10th anniversary: travel and tourism roundtable

Beth Krietsch held a virtual roundtable in September that discussed the with travel and tourism experts the trends that are affecting the industry

Joan Brower, SVP and co-director, travel & lifestyle Group, M Booth & Associates

Mary Jane Kolassa, SVP, public relations at Ypartnership

Francie Schulwolf, VP of corporate communications, IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group),

Lou Hammond, chairman and founder, Lou Hammond & Associates

Beth Krietsch (PRWeek): I'd like to begin by talking a bit about the current travel/tourism PR scene. The current situation on Wall Street is sure to have an effect on travel plans and discretionary spending. Have you had to start adjusting your messaging to consumers?

Mary Jane Kolassa (Ypartnership): Yes, somewhat. The annual research our agency conducts, resulting in the Ypartnership/Yankelovich National Leisure Travel MONITOR, continues to tell us that Americans believe vacations are a right they are entitled to, not merely a luxury. So we will continue to travel. But where, and how long we vacation will likely be based upon the economy, the value of the U.S. dollar to foreign currencies, fuel prices, and other factors. As Baby Boomers age, with more disposable time and money to travel, options of interest to this population group will prosper. Remember, Boomers in their 50s still enjoy doing things as they did in their 30s, but maybe with higher expectations of comfort, quality and value. So we are keeping this in mind with our messaging. We're appealing to psychographics, personal interests, the quest to learn/do something new.

Francie Schulwolf (InterContinental Hotels Group): We have not adjusted our messaging as of yet to consumers as we haven't seen the need to at this time. Holiday Inn has always focused on providing good value to our guests which in today's economic environment is more important than ever. The hospitality industry is just now starting to feel the pain.

Joan Brower (M Booth & Associates): People are traveling differently in the current economy, but they are still traveling. Travelers are less likely to splurge on big-ticket travel but are now seeking travel experiences based on rational decisions, rather than purely emotional or status-seeking ones. Some of our message adjustment includes: The Comfort Factor (traveling with family and loved ones provides a reinforcement of the emotional support systems that speak to our spiritual comfort levels during tough times; The "You Deserve It" Factor (Consumers today should not harbor guild about traveling, as taking a vacation induces "wellness" and provides the emotional and physical mechanisms necessary to deal with stress; The Practical Factor (Effective, direct-to-consumer packages and promotions that emphasize the ease of travel to a destination can result in impactful print, online and broadcast coverage in key drive markets; The Enrichment Factor (come home with something deeper than a suntan, an enriching experience that soothes the mind as well as the body).

Lou Hammond (Lou Hammond & Associates): Yes, we are in the midst of a challenging times but consumers still want to go, value is key. We are suggesting the offering of incentives. Local media has become more prevalent in campaigns as travelers are looking for closer to home opportunities. Targeting packages to segmented audiences is important to capture travelers who want to take shorter, customized trips.

Krietsch (PRWeek): So is it fair to say that the value message is even more important now than it was, say, a year ago?

Schulwolf: Our research has shown that people see travel as a necessity. the industry is starting to see people take less frequent trips but they are lengthening their stays by a day or two to once again get the most value out of their trip. Staycations was also something that got a lot of hype but the reality is we're only seeing approximately 9% of the people doing this.

Kolassa (Ypartnership): Yes. And the key word is "value." It's not just price. It's getting good value for what you pay. Consumers won't sit back and overpay. If they feel they're not getting good value, they'll strike back, with blogs and other social media tools.

Brower (M Booth & Associates): Definitely. With the economy in free fall, there is a crisis of confidence that is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy (and with CNN conducting a "Rate Your Fear" online poll, this is even more frightening to many people). There are always people of modest circumstances and of more prosperous means who have the resources to travel. The question now is if they will have the psychological resources to travel. In that regard, the value message will provide a rational justification for taking vacation.

Hammond (Lou Hammond & Associates): Value is key even for the premium market. Value needs to include personalization, customization along with experiential travel for all segmented audiences. Smart marketers will look carefully at where they are getting their biggest bang for the buck in terms of reaching bookers, not lookers.

Krietsch (PRWeek): Interesting... speaking of blogs and social media tools, what role does technology play in travel and tourism PR these days? Are digital tactics a crucial element of your PR work?

Schulwolf (InterContinental Hotels Group): One thing we haven't touched on is the fact that we're seeing increased international travel. In fact during the first half of 2008, international visitation increased 11% over the same period last year. If you travel to key markets like NY and San Francisco you will clearly see this.

Kolassa (Ypartnership):
We're definitely utilizing various forms of social media. The extent to which we use them depends on the client and the audience they are reaching out to. If it's a younger demographic more techie tools. But even if we're reaching out to Boomers/Seniors, there's a fair amount of blogging and social media we are working with.

Hammond (Lou Hammond & Associates): It is here to stay and has and will continue to have a huge impact. Creating client profiles on social networking sites is a cost-conscious and effective tool to spreading a marketing message across a broad audience. Blogs/chat rooms allows consumers to be the expert, cuts out traditional media.

Kolassa (Ypartnership): And inasmuch as we're using social media to reach customers, it's also very important to educate our clients on the value of using social media in the whole marketing mix.

Krietsch (PRWeek): Thanks for raising that point about international travel, Francie. We will come back to that later.

Brower (M Booth & Associates): Absolutely. Research shows that word of mouth is valued twice as much by Americans as traditional advertising or even editorial. Social media ensures that everyone is an "influencer" with an equal voice, and that each person can send and receive recommendations and endorsements within a social media group that shares common interests and characteristics. When social media tools are applied to travel/tourism PR, people are able to take an active approach to their travel decisions. Potential travelers can connect to new tourism opportunities by tapping into any number of broad social networks on the Web, establishing online human interactions that influence decisions (Meetup, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter). Consumers can also be influenced by interesting tourism messages or campaigns that are communicated visually (video on YouTube; photos on flickr). Our agency has launched a specialty group called FirstWord Digital that applies social media tools to PR campaigns so that messages are carried to a more diverse and wider audience.

Hammond (Lou Hammond & Associates): Another thought, To keep pace and social media allows this, travel and tourism PR must get in front of consumers in a host of places, from special-interest blogs to iPhones and Blackberrys to the in-house TV channels and even at the gym.

Krietsch (PRWeek): Social media seems to be a great way to hear what consumers are saying. But is it challenging to keep up with all the conversation that is constantly going on in the online space about different travel brands and destinations?

Kolassa (Ypartnership): Keeping up is definitely time consuming. However with the number of print publications ceasing to exist, we have to utilize the tools at hand and those coming on line. And there's much more to social media that blogs or online reviews by travelers. I've lately heard about "streetcorner theatre" where a PR team is bringing their client's message to the people in crowed urban areas. Now that's what I call social media.

Schulwolf (InterContinental Hotels Group): We focus on the key travel blogs that have surfaced, e.g. tripadvisor.com and utilize outside resources to monitor. We also have an internal team that's monitoring the noise in the marketplace. It's crucial to know where you stand in the conversation.

Brower (M Booth & Associates): The virtual space self-divides into like-minded groups, just as in reality. By understanding the online landscape, we identify those areas of special interest and/or demographic emphasis and profiles that relate to our individual tourism needs. However, because it all works at lightening speed, it is necessary to monitor 24/7 to know which way the trends are moving. It's the nature of the business today. In future, these conversations and communities will evolve even further.

Hammond (Lou Hammond & Associates): An unbiased, third-party endorsement has always been the core goal of any public relations effort. Therefore, a blog posting or real-time review by someone in a chat room cannot be discounted. Most consumers today use the Web “to do their homework” prior to making travel purchases. Yes, it is challenging to keep up with all online conversations. In reality, one must choose sites, chat rooms and online sources that have some history of credibility. In this case less can be more as long as you know who are the sources that best serve your audience.

Kolassa (Ypartnership): Editorial, as a 3rd party endorsement, has always had more validity than say advertising. Today that editorial comes in the form of blog postings/reviews -- and for many those editorials have more weight than an article by a professional journalist. So, it's imperative we work with and within the world of social media.

Krietsch (PRWeek): Do you think all these channels you have mentioned for reaching consumers - blackberries, blogs, chat rooms, forums, Facebook, etc. - are more effective than print publications? BethParticularly when it is in regards to travel and tourism?

Brower (M Booth & Associates): They are completely different. For one thing, different audiences and generations will review and analyze communications mechanisms in different ways. For another thing, while print publications offer the commentary of objective, third-party journalists, the online communications channels (those you've referenced above) are more often the opinions of typical consumers -- and one's own peers. The perspective is different. Some travelers will want "official" and critiqued editorial information; others will seek out and prefer the "street scene" reporting of online bloggers/chat rooms/forums, etc. They all provide different information and on different terms. Readers of print publications also migrate to the online sites of those very same publications, which may have the same and/or additional editorial content and reporting staffs.

Hammond (Lou Hammond & Associates): More effective, maybe as they tend to be third-party endorsement. But people still read and print still has its place in the public relations arena. It's the mix that makes for a good campaign. More and more travel information will go online and if we don't, we soon will know the best travel bloggers as we know travel editors.

Schulwolf (InterContinental Hotels Group): print will continue to be a strong tool for the masses, but we're seeing you have to be a part of the conversation in order to play with today's savvy guests. Social Media will have increased relevancy as the teens of today grow to be the customers of tomorrow. They expect you to communicate with them in a fashion that is consistent with how they communicate. No longer will they seek you out. You must become part of the conversation.

Kolassa (Ypartnership): These channels are effective yes, especially when one's target market is gathering all their news via the Internet. Newspaper Travel pages are shrinking or being completely made up from wire service stories, some newspapers are folding. So web offerings are an alternative means of gathering travel information.

Krietsch (PRWeek): Social media and the internet have significantly affected PR for the travel and tourism sector in recent years, and the evolution is sure to continue. What do you think things will be like five years down the road in terms of travel PR?

Schulwolf (InterContinental Hotels Group): I think we'll start seeing more video footage/You Tube style. Hotels will be featured in ways they've never been featured before through the eyes of the guest vs. glossy pamphlets and brochures.

Kolassa (Ypartnership): I expect there will be a proliferation of online publications, a great many print publications will cease to exist. One area I think will provide a good outlet for travel information will be the weekly town newspapers. With big city dailies slimming down on travel staff/travel coverage due to loss of ad revenue, the weeklies will the one of the best outlets for local businesses to advertise through -- which means the papers will be needed more editorial content. These don't seem as sexy as top DMA dailies. But if researched, one can reach the right demographic in feeder cities very effectively.

Krietsch (PRWeek): Francie, have you noticed a bit of this creeping in already? I've heard a few people mention an increase in the use of video in travel campaigns due to its effectiveness in truly showing consumers what a destination is like.

Brower (M Booth & Associates): The entire traveling universe will be navigating the world of online and social media, and those outlets will have increased exponentially. PR practitioners will need to address those media with more customized messages than "one size fits all." What has been called the "technomorphing" of the travel and tourism sector will speak to an increasingly plugged-in lifestyle. New layers of complexity will evolve as the technology of travel becomes more integrated with the creation of meaningful experiences. For example, there will be more mobile applications programs (permitting research and purchasing of travel, but also creating a greater variety of content) and more sophisticated trip planning tools (customization of travel experiences based on profiles, preferences, behaviors; putting together travel groups based on shared links, dialogue and online personal information). PR will need to work within this new and "technomorphic" environment of personalization to message creatively and efficiently.

Hammond (Lou Hammond & Associates): Yes, it will be different - - it was different when we went from a typewriter to a PC, different when we went from delivery to fax but different is practical. The need for travel/tourism will continue to grow as long as there are travelers to go and clients with stories to tell. Travel is a staple of life and though the industry may change, the need for travel will be considered a “right” on all economic fronts. Offering value, a good product and the truth about the experience won't change.

Kolassa (Ypartnership): Also I expect the future will bring many enhancements to travel industry website's press pages. Making them more interactive and compelling, including webisodes and other forms of video footage.

Schulwolf (InterContinental Hotels Group): We have. In fact I just read about a company who's actually paying consumers for business booked off the videos they produce. Interesting business model...

Brower (M Booth & Associates): On the video front, we see the travel video as most effective when it is the basis of a PR campaign, and interesting enough to encourage pass-on, as it would be on YouTube.

Krietsch (PRWeek): The future sounds exciting, but it also seems like it will be harder to focus your media outreach in the future, since their will be so many different places and ways that consumers are getting information.

Schulwolf (InterContinental Hotels Group): You Tube and Second Life are both driving what we think the next generation of social media will look like. You'll no longer go to a website and see stagnant pictures of a property. Instead you will be able to tour the property and experience it on your own terms in this Web 2.0 environment. You Tube is enabling people to share their stories in new and interesting ways outside of the typical written review.

Kolassa (Ypartnership): And I have real concern that we'll be losing a lot of talented travel writers. That as cost-cutting measures, hard news beat reporters will be required to provide travel content. This will make it extremely difficult for PR practitioners to identify appropriate media contacts.

Brower (M Booth & Associates): The future will be exciting, but PR will continue to evolve beyond traditional media relations. Our role in travel/tourism PR will develop even further into areas of viral marketing, guerilla marketing, events marketing, direct-to-consumer campaigns and promotions, etc.

Krietsch (PRWeek): Has it been challenging to find staffers who are capable of using all these digital technologies?

Kolassa (Ypartnership): Not when you hire 20-somethings. They're whiz kids at this. I'm constantly learning from them!

Schulwolf (InterContinental Hotels Group): The lines are being blurred between what marketing's responsibility and PR's responsibility. Companies and agencies will need to sort this out as the area continues to grey. This is yet another challenge we're seeing.

Brower (M Booth & Associates): Not at all. This is an area in which at least two generations are completely facile. What is more challenging is engaging staffers who have a predisposition to strategic thinking and interpreting business problems -- then, when they apply digital technology, wonderful things happen!

Kolassa (Ypartnership): Joan, you're right; that's why we "seasoned" professionals are still working. We teach the next generation strategic thinking, and they apply the techno skills.

Schulwolf (InterContinental Hotels Group): Agreed. This is the way 20-somethings operate and behave. They are pros at this.

Krietsch (PRWeek): All interesting points- It seems like social media has been a great impetus for encouraging staff members of various ages and experience levels to work together and learn from one another. BethI think it's time for us to wrap this up, unless anyone else has anything they would like to add or discuss.

Brower (M Booth & Associates): Yes, I would like to point to the recent comments of former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan who, at a recent tourism conference, noted that "The industry has a momentum in the upwards direction and can absorb some shocks and come back." We'll all need to remain flexible and fleet footed.

Hammond (Lou Hammond & Associates): The younger they are, the better they understand. In this case you can teach an “old dog” new tricks. People and employees of all ages are becoming proficient on the internet. From a travel prospective, in the early days of the internet, many marketers said, “oh, they are just young kids” but guess what? Many have grown up and others are not far behind. They have become an important audience for the travel marketer and … they are teaching their parents and grandparents how to use the internet.

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