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Travel has changed. Destination marketing needs to change too

Travel is not dead. But it is limping along. International air travel has plummeted, and airlines are cutting service, and trying to hold down costs. The Transportation Security Administration hasn’t screened more than 1 million passengers in a single day since March, On September 4, 2019, TSA agents screened 2 million passengers. In 2020 on the same date the TSA saw 968,673 travelers. Business travel has dried up, and hotels are struggling to rethink their product. Up to 40% could close. So what’s a destination to do? Once the US was once a top tier travel market, US travel to Europe was up a robust 30% in 2019, and Portugal alone saw a 48% increase. Today, Americans can't go to Europe unless they have pressing reasons. The Canadian border is closed to travel. So, how does one continue to promote a destination?

Promoting a destination may not seem like a great use of funds if the target markets you aim at cannot travel. It not only can lead to frustration, but could even alienate some people. Yes, folks want to travel, but can’t because of rules, safety, and lack of flights. Kind of like the 1977 modern film classic Smokey and the Bandit, where the Bandit is bet he cannot smuggle a truck of forbidden Coors beer across state-lines to Georgia. Back then Coors beer was marketed solely in the West, it had a mystique and that made it a novelty. Just as climbing Everest is a very expensive novelty — one many are interested in but cannot attain. This is what travel has become.

So, should we market a travel product that one cannot buy, book or enjoy? A product that may be off limits for 6 months to a year?

Well, one suggestion is a pivot. Think of the most popular world destinations for American travelers pre-Covid. Walk into a Homegoods, head to the arts section and look at the posters. They show Paris, Rome, London - the most popular destinations for Americans, pre-Covid.

Here are three ideas to reframe marketing today:

Build brand with products. Wines, pottery, cheeses, cork, leather: Products allow for travel via decoration or dining. Think Italian pottery, posters of Paris, or English cookware — all signs that people travel vicariously. A recent article talked about how wines make us think about travel. And, we used to talk about travel for weeks before and after we take a trip. We would post to social media, and have romantic thoughts about returning. Travel is a form of escape — and products from a destination are part of the allure. So, you see a wide brand of offerings from a place like Italy. This is the opportunity to keep a brand alive with wine, olive oil, clothes and cork goods.

Focus on culture. The arts, culture, the creative economy define a place. And, don’t forget that food is part of culture, too. And, the great thing about culture, is you don’t have to be in a place to enjoy music or art. And, culture builds brand — from sculpture, art, poetry — and is an advantage to a place with deep culture. And, with a move to smaller batch, higher level tourism, the creative economy is the perfect opposite to mass tourism.

Move to small batch. And, speaking of mass tourism, it is not viable today, nor will it be after a vaccine — no one will want big crowds, long lines and lots of people. So, the entire travel industry needs to be transitioned away from mass and affordable tourism to small batch, higher end, more individual tailored. Fewer people, more revenue, more individualized: the smart destination will rework its brand, products and outreach to be in sync with where the market is heading.

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