Road trip summer: How local travel boards are navigating brand safety now

The past 18 months have been a winding road for travel marketers, who who still have to consider COVID concerns.

At the beginning of March 2020, the Virginia Tourism Corporation launched a national campaign that aimed to showcase Virginia as a premiere vacation destination for visitors from across the country. The campaign came to a screeching halt five days later when the pandemic halted inter-state travel.

Later that Spring, they pivoted to a campaign they called “Find What You Love,” which urged Virginians to take scenic drives and visit state parks, while telling future visitors  to “plan now, travel later.” It was, says Lindsay Norment, brand director at the Virginia Tourism Corporation, a “safe way to keep Virginia top of mind.” To maintain brand awareness, it fielded ads on “high-funnel awareness channels such as broadcast TV, connectedTV, Spotify, social media and search,” Norment says.  

Display ads were also a crucial part of the mix, but appeared only on “brand safe” sites that Virginia shares with all of its ad vendors, Norment says--though there were some extra considerations due to Covid-19. “We had to be very vigilant with what was happening in the news,” she says, and tried to ensure their messaging was “high-level and not actionable so that it didn’t appear insensitive.”

The past 18 months have been a winding road for most travel marketers, many of whom grounded their 2020 campaigns and are now figuring out how to navigate a return to normalcy. “I did not expect vaccines to go as quickly as they did,” says Norment.

According to a recent study by MMRY, a global advertising agency that specializes in travel, 72% of American adults plan to take a vacation within the next six months, up from 62% in February. But they’re stepping out cautiously: 76% plan to travel by car, and interest in air travel remains down.

While the pandemic has eased significantly, it may not yet be time to throw brand safety concerns to the wind and embrace old strategies. Caution surrounding ad placements, a focus on short-distance travelers, and the need for flexibility have made traveling marketing a little less about luxury, and a little more about pragmatism and wellness.

Virginia, for example, is again wooing out-of-state travelers, but its “Share What You Love” message, rolled before the pandemic, is slightly different than it was before. “[We’re still] positioning Virginia as a place to come and disconnect from the chaos of your life,” she says but with a focus on escaping the “craziness of the past year” and “reconnecting with people you didn’t get to see during the pandemic.”

Like Norment, Mark Romig, CMO of New Orleans tourism, says that at the height of the pandemic, the city urged locals to strengthen their city by visiting local museums and restaurants—both hit hard by a lack of tourism. “There is great interest in being part of the larger community and showing support that way,” he says.  

This campaign is going live specifically in the New Orleans designated marketing area, on local TV, Facebook, and Instagram. “Both TV and Social do a great job of getting the message out to a sizeable group of New Orleanians,” says Romig.

New Orleans has begun reaching back out to its big pre-pandemic markets, including Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia, with its “The Concierge” campaign on YouTube and on TV, airing to markets that are “close enough for a quick road trip to New Orleans,” says Romig. The tourism group uses “exclusion lists,” made up mostly of “key words” and “content themes,” that prevent this campaign from appearing in content it calls “unsafe or not aligned with [its] values.”

Overseas brand placements aren’t yet a priority, but the team plans to resume “leisure marketing” in 2022, when international travel is expected to bounce back.  This means placing their marketing content by leisure-focused travel stories instead largely sticking to social media advertising as they did during the height of the pandemic in the US--a pivot the team had made largely due to budget cuts.

But, Romig said the metrics are with them: “Our website traffic is almost back up to where we found it in 2019”—a sign that pre-pandemic leisure marketing may be just around the corner.

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