The Direction of Travel: how the bravest brands make travel choice simpler

December 5, 2022

In times of adversity, we all have to make hard choices, and that includes brands. Avoid trying to be everything to everybody, and focus on taking a stance that you and your customers can believe in.

Freedom over frugality

For many, the pandemic highlighted the importance of adventures big and small – space for personal development, rejuvenation, enlightenment; to connect with others and experience new things. According to Travel Weekly, 86% of travellers plan to spend the same or more on international travel than they did pre-pandemic. We’re not surprised.

But the counterpoint to adventure-seeking is the reality of the UK economic picture. As incomes are squeezed, convincing customers to make those plans real will become the big challenge for brands.

While it is tempting to assume that worries over cost will drive reduction in spending on ‘extras’ like holidays, the reality is that many consumers will spend on the things that matter. So the picture for travel is a challenge that needs strong brand thinking to overcome. How do we convince travellers that your brand is the one that can deliver the things that matter most?

For people to choose a brand confidently, a brand must first choose who they are and what they believe in.

Feeling before fact

Trafalgar research says 71% of the people they researched for a recent study viewed new experiences as more important than sightseeing. And many successful travel brands focus their values around a distinctive take on the best experience; putting emphasis on the emotional value of travel, not trying to differentiate on product alone. A brand should say we get you, not we get you 9,542 properties in Majorca.

Expedia has repositioned to become the ‘ultimate travel companion’; tapping into the emotional desires that lead travellers to choose with their hearts and not just their heads. Shiv Singh, senior VP explains: “For the past 25 years, we’ve been focused on volume and transactions… Our customers want more from a travel company. They want a trusted partner who is there with them every step of the way, supporting them.”

Putting feelings before facts explains the mass appeal of brands like Away. Founded in 2016 and now worth $1.4 billion, it turned the suitcase into a symbol of aspirational travel. Its core belief – ‘the more we travel, the better we all become’, sells a vision, not a place or a product. And the brand comes to life in an immersive 360 way, reflecting the need to be in step with consumer need far more than messaging on price or destination. Away connect with consumers culturally, via their offshoot podcast Airplane Mode and travel magazine Here, offering ‘personal essays on journeys of the mind’.

Connection is everything

Travel choices are loaded with potential for personal development and human connection, but also for social and environmental harms.

The sector is seeing a rise in interest towards experiences that are physically challenging, mentally stimulating, and wellbeing-improving. And there’s an increased desire to connect with local culture and communities. Similarly, research by Trafalgar shows that 76% of us prefer “immersive, cultural activities and off-the-beaten-path experiences that deliver authentic connections with locals.”

Travel’s holistic impact will become as important as enjoyment. Authenticity and meaningfulness will trump pleasure. Research by reports that 69% of global travellers are looking to the travel industry to help support the growing interest in sustainable travel. Consumers will take more notice of brands that share their outlook and trust them to make choices that feel environmentally and socially responsible.

At the end of last year, Intrepid Travel evolved its positioning and identity to reflect this changing mindset. It updated its mission from ‘changing the way people see the world’ to ‘changing the way we all see the world’, putting greater emphasis on purpose and interconnection. Elsewhere, while eyes are focused on airline carbon offsetting programs, EasyJet broke category conventions earlier this year by declaring a move away from carbon offsetting in favour of other sustainability measures they believe can get them to their NetZero promise by 2050. This bold move sits well with EasyJet’s restless disruptor character.

Whatever you stand for, stand firm

Double down on the values you can win with. Virgin Atlantic is brilliant, disruptive, heartfelt. British Airways is safe, seamless, comforting. Choices must be made in the pursuit of a distinctive brand character, so make them.

Take the hotel collective Slow. It champions a ‘slower way of moving through the world’, with a pitch-perfect brand style to drive the idea home. Every message feels calm and editorial, with serene images shot on film, gently anchored against a soothing putty-coloured backdrop. A prologue on its website states that hospitality is “not a pit-stop away from the hectic pace of daily life but a continuous journey of reconnection”. Slow don’t try to fulfil everyone’s dreams; their single mindedness is what gives them stand out. And they illustrate perfectly that creating a coherent brand world that takes travellers to a space they can imagine being in will win faster than competing on product or price alone.

When share of pocket is squeezed, we expect to see brands polarizing, giving further opportunity to find a space and own it with confidence.

A race to the bottom for some pays dividends. Ryanair’s TikTok strategy pulls no punches on this front, with self-referential humour that plays up its low cost (at all costs) reputation.

But for those playing toward the luxury end of the sector, homing in on indulgence and aspiration can help attune to the desire for self- investment and escapism in difficult times. Trying to deliver luxury and price sensitivity will only dilute the vision for the consumer.

Ultimately, this ladders up to making pointed choices. To build preference and weather the price-sensitivity storm, brands need to build strong foundations and show up with reassuringly consistent core values and personality.

So, what now?

Choosing a travel brand is one of the most important consumer choices people make year on year. But, because so many brands offer everything to everyone, it’s one of the hardest.

Our job, as creators of brands, is to make the choice simple by showing up with clarity and determination.

The most successful brands do this by choosing who they’re for and what they’re best at. Then they translate this into a compelling identity that puts feeling before fact. And they work into this identity so that it is culturally relevant to the consumer; an immersive brand world that is rich and inviting. Because if people can imagine it, they can choose it more easily.

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