When I started working with Cal – even before we began dating – he would invite me to brainstorm with him whenever he got a new Internet marketing copywriting gig. After six years, this brainstorming has become a habit whenever either of us gets a writing gig. In fact, it’s become such a habit, we tend to “market out” almost anything: We’ve come up with marketing plans for everything from Lindsay Lohan’s career to the restaurant that’s just opened up down the road (which, for the record, is a gay karaoke creperie).
So as we watched the events unfold surrounding the Eyjafjallajokull volcano ashpocalypse, we were amazed at the utter lack of marketing savvy from the overwhelming majority of the travel industry.
Most of the stories coming out of the travel chaos amounted to First World Problems – “I took my 10-year-old to Barcelona to watch a football match, and now we’re stuck!” “I hope we can find things to do in London while we wait!” “We’ve decided to stay in Osaka for another week.” But as the days have worn on, frustration has grown and the stories have changed in tone. Now there is talk of medications running low, hotels profiting from those under house arrest for visa problems, and desperate travelers who have run out of money and are begging for couch space.
The first jaw-dropping example of marketing malfeasance I saw was not from the travel industry, but from a man in Nairobi who wrote into the BBC News website: “My business of supplying fresh produce to the retailers in the UK and continental Europe is virtually at a halt. No flights northbound and I can’t send cargo out, so everything is going into the bin.”
What? Why? Because Kenyans have all the food they need?
If this man had instead contacted an aid organization and had his workers deliver the produce to even one group of people in need – or just found the closest poverty-stricken area and handed out the fruit himself – imagine how much free publicity he would have gotten. The media would have taken that story and run with it. His customers in Europe would benefit, too, by being associated with him. And perhaps more suppliers would have followed suit, to the benefit of all.
But the most egregious offenses have came from the travel industry. They may be losing big money right now – but it’s nothing compared to the negative word-of-mouth advertising they’ve gotten over the last week. Because, guess what? All those annoying customers who keep complaining? If they had the money to travel once, they’re going to have it again. And they’ve got friends. And now, they’ve got stories they’ll dine out on for a month.
And those who were not traveling at this time are watching closely, too, and they’ll remember when it comes time to book their own vacations. Not to mention the negative industry trend pieces coming from a 24-hour-a-day media bored with looking at a static map of an ash cloud.
I’m not saying that airlines, hotels and others should turn into the Red Cross. I’m saying that by being just a little more generous – and then issuing a big fat press release about it – in the end will more than make up for your immediate financial woes. And really, if you’re losing up to $200 million a day, what’s an additional $50K?
I’ll tell you what an additional $50K is. You know when you’re at the supermarket after work with the rest of the world, and the checkout line is endless, and the person in front of you is writing a check, or paying in pennies, or asking for a price? And you know how, as soon as the checkout girl acknowledges you, whether it’s with a smile, a sympathetic eye-roll or an, “I’ll be right with you, sorry,” your shoulders come down from around your ears and all of a sudden you have all the time in the world? That’s what an additional $50K is. It’s nothing to them, and means everything to you.
Imagine a hotel announced that all guests who were stuck would receive a 50% discount on their rooms for the duration. Or free meals in the dining facilities on site. Or that they had had some extra rooms, gone to the airport, found and put up 10 families for free. Imagine it was an international chain hotel. How many travelers would remember that the next time they saw the name pop up on an Expedia search? Instead we got stories about price gouging and hotels throwing those with visa problems out onto the street.
Instead of giving whiny quotes to the press about the results of test flights and hinting at government bailouts, imagine if an airline announced that passenger safety was their only priority. Imagine footage of airport restaurants cooking up hot meals for stranded travelers; ticketing agents on laptops sitting on the floor next to families, trying to find an alternate way home; burly luggage handlers setting up mattresses and blankets or leading kids on a tour or playing catch with them outside. How would that affect your next ticket purchase?
How awesome did Gordon Brown, who’s in the political fight of his life, look when he got on TV and announced he was sending THE FREAKING NAVY to get stranded travelers? How quickly did the media spread the word that Disney was throwing open its gates to tourists stuck in Florida? How many tourist dollars streamed into Spain once they said they would take arriving flights and add dozens of extra trains?
Again, I’m not saying that the world should be puppies and flowers. They should go ahead and be as media whorish as they’d like. Every single nice thing they do for these people should be shouted from the rooftops, and their logo should be prominently displayed everywhere there’s media coverage about it. But to me, it’s every no-brainer, win-win, marketing lingo phrase you can think of to help these people out.
A majority of the copywriting Cal does is for Internet marketing gurus who say you can get rich selling stuff on eBay or attending a seminar or harnessing the power of this or that. It’s frankly stupid, and we have no idea how anyone falls for it – which is why we need to brainstorm and get to the essence of the desire in our client’s ideal customer.
In the end it’s always dreams they’re selling, and it’s dreams that the travel industry is selling, too. But these travel industry big-shots seem to have forgotten that it’s more than a seat on a plane or a room with a bed they’re selling – it’s the incredible experience of closing the door to your home, bag in hand, and setting out to live another life somewhere new, if only for a few days or a week. And if that dream turns into a nightmare, it’s up to them to recapture the illusion by any means necessary – if for nothing else than their bottom line.
Of course, it’s just me and Cal over here. We’re not big industry experts. I know there are bigger issues I’m omitting in my picture of marketing paradise, and that it was – and still is – an impossibly complicated situation. But I find it hard to believe that not one of these major players – and I’m looking at you, too, EU authorities – thought for a moment of anything but the immediate hassle and expense.