Up, Up and Away! How to Position Travel Brands for Growth in Today’s World

airplane wing in the sky

By Alissa Stakgold, President, Strategy & Creative Services of Quigley

There’s no doubt that the travel industry has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic with everyone grounded for months and the future remaining up in the air, even today. Brands that rely on those who travel for business or pleasure have had to pivot both their messaging and their offerings in order to continue to capture customers’ imagination and loyalty.

My agency, Quigley, works with travel brands that were able to quickly pivot during the pandemic. They found ways to fuel consumers’ love for travel and exploration, and capture their share of mind (and wallet) even when no one was going anywhere. Our Executive Creative Director, Sariah Dorbin recently joined two of these industry leaders—Luc Bondar, Vice President, Marketing and Loyalty and President Mileage Plus for United Airlines and Laurinda Rainey, General Manager, United Airlines Cobrand Cards at JPMorgan Chase on a panel at Advertising Week. The discussion offered key insights into what these brands did to stay top of mind and relevant when their customers were stuck at home and what travel brands need to do now to capture the attention of those who want to get back out there.

Some of the most important take-aways from this discussion are:

  • Be Prepared to Pivot. One of the most challenging things for travel brands during the height of the pandemic was to continue to provide value to customers who were staying put for the foreseeable future. For a travel credit card whose value is measured in the miles consumers can earn and where those miles can take them someday, this meant changing what they offered. As Laurinda explained: “When travel and dining out stopped, we really had to reinvent ourselves so that we could bring relevant value to our customers. We added more accelerators, more ways for you to earn miles [and] launched campaigns across multiple Chase products where you could earn more points for grocery shopping, online shopping, and even streaming services. It was really meeting the customer where they were, so that when they were able to get back to traveling again, they could earn more miles in ways that could help prepare for their next vacation.”

    The brand took many lessons from this about the importance of being able to shift strategies and the speed to market needed to do it correctly. Travel brands today need to maintain the sense of urgency learned during the pandemic, lean into constantly evolving customer insights, and refresh products based on what customers are doing right now.

  • Do the right thing. It’s not new to say that consumers want a brand that stands for something. This trend started before the pandemic but concerns about public health and safety put brands’ values top of mind. For travel brands this initially meant communicating to customers what it took to make a safe and clean environment. United started by partnering with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic on the Clean Plus program. More recently, however, the airline made the decision to require its U.S. employees be vaccinated against the coronavirus which, as Luc explained, is part of living the brand’s values and doing the right thing. “This great reset is a chance for consumers to say, I’m going to think about the brands that I want to give my business to, and I’m going to make a really considered thoughtful choice about who they are…So as a company, when you have the scale and the size (68,000 U.S. employees) and the opportunity to use that platform to make choices that are really good, it’s just the right thing to do,” he said.

    This decision to do the right thing may not always be easy. Given that vaccines have been controversial to some in this country, a mandate could have lost United customers. In this case, however, it resulted in a lot of positive sentiment and press for the company; the CEO was featured on CNN and CBS and even invited to the White House by President Biden. But more importantly, consumers responded positively to the brand standing up for their health and safety.

  • Inspire consumers. All three of the panelists agreed that there has been a big shift in the mindset of the travel consumer. They are becoming more thoughtful about why they are booking a trip or getting on a plane. Sariah put it this way: “Pre-pandemic, we were certain where we were going whether it was for business or pleasure. Our travel planning process was quite short, and it was very transactional and rational. We were researching flights and hotels and rates and things like this. But when you add uncertainty to that picture, the idea of the where becomes a lot less important than the why. Travelers today are looking for what they’re going to get out of the trip and who they want to spend time with.”

    This moves the goal posts for travel brands as they consider content and planning. Breaking down the rational benefits of the product is no longer what resonates most with consumers. Instead, brands need to focus on the inspiration and aspiration—how can the product fuel a traveler’s reason to go?

As borders open up across the world, people are going to be indulging their wanderlust again, but they are going to be more thoughtful about it than they were in the past. Travel brands need to tap into consumers’ emotions and foster a sense of inspiration in order to help them answer the whys—and remember the wonders—of travel.