Julie Freeman

Those of us in the travel PR industry are poised to respond to another potential downturn. Although we’re not anticipating an economic crisis of the same proportions as 2008, NJF’s parent company, MMGY Global, has found that American intent for leisure travel has softened considerably over eight straight quarters, while price sensitivity has jumped significantly (34 percent cite travel costs as the number-one concern, versus 18 percent in 2016). Combined, that outlook is concerning.

When we align those findings with the events that led up to the economic slowdown of 2008, we can anticipate that travelers will cut back on discretionary spending, turning toward more frequent but less expensive trips with shorter-haul itineraries. Eleven years ago, that shift created a perfect storm that hit destinations and travel brands hard.

But something else happened that’s important to remember. Travel PR took stock of the situation and spun it into a powerful narrative: the staycation. It’s hard to imagine our travel culture without that concept, but we can look to the recession as the height of the staycation craze, which still has impact today.

On the one hand, current trends make it hard to fathom a travel recession: polar travel tours and cruises are selling out; trips to Vietnam, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia are on the rise; airlines are continuously launching nonstop long-haul flights; mega-cruise ships are being built at a rapid rate; and luxury cruise lines keep raising the bar. But looking ahead to a potential downturn, our industry has multiple opportunities to get ahead of the curve, be proactive and benefit our clients, both domestic and international.

PR is a smart marketing strategy

As travel brands may begin to cut their budgets, PR remains an affordable and effective option when prioritizing marketing channels. Whether pitching enticing narratives or promoting tactical deals, generating earned media is a longer-game investment that sits at the top or middle of the purchasing funnel. And while conversions may not be as trackable, a destination or travel brand’s story can enjoy a long shelf life that outlasts even the tough times — just as we saw with the staycation.

We understand the new media landscape

Media is drastically different today than it was in 2008 when digital and social content were just starting to find their footing. With print media slashing budgets and cutting pages, it’s up to us to educate our clients about where earned media can have the most impact. Glossy magazine spreads may still top our clients’ wish lists, but we understand when and how online and influencer-driven campaigns present quicker, more agile delivery of information to targeted audiences, generating awareness, engagement and strong ROI.

Strategic packaging has strong impact

When budgets are tight, how do we maximize ROI? We find the right partners to enhance a brand’s credibility, reach targeted audiences and generate leads. For example, when we identified that travel has a positive impact on 75 percent of couples’ relationships, we created a partnership for our client CheapCaribbean with relationship expert Anita Avedian. The media latched onto the story: an air-inclusive package that included virtual coaching sessions with the Kardashians’ go-to love guru. In addition to bookings, we earned tens of millions of impressions on People, Lonely Planet, Yahoo and MSN, and the package was promoted across all partners’ social media and newsletter audiences.

To capitalize on the Caribbean Tourism Organization naming 2018 the Year of Wellness and Rejuvenation, we teamed up with Crunch Fitness to launch the first-ever Wellness Week for Breezes Resort & Spa Bahamas. Our PR efforts included national broadcast segments and feature stories, dedicated emails, and a sweepstakes. Costs for our resort client were minimal and drove $405,000 in revenue while garnering $1.5 million in media value.

In a crisis, communications is your best asset

During a crisis situation such as a recession, travel brands have even less of a margin to deal with additional roadblocks. From first response to recovery, PR communication is a nimble, timely and effective resource to get accurate messages out. While the following situations are different, the approach is similar. In 2018, Southwest Florida’s coastlines had the most intense red tide outbreak in nearly half a century. We helped our client the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel manage the situation at every stage. Then, as soon as the natural event receded, we sprang into action with PR tactics to show the clear waters in real time, including a multimedia news release, an on-location satellite media tour and monthly press trips to provide in-destination experiences. Ultimately, our efforts to change the narrative from crisis to recovery resulted in 17 million media impressions across the U.S.

In addition, after a surge in crime, we worked with Los Cabos Tourism to develop a crisis playbook and create positive news about their diverse tourism offerings while conveying the new safety measures being put in place. NJF secured more than 500 stories in top media outlets — including the cover of the New York Times Top Places to Go 2018 issue — and educated hundreds of travel advisors, leading to a 20 percent year-over-year increase in visitation to Los Cabos.

Our expertise is founded on data

PR agencies will benefit from focusing their efforts on the right markets. That includes the resilient mature market and, according to MMGY Global’s research, Millennial families which represent an enormous opportunity. Based on 2018 data, traveling Millennials account for approximately 1.1 billion total travelers and within the leisure segment, 34 percent of those are families. Millennial families, in particular, are optimistic, engaged in travel, and our research shows that they follow similar travel patterns as their parents by taking weekend trips, multiple trips and road trips. (Overall, road tripping is on the rise. Our research shows that 51 percent of travelers took at least one road trip in the past 12 months, compared to 46 percent the previous year.) This audience is the quintessential “memory maker” that prefers to collect experiences over material goods. All of those factors mean that Millennial families are ready to receive messages shaped around similar “recession-inspired” travel trends that we’ve identified before.

While trends like staycations and road trips may make it seem like domestic travel should be the focus, we shouldn’t overlook opportunities to lean in to international travel. Packaging products in a smart way will continue to attract travelers to go abroad. To date, we have already identified rich story angles such as how to create meaningful memories in an affordable, family-friendly destination like Costa Rica; how immersive, positive-impact tours with Intrepid Travel captivate and engage culturally curious travelers; and we secured a Travel + Leisure cover story on post-hurricane travel to the British Virgin Islands.

There’s no crystal ball to tell us definitively if a travel recession is coming. But armed with the 20/20 clarity of hindsight, this is an important time to start preparing and to be aggressive with your clients about leveraging and/or increasing their PR services. It’s a protective measure with tremendous benefits that can pay off for years to come.

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Julie Freeman is EVP and Managing Director at NJF.



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