CAMPAIGN: Online travel agent gets lift as student travel leaders fall

PR Team: StudentUniverse (Watertown, MA) and The Castle Group (Boston) Campaign: The year without a spring break Time Frame: January 2002-February 2002 Budget: $15,000

PR Team: StudentUniverse (Watertown, MA) and The Castle Group (Boston) Campaign: The year without a spring break Time Frame: January 2002-February 2002 Budget: $15,000

Relatively new online student-travel agency StudentUniverse hired The Castle Group for a short campaign to promote general industry and consumer awareness. But only five days later, the entire student-travel industry fell into turmoil. USIT UK and Council Travel - large international bricks-and-mortar student-travel agencies - suddenly closed due to financial mismanagement, and travel-industry analysts and media reports predicted that STA, USIT's equivalent in the US, would soon follow. StudentUniverse's business model differs from the failed businesses, as it doesn't use flown revenue, a method that only allows travel agencies to collect money after a student has booked a return flight. StudentUniverse was therefore never directly threatened with collapse, but the negative reports reflected badly on the industry as a whole. So what began as a regular PR campaign quickly transformed into a crisis effort. Strategy "It was tough," says StudentUniverse marketing manager Alyssa Merritt. "There was the possibility that we would be confused with Council Travel, and people would think our tickets were endangered as well. This happened right at spring break, which is one of our major moneymaking times. We needed to explain the difference between our business models, and get the word out on our brand. We were never under any real threat, but we were the new kid on the block, and no one knew us." Communicating the differences between the established, accepted business models of travel agencies and StudentUniverse's model was the primary objective. Castle decided that the most effective way to do so would be to keep StudentUniverse in the background, and spread industry awareness and point out solutions to travelers. Tactics "We identified people who wrote about the business of travel," says Mark O'Toole, VP of Castle. "We talked a lot about the industry, but we kept StudentUniverse above the fray. We sent out notes to our contacts in the media, and at the tail end, we mentioned StudentUniverse as an example of the solution. The press had never written about this niche, and we identified that as a way to establish StudentUniverse's name as a major industry player." Castle offered StudentUniverse's CEO to the media as an expert source on the problems plaguing the student-travel industry. The agency created pitch letters and media advisories written as thought pieces about the industry collapse, thus positioning StudentUniverse as the primary informer for the travel trade and business press. Castle illustrated the message by displaying the different models of the flown-revenue student tickets and the regular Airline Reporting Commission (ARC) tickets, which indicate a specific airline code and ensure a return flight. Castle also promoted StudentUniverse's airfare deals and partnerships to inform the media of the ongoing situation. Results Castle secured between 2 million and 3 million print impressions in 90 days, including hits in The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and The Washington Post. The key hit was in The Boston Globe, which clearly differentiated the two business models. StudentUniverse has since secured a partnership with Orbitz, which Castle promoted as a safe, reliable, and financially sound option for spring-break travelers. The company has also partnered with Yahoo! Travel, Travelocity, and Cheaptickets.com, leading to increased sales. "The real success was news about what was happening," says O'Toole. "We opened the door for travel writers to write about student travel. StudentUniverse is now a major player." Future Castle and StudentUniverse will continue to work together to create positive publicity and promote fares and partnerships.

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