Matthew Keegan
Apr 3, 2020

Travel marketing under COVID-19: Is there any point?

We speak to travel marketers in the region about their approach during this period of no-travel and whether or not it's valuable to continue marketing.


By now, there’s hardly a single industry that hasn’t suffered from the fallout of COVID-19. But among the worst casualties is the travel industry. Flights have been grounded, borders closed, global movement restricted, and up to 75 million travel and tourism jobs worldwide are at "immediate risk."

So says the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), which also found that Asia-Pacific is expected to be most heavily impacted with up to 49 million jobs at risk throughout the region, representing a loss of nearly $800 billion to travel and tourism GDP.

Travel ad spending has also been impacted. PubMatic revealed that spend for travel ads was cut by two-thirds (65%) in the first two weeks of March. At least for now, travel, as we once knew it, is no more. But while the outlook looks gloomy for the immediate future, there are some positive signals of longer-term recovery.

“APAC has been ahead of the world in their vigilance, so we expect that APAC will be the first region to recover,” says Max Ueno, VP APAC of Sojern, a provider of data-driven digital travel marketing solutions. "Already, China’s situation is largely under control and they are able to schedule domestic flights to fly travellers throughout the country."

In the event that both inbound and outbound international travel may be hampered in the long-term, Ueno says that APAC will at least be able to fall back on rebuilding a vibrant domestic and intra-regional tourism market.

Readiness for recovery

"Our data shows travellers are still searching, many booking trips for Q4 2020 and early 2021," says Ueno. "Think about how you want to come across as people start exploring the idea of travel again, and have new creatives ready."

With this in mind, some feel there is sufficient value to continue marketing throughout this period of no-travel, with a view to being top of mind when things eventually do pick up.

"Our recommended strategy is not a blanket strategy and more geographically targeted since different countries are in different stages of lockdown or recovery," says Anita Chan, CEO of Compass Edge, a hospitality marketing and branding solutions company specialising in the Chinese outbound market.

"There are signs of life returning to normal in China, and, after months, the Chinese are experiencing COVID-19 info fatigue," says Chan. "Now they want relaxing lifestyle content to get travel inspirations, to dream for trips they wish to take when it is all safe to travel."

Chan recommends that on Chinese platforms (like WeChat, Weibo, Little Red Book & Douyin, etc.), hotels should continue inspirational marketing now to make their brands top of mind for the Chinese audience. She also suggests hotels should put special arrangements and cancellation policy changes on their official website and show some empathy.

Shangri-La F&B offering on mobile

"I believe marketing campaigns are an important aid to recovery. Since my company focuses on the China outbound marketing for luxury boutique hotels, we are doing it now rather than waiting till things start to improve."

But while a lot of campaigns are stopped and many people are holding off on doing promotions, Chan has a different view.

"For the limited budget my clients have compared to major hotel chains, normally the ad space is always too crowded and too expensive for a standalone hotel," says Chan. "But now the major hotel brands have cut budget for campaigns, we have been doing some boosting of social posts and are seeing higher readership and engagements."

With the first signs of recovery already emerging in China, Chan believes that China could be the first market to rebound and save overseas hotels in 2020. "So we continue to work passionately with our hotel clients on their China outbound strategy."

Pressing pause on marketing, but not engagement

But while some see value in continuing their marketing efforts, others are pausing. This is the case for James McBride, managing partner of the Nihi Sumba resort in Indonesia, which is stopping business until April 20.

"We’re not going to do anything commercial until it’s time," says McBride. "That could be a month, two, three—who knows when it’s going to be. This is not a time for capitalism; it's not a time for making money or for any of that."

Instead, Nihi Sumba plan to utilise its digital channels for all communication during this period of no-travel. The resort will primarily use its Instagram channel to bring "cool stuff that you would normally do at the resort but bringing it to our customers in a tasteful way."

"We’re doing live yoga classes via Instagram. We’re doing chocolate making. We’ve got a magician that is doing magic shows. We’re doing horses that swim in the sea," says McBride. "If we can find a way of filling the void of bringing some happiness to those that know and support us, then we’re going to do it. That’s how you stay top of mind."

Others are also opting to pause paid activity. Club Med Resorts has halted all marketing efforts almost completely, believing that this is not the time to  push for bookings or promotions. 

"It is not about being irrelevant, rather it is insensitive when all people are thinking about are their health and safety," says Vincent Ong, vice president of marketing for APAC at Club Med. "As a responsible travel brand, it is our priority to spread positivity and project the ever-needed spirit of optimism."

Club Med, which turns 70 this year, will be ramping up communications to provide reassurance, inspiration and optimism, positioning the brand as one that genuinely cares.

Homestyle travel brand interactions

"Marketing and communication at this moment is all about giving consumers reassurance, comfort and some sense of being able to get through this adversity," says Ong. "We have taken the emotional route such as a ‘Bringing the Club Med Experience Home’ campaign where we have pivoted messages and content of home activities with that unique Club Med twist."

In addition, Club Med has also taken the practical route of providing flexibility of booking and travel date changes to accommodate the ever-changing travel restrictions. "Either way it is to keep reinforcing how we want to deliver on that sense of comfort and familiarity," says Ong.

Remaining flexible and agile during these challenging times is proving key. This is true for Lawrence Ng, vice president of sales and marketing for Greater China at Marriott International, who has been closely monitoring the situation and emerging trends in order to stay connected with customers.

"As the country shifted to a stay-at-home economy and with consumer attention heavily shifted to e-commerce and social media, we found customers had real enthusiasm to find unique at-home experiences. So we planned a series of innovative consumer engagements by leveraging our social and digital platforms," says Ng. "For example, our master chef did a livestream cooking series and shared recipes. We had a livestreaming DJ party. All received very positive feedback from our customers."

W Shanghai's DJ livestreaming party

At-home experiences

Matt Liao, vice president of marketing for China with Shangri-La Group, says that many of Shangri-La's hotels in mainland China have started providing new services. "Many have launched food takeaways and delivery services to meet the increasing needs of residents in neighbouring precincts," says Liao. "They have also introduced lunch boxes as takeaway options for office workers who wish to avoid crowds."

Liao says that the brand is now gearing up to ensure that Shangri-La can operate optimally and be prepared for when full business recovery takes off.

"As part of our recovery plan, we have launched 'Always care, Always here' communications in mainland China, which highlights our hotels’ stringent hygiene measures to assure our guests that they can look forward to a safe and comfortable stay, enjoy the fabulous food and explore our MICE offerings, when we welcome them back."

Welcome back

Club Med is also spending some time thinking about recovery, believing that the first message a consumer sees about the brand when this situation calms and when demand picks up again is most important. 

"When things pick up again, people will want to not only get back to normalcy very quickly, but they will want to get ahead to make up for lost time," says Ong. "A brand needs to enable and 'unlimit' what people can do again."

To this end, Ong says that Club Med will be there to bring back the joy of travel. 

"We will be there not just with a message to inspire people to get 'Back to Happiness' but our proposition of providing hassle-free vacations with our unique premium all-inclusive formula and how easy it is just to book-and-go. It is just not about ‘rebound’ marketing. It is about a recovery where we say 'welcome back', because we have been with you all this time."

The same is true for Nihi Sumba resort which will, when the time is right, focus recovery marketing efforts on welcoming back repeat guests.

"We’ll be focusing on the people who have previously been here, who understand the resort, that will want to come back to a place they are familiar with," says McBride. "I won’t spend too much time on acquiring new business because people are going to come out of this crisis who won’t have excess capital and what they’re going to want to spend their money on is going to be different. I think the Louis Vuitton / Gucci world and white sneakers that are 700 bucks a pop—I don’t know if that world is going to continue. I could be completely wrong, but I think we’re going to see changes."

Ueno at Sojern expects people will be more timid when travel bans lift, and imagines that domestic travel will be more favourable at first before people look to pick up their travel internationally.

"One thing we know for sure is that it will take time for consumer confidence around travel to return," says Ueno. "That means that you cannot make any assumptions in your marketing or base it on demographics. We have to know for sure which travellers are in market otherwise there could be a backlash."

He adds that having real-time data is going to be important so that marketers are spending precious budgets as efficiently as possible.

"If you have built loyalty and strengthened relationships with customers throughout this crisis, you will be on top of their mind, and in turn, result in direct bookings.”

Campaign Asia

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