The rise of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has only added to the complexity of travel reopenings across Asia-Pacific, and for 102-year-old hospitality giant Hilton, which operates 500 properties in the region, this has necessitated increased flexibility and nuance in its marketing strategy and creative campaigns.
While the company sees markets such as China nearly at 2019 levels of business, other places, such as India, have rebounded sharply too, even as tourism magnets in Southeast Asia continue to lag due to slower vaccine uptake and relatively high Covid case counts.
"Marketing is a multi-layered approach, with the big enterprise brand level campaign always on," Ben George, the chain's senior VP and commercial director told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "However, the concept of travel being always on has changed and we're now more focused on nimbler and shorter campaigns targeting destinations closer [to a customer's] home."
As travel slowly gets back to its feet, chains such as Hilton have had to do the hard yards with their marketing campaigns. When the pandemic first struck and crippled the industry, chains had to focus on keeping the dream of travel alive. Then this moved to promoting hygienic and safe proximate destinations (Hilton's promoted its 'CleanStay' campaign with Lysol). Now brands are slowly stepping up the adspend to reignite travel first locally and then as markets such as Singapore open up with VTL lanes, targeting them with campaigns for Europe and further afield.
As part of this push, Hilton recently launched its 'Travel the world' marketing campaign, prompting consumers to explore the places close to home and discover local alternatives that match the experiences of some of their favourite international destinations. Key target markets include Australia (enjoying the vineyards in the south of their country before they're allowed to hit the south of France), Japan (snacking on takoyaki in Osaka and ramen in Fukuoka instead of sampling the street foods of Thailand and Vietnam), Thailand (enjoying Pattaya’s vibrant rooftop dining and drinking experiences in place of Singapore and Los Angeles) and Malaysia (swapping the ruins of the Portuguese era in Malacca for historical sites in Portugal).
Even as it waits for travel regulations to ease, the owner of brands such as the storied Waldorf Astoria and newer Tru by Hilton, Hilton is steeping up its presence in APAC. The chain has 11 of its 18 hotel brands present in the region, and George says the company's most recent launches were the LXR in Kyoto, Japan and Home2 Suites in Shenzhen China, which when launched in December will be its 12th brand in the region.
Dealing with a younger audience in APAC means Hilton will need to expand its bouquet of brands but also cater differently to this digitally savvy audience. In China, the firm's second biggest market globally, Hilton expects to open around 1000 Home2 Suites.
"Tru by Hilton and Motto by Hilton are designed specifically to take into account younger demographic and as for a question about these brands coming to Asia, it is question of when and finding the right partner and opportunity," says George. Recently, Hilton has launched its 500th property in the region with Hilton Nagasaki in Japan.
Outside of opening new properties, Hilton has also focused on upgrading its Hilton Honors Loyalty program to not just embrace the realties of operating in the pandemic, but also cater to its younger customers. For example, with hotel occupancy numbers low, the chain focused on 900 restaurants across its properties with its Dine Like a Member Initiative, which encourages people to eat out more and earn points.
Elsewhere, Hilton Honors has also become an asset to the chain as it seeks to focus on its younger audience. Key initiatives such as a Digital Key Share via the Honors app have helped drive brand loyalty, George contends. As issues such as safety and hygiene have become paramount, the ability to not just book a room, but also check in and upgrade, have been appreciated. "We have signed up more people to Honors in APAC last year than ever before," he adds.
All these marketing initiatives hinge on the presumption that travel, especially overseas, will resume more widely across APAC and the world. "Within Hilton we are confident that some travel will resume this year or early next year," says George. "We think we are in the early stages of recovery and we will have to pivot again in the end of the second or third quarter next year to cater to perhaps short-haul international offerings, depending on the market."
He adds that while chains such as Hilton do hope for the best, the pandemic has taught the chain to work with the "ebb and flow" of the business, based on varying lockdowns and re-openings. But with vaccination rates hitting 70% to 80% or more across APAC, it has allowed economies "to relax permissions in place (think quarantine) and allow customers to travel again."
With the Omicron variant just discovered and cases spreading worldwide, George will hope markets in APAC don't revert to sweeping travel bans and instead rely on ever-growing vaccination rates to sustain the travel industry's, and Hilton's, revival.