a downturn in the economy, the last

thing people will give up is their holiday,’ she says. ’As long as they

are still in work, they would rather forgo a new carpet or car.’



Although environmental awareness or ’green tourism’ is not yet seen as

important in building a brand as price, attitudes are changing fast.

Last July, VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) launched Worldwise, a

publicity campaign which aims to make tourists more sensitive to local

cultures.



Rather than spending time and money in the confines of an operator-owned

compound, VSO argues tourists could both learn about local customs and

put money back into the community by using local guides or eating at

local restaurants.



The public response illustrates that consumers are now much more caring

about their holiday environment. More than 11,000 people contacted VSO

requesting information about the campaign. The organisation has now

conducted interviews with chief executives of mainstream travel firms

about their commitment to local people. VSO’s advocacy programme

officer, Jamie Elliot, expected to get ’the tea boy in the PR

department’ but found chief executives were quick to respond personally

to his request. ’They are terrified of being branded unethical,’ says

Elliot. ’The industry knows there will be a huge debate on the

environment. People are more aware. If holiday X damages the environment

and holiday Y doesn’t, they will choose Y.’



Elliot’s comments are echoed by Nick Redmayne, head of Travel Media, a

company which offers ’press liaison’ to smaller, independent operators

like the overland adventure outfit, Dragoman.



’It is difficult to find commitment among travel companies,’ says

Redmayne.



’Many pay lip service to environmental issues because it is

fashionable.’ But consumers, he believes, are wise to such fake

interest. ’I have noticed a reaction to voyeuristic tourism, where local

culture is packaged and presented in nice, neat sketches,’ he says. ’It

has become unfashionable and embarrassing.’



Attending to the environmental concerns outlined by VSO is easier for

smaller operators. Dragoman, for instance, takes people into remote

villages where they have no choice but to spend locally.



The Association of Independent Tour Operators, which consists mainly of

small firms, is taking VSO’s work one step further with the introduction

of an ethical code of practice for its members, including a commitment

to provide more cultural information in brochures.



Now it is up to the big boys. Many are taking steps to tackle green

issues, be it through recycling, cleaning up the beaches or community

charity projects, but there is still a long way to go.



With the World Tourism Organisation predicting tourism to be the world’s

largest industry by 2020 that is not an issue that is likely to go away.



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