Back To Basics

On a recent flight, I sat next to someone who works in the travel/tourism industry, and in the course of our conversation he mentioned that no matter what they did at his property, they kept their eye on three things -- creating a safe, clean and friendly environment. That focus has served them well, he said, because in their particular competitive set those were areas others failed at.

This part of the conversation really stuck with me as I catalogued the various travel/tourism brands I've worked with over the years. And I realized that no matter what the brand, and no matter all of the different tactics we've employed to differentiate it, our success has often been hampered because one or more of those three key equities of safe, clean and friendly can't be delivered on.

Clearly, these three items are table stakes in the category. We're not likely to see sexy marketing campaigns around qualities that are baseline expectations of any traveler. But that said, in this day and age of instantaneous and public consumer feedback, in a time where a review site (Trip Advisor) has become the largest travel website in the world, it's more critical than ever to ensure that there's no question that, beyond your glam and glitz, you are a brand focused on service that cares about and doesn't overlook the most basic but important of its customers' desires.



So how do you prioritize, manage and communicate these messages, knowing they don't necessarily drive sales but absolutely can hamper them if ignored?

Safety is a good place to start as it's the element of this list that is least in your control but also the one that most travelers assume is a given until they hear differently. Unfortunately most messaging around safety is reactive, when something goes wrong. So, it is important to have a strong crisis communications plan, knowing that to acknowledge and respond immediately is critical, both using mainstream media and social media channels, where consumers are now talking directly to each other and to you.

But there's merit to being proactive. Consider the Delta in-flight video that went viral, where a safety message actually drove positive brand awareness. Whether Delta passengers feel any more safe and secure isn't the point; the learning here is that imbuing something completely utilitarian with your brand personality both makes it work harder and shows that you understand and place importance on this topic.

Clean follows a similar pattern. Visitors want to assume that the airline, rental car, hotel, destination, etc. will be clean. But with clean we are a little more proactive. We don't see it in major marketing messages, but in more subtle cues. Airlines tell you the planes are being cleaned before you board, hotels promote their various clean initiatives in-room, rental cars are usually still wet from the wash and air-freshened inside -- all of this demonstrates for travelers that we get it, that clean is an innate expectation of theirs and therefore a priority of ours.

But like Safety, when Clean goes wrong, we not only have to be ready with strong crisis communications, we must quickly follow up our words with actions. One "Dateline" exposé on bed bugs or a norovirus outbreak and you could be picking up the pieces of your once-solid brand image for months.

Friendly is by far the most marketable and far-reaching of the three core equities. But Friendly is also judged by consumers in many more touchpoints than Clean or Safe. For some, Friendly comes through in your marketing's tonality, and for all it's felt (or not) in every interaction your consumer has with representatives of your brand, from the 800 number to the website, to your location.

Consumers inherently want to like your brand and your people. But as a single bad interaction has always had the potential to ruin a brand for an individual consumer, nowadays that single bad experience can be amplified beyond that consumer to his network and to the world.

The good news? I don't know of a travel-related organization that doesn't recognize the importance of these three key equities. But we must continue to remember that for all of the fancy points of differentiation we strive to find and market for our brands, these three basic areas will always matter as much if not more to our potential customers.

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