Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Some of the most interesting marketing strategies barely mention product attributes but instead link what's being sold to a narrative that reflects what buyers imagine themselves to be. Example: Does Subaru sell cars or produce loving families?

This isn't a new development in advertising, nor is the approach underrepresented in the travel industry. Hospitality companies, cruise lines and destinations have done a good job of portraying their products as stage sets that enable guests to play a role they may only daydream about back home. The masters of the art? Las Vegas and all its components.

And in Las Vegas earlier this month, the mash-up of marketing and storytelling became a recurring theme for me at Virtuoso Travel Week. The theme wasn't necessarily overt, but its importance surfaced in several presentations and conversations I had.

When I met with suppliers, some talked about new itineraries or changes to product specifications. These practical details are certainly important to sales, but I challenged a few marketers to put their offerings into the context of a larger narrative. Not all of them could do it.

One who did was Josh Leibowitz, Carnival Corp.'s chief strategy officer and Cunard senior vice president. He showed me a video in which passengers talked about their voyages, and it contained the most direct expression of travel as a vehicle for role-playing that I heard during the conference: A middle-age woman in a long, crimson dress stood at the top of a winding staircase on the Queen Mary 2 and proclaimed, "As a solo traveler, any time you take a transatlantic crossing, you can be anyone you want. When I pull on my beautiful, red ballgown, I am a Hollywood star."

Tour operators struggled the most to subjugate the details of a trip -- destinations, hotels, itineraries -- to a more inspirational umbrella message tied specifically to their brand. Perhaps it's because they don't own their trips' components and because they offer large and diverse sets of destinations and properties that might not have a unifying motif.

Nonetheless, the single most inspired example of associative marketing I heard came from a tour operator: Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, a portfolio brand of the Travel Corporation.

He, too, showed me a video.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's birth, and Banda's video explained the impact of Mandela's life on his own.

Banda is South African, black and gay, and Mandela's influence on South African society resulted in levels of freedom that Banda could not have imagined when he was growing up. The video includes photos of himself after he became the first black general manager of a five-star hotel in the country and another of him with his husband and child.

Banda brought another South African, Christo Brand, to speak at an event he organized for Travel Week. Brand was Mandela's white jail guard and was 19 when they met. Mandela was 60.

Banda arranged for me to interview Brand. The guard's story, inextricably coupled with Mandela's, is moving and inspiring. In a series of short conversations he'd had with Mandela when he accompanied him from one part of Robben Island prison to another, they became friends. Brand realized he was in the presence of a great man, one who took a personal interest in everyone he met. When Mandela was installed as president, he invited Brand to the inauguration and recognized him during the ceremony.

Today Brand, 59, lives to keep Mandela's legacy alive, particularly to visitors. He speaks to tourists at hotels and is trying to create a Mandela museum on the waterfront in Cape Town (particularly important, he said, because often, rough seas prevent tourists from visiting the prison island).

Travel advisers attending the African Travel event received autographed copies of Brand's book, "Doing Life With Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend."

An African tour operator connecting to and promoting the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's birth is a clever way to link universally inspiring values to its brand and destination, and having Mandela's prison guard as a representative amplifies that message. But it was the expression of Banda's personal feelings about Mandela that elevated the message from marketing to authenticity. Banda's storytelling not only tries to connect travelers to their aspirations, he also reveals how his were realized.

•   •   •

Some anniversaries aren't for celebrating. The phrase "overtourism" was coined 10 years ago in an academic paper, and the word became an active Twitter hashtag in 2012.

The problem has now been well identified, and examples are all too easily found. But if we don't want to be un-celebrating overtourism's anniversary in 2028, focus needs to turn to solutions that can be implemented before another summer of angry headlines is upon us.

To celebrate World Tourism Day on Sept. 27, the Center for Responsible Travel, in conjunction with George Washington University, will be holding a one-day overtourism forum in Washington, D.C. Representatives from the Barcelona city council and Iceland tourism ministry (among other destinations), the World Travel and Tourism Council as well as tour operators and officials from national parks will participate in the spirit of the conference's theme, "Seeking Solutions."

Interested readers can sign up at www.worldtourismdayforum.com.

Correction: The one-day overtourism forum is co-hosted by George Washington University and the Center for Responsible Travel; an earlier version of this article had an incorrect name for the organization.

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