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
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
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
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
’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.