The traveler's plan goes something like this: Dream it, plan it, book it, experience it, share it. Imagine, though, the potential increase in bookings if the experiencing part of the equation came earlier in the planning process.
Sure, that pretty photo or cool advertisement showcasing the destination, cruise line, hotel or airline certainly entices. Would-be travelers see it and start dreaming. But the problem with the dream at that phase is the picture does not differentiate that particular destination, cruise line or hotel.
Differentiation comes to life with experiential marketing, which offers travelers an authentic experience long before the bags are packed. Yet, many in the travel and tourism industry don't fully understand what experiential is, and how it can build business.
Experiential marketing is far more sophisticated than just event marketing, though it often includes a physical event. It combines rational decision-making with emotional desires, offering the consumer a memorable, multisensorial interaction with a brand, product or service.
Focus on the multisensorial part of that definition. A traveler can't feel a sandy beach or smell the aromatherapy in a hotel spa by looking at an advertisement. But experiential marketing can provide just that while producing a very strong call to action.
An important aspect of experiential is its versatility, not just in what it can offer but also in who can utilize it. A global giant like Disney can incorporate it, and so can a small intermediary. The key is to create a stimulus for a consumer to learn about a brand or place, and then to sample it.
A survey by Event Marketer magazine found that 89% of consumers want to try something before they buy it, and 75% believe an experiential event led to a purchase either immediately or within 30 days.
Also, 66% of those surveyed indicated that they would be "very likely" to tell others about a product or service they encountered at an event. Texas Tourism and Cambria Suites certainly paid attention to these stats.
Texas on Tour
Through focus groups and research, it was determined that consumers viewed the Lone Star State as being dusty, full of cowboys and lacking in culture. Texas could not just tell people their perceptions were off-base through traditional advertising, it had to show them, and the only way to do that was to let people experience the real Texas.
The result was Texas on Tour, a coast-to-coast interactive, high-tech mobile marketing experience that introduced potential visitors to the state's unexpected activities and hidden gems, a total multisensory experience. Using virtual reality goggles, guests were able to experience Texas' waterways, traveling through the rapids of Big Bend Country canyons and the Bayou. They could also experience Texas' magnificent shoreline in a green-screen room that even enabled them to smell the beach. Follow-up email and surveys lengthened the engagement, building a relationship between prospect travelers and the state.
Texas on Tour attracted more than 2 million people, garnering more than 8 million road impressions. A combined 50,000 people requested a travel guide and registered at Texas on Tour.
Surveys indicated that Texas on Tour had an immediate impact on consumers' perception of the state and remained strong three months later. The initial survey showed a 23% positive change in attitude as a result of the Texas on Tour experience, with nine out of 10 agreeing to take action to pursue their new interest in the state.
To help launch Cambria Suites, Choice Hotels International introduced business travelers to the design through a 13-by-30-foot pop-up replica hotel suite at airports and malls throughout the country.
The interior was a replica of the brand's King suite, including separate living and sleeping spaces, a pullout sleeper sofa, overstuffed lounge chair, microwave, moveable desk, refrigerator and coffee table. The pop-up also included feel-at-home elements such as two flat-panel TVs. The concept gave travelers the opportunity to experience for themselves how business travel should be.
While the above examples key on physical elements to create a touch point between brand and consumer, experiential can also bring brands to life by combining online experiences and those events. For Texas on Tour, visitors were invited to visit a green-screen photo area where they could pose in front of the Alamo, SeaWorld or a Texas city skyline. Guests could retrieve and send their faux vacation photos to friends from the Texas Tourism website. They were also encouraged to post the photos on their personal Facebook pages.
Agents and experiential marketing
Of course, most travel agents don't have the budget to implement a nationwide experiential campaign like Texas on Tour, but they can certainly take full advantage of it. Experiential marketing programs can be scaled down, and agents have the opportunity to participate in a larger campaign without having to incur much cost.
To break through the tourism marketing clutter, the Mexico Tourism Board wanted to bring the best of a Mexican vacation experience to life for consumers in cold-weather environments. It launched the Beyond Your Expectations tour, using four see-through glass-body trucks outfitted with Mexico vacation settings. Inside, live models in beachwear enjoyed activities like sunbathing, sea kayaking and exploring ancient ruins. The trucks stopped at busy intersections, and local agents handed out business cards and brochures while informing crowds about the wonders of Mexico.
During the nationwide initiative, Mexico tourism ambassadors and travel agents interacted with more than 900,000 consumers, 22% of whom received brochures to help them plan a visit to Mexico in the following six months. The tourism board reported that revenue increased 17%.
While the board's initiative gave agents the opportunity to participate in a large campaign that had already been built, agents can inexpensively create their own experiential programs. For example, they can host an evening open-house at the office or by partnering with a restaurant, transforming the premises into a vacation-like setting. The key is to incorporate multisensorial engagements. Agents can keep it simple.
For example, if you are trying to sell Jamaica vacations, give the customer a sense of the destination: Include a steel drum player, island drinks, beach scents and a video of the island's most enticing elements. If you are selling trips to Tuscany, partner with a neighborhood Italian restaurant where the wait staff is authentic. The food, its preparation and aromas should mirror the experience of sitting down at a Tuscany bistro.
Not only offer Tuscan wine, but include a QR code on the bottle that will take would-be vacationers directly to a site that sells all things Tuscany: cuisine, sea coast, architecture, the vibrant countryside, the frescoes.
Agents can post restaurant event photos on their website and Facebook page and encourage participants to visit, and then share their experience with their social networks.
Provide a deeper experience
Whether you are a destination, an airline, a cruise line, a hotel or an agent, there is no single strategy to boost business far beyond expectations. No matter your marketing budget, you need to incorporate multiple initiatives. Experiential marketing is just one piece of the puzzle, but it's an important one because it provides the opportunity for consumers to experience their next trip before they even plan it.
Mercedita Roxas-Murray is executive vice president of strategy/brand planning and operations for RedPeg Marketing, a full-service, integrated agency specializing in targeted marketing.