MARKET FOCUS: Travel takes off again

Travel has picked up in 2004, but the industry still has numerous challenges to overcome.

Travel has picked up in 2004, but the industry still has numerous challenges to overcome.

Since 2001, travel and tourism companies have been struggling through both a tough economy and changes in consumers' attitude about travel. The 9/11 attacks not only crippled the industry, but also impacted the way Americans felt about their vacations. Safety and security have taken the spotlight, and many vacationers are still wary about venturing too far from familiar territory.

But 2004 brought the first signs of a rebound, with more people heading back on the roads and into the skies, looking for those perfect few days of rest and relaxation.

"We have hit rock bottom and we are definitely on the way up," says Mike Pina, chair of the PRSA's travel and tourism section and manager of communications and PR for the Travel Industry Association of America, based in Washington, DC.

Travel and tourism PR pros say that, across the board, more new clients are showing interest in their services, and existing clients are expanding.

"For PR people who have cut budgets, a lot of that is being rethought," says Pina. "A lot of new opportunities are being brought up."

Still, the recovery is in its nascent phase, and although most experts are optimistic, it still has a way to go before it can be dubbed a booming market.

"Yes, there are more clients," says Lydia Graham, head of San Francisco-based Graham & Associates. But, she cautions, "it takes a while to convert that interest" into active accounts.

Turbulence for the airlines

One of the segments of the market that is having the toughest time finding a silver lining is the airline industry. Rising oil prices, financial difficulties, and increasing fares have lead to a negative image of aviation for many consumers, and a press that has more than enough fuel for harsh stories.

"Looking really broadly, it's been a really tough year for aviation," says Singapore Airlines director of communications James Boyd. "It's putting an enormous amount of cost pressure on airlines worldwide, regardless of how successful they are, and for communications it really reinforces the need to communicate value for money and the sizzle factor, what it is that makes your product different, and why in the case of this airline, passengers should want to pay more for it."

Boyd adds, "The industry is going in two very distinct directions. There are the carriers that are going down the low-cost track. The other branch of the fork in the road is airlines that are specialty carriers, niche carriers, that do a specific thing. It creates a very specific set of communications challenges on both sides."

From airlines to hotels, another trend for this year is the end of deep discounts. Recent years have seen all segments of the market slashing prices to lure consumers, but experts say that tactic is no longer a winner as the market heats up. Instead, businesses are looking for ways to retain good customers by adding value to their existing offerings.

"Deep discounts don't buy loyalty," points out Tammy Lee, VP of corporate affairs for vacation packager The Mark Travel Corporation.

She says her company - which bundles travel options from companies such as ATA Vacations, Blue Sky Tours, and Funjet Vacations - is concentrating instead on using PR to create strong relationships with travel agents who sell their products.

That return to targeted PR is popular across sectors. Companies are finding that the new travel market is all about niche consumers and narrow focuses.

The sophisticated tourist

"Consumers are much more sophisticated with traveling than they used to be and have much more specialty interests and needs," says Theresa Rice, director of Burson-Marsteller's tourism practice. "As a result, agencies have to know their product inside and out in order to be successful."

She gives the example of Burson's Mexico Tourism Board account, where she often has journalists requesting such specifics as a full list of Spanish-language schools in the country for learning vacations, or a list of locations where movies have been filmed for Hollywood travel buffs. The demand for details was so great that the agency created a press website with more than 74 specific destinations and extensive coverage of attractions and story angles.

"Journalists are no longer happy with a photo of a palm tree on the beach," says Rice.

Francine Schulwolf, VP of communications for InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns brands including Holiday Inn, InterContinental, and the new mid-range boutique Indigo, says another big trend is toward differentiation of brands. Without the low prices, more companies seek ways to make their offering stand out in the market as unique, luxurious, or high value. Schulwolf says that branding approach has been very successful with helping to revitalize the Holiday Inn image.

"It's very Americana, so we've really been tapping into that side of the brand," she explains. "There is such a core reservoir of feelings consumers have about that brand."

To catch attention and play up that emotional connection, the hotel chain offered a "towel amnesty day" that invited consumers to "tell us your fondest memory about a towel you might have" stolen in the past.

"It generated thousands of memories from consumers," says Schulwolf. "A lot of media had relationships with the brand in regards to stealing towels" and the campaign resulted in thousands of consumers visiting the website, as well as coverage in papers including The New York Times.

One of the segments that is most receptive to those niche messages is the luxury travel segment. "Smaller places with more dedication and cozier service" is something that is definitely catching on, says Ines Rodriguez-Gutzmer, VP and group manager of the Latin American Group for Ketchum.

PR pros say they are seeing this market heat up quickly, with consumers looking for high-end experiences.

"Consumers want to be pampered," says Graham. "We all just live in such a brutal world these days, when you are looking to get away you want to be treated with tender loving care."

Another new practice gaining favor is partnering with other local attractions, related travel companies, and even competitors to create trend stories and packages to pitch to media.

"You're seeing a lot more cooperation among people," says Pina. "People pooling their resources and coming as a state or regions to pitch themselves. Getting half of a story is better than no story at all."

Karen Gee-McAuley, SVP at The Blaze Company in Los Angeles, agrees. "Journalists respond most favorably if we can provide two or more other examples to support our idea and to illustrate that it's not just an isolated instance," she says. "So, we do our research and present reporters and editors with a regional or national sampling of similar offerings."

Better prepared for the storms

Despite all the signs of a rebound, travel businesses haven't forgotten the tough lessons of the past few years.

"What 9/11 has shown is that tourism service providers are very susceptible to external shocks," says Burson's Rice. "It's making them request products they didn't request so much before - crisis management, issues management."

No one is clearer on that than Visit Florida's PR director, Vanessa Welter, who has spent the past few weeks implementing crisis plans after four hurricanes hit the state. She says 24/7 media coverage of storm-ravaged beaches has created a misperception that tourists shouldn't come, and it's up to her agency to reach out to media to fix the problem.

"When you're over in Australia or New Zealand or Japan and you hear from four or five major 24/7 news stations that same [hurricane] clip over and over, you have a perception problem, and that was what we need to tackle," she says. "It would be nice if they came back and gave us the same airtime on the good weather, but we're not going to count on that."

Getting lucky in Las Vegas

You may have heard that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. In fact, you've probably heard it multiple times, making it one of the most effective travel and tourism efforts of the past few years.

From Saturday Night Live to Laura Bush, the tagline of the popular advertising campaign has been spoofed, stolen, and satirized enough that it can fairly claim iconic status right up there with "Where's the beef?"

But morphing the campaign from 30-second spot to pop-culture phenomenon was no stroke of luck, says Dale Erquiaga, VP of brand services for integrated agency R&R Partners, which created the line after five years of evolving research, and also handles PR on the account.

"Part of our job as this campaign rolled out was to talk about the [effort]," he says. "We decided to actually pitch stories about the campaign."

That strategy received a fortuitous jump-start when the NFL declined to run the ad during the 2003 Super Bowl because of its gambling connection.

"When that happened, that was an opportunity for us to kick up a little fuss in the press, and we did that," says Erquiaga.

Since then, the phrase has slid its way into the popular vernacular, and Erquiaga says R&R is always looking for new ways to further its reach.

"For the past year-and-a-half that strategy has been continued. Every time the line gets used, we package it and distribute that to the press, 'Look, here's this campaign people are talking about,'" he says. "It's a great example of PR folks working together with their ad agency. It's the kind of work PR professionals need to be willing to do."

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