What The Volcano Has Taught Me About Travel Marketing

Rome to Frascati

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.


21 thoughts on “What The Volcano Has Taught Me About Travel Marketing

  1. What a completely wonderful and SENSIBLE post!

    I’ve been watching this from Australia and wondering why large companies weren’t stepping forward to put on the Super Hero cape and place themselves in a more human light than usual. Ah well — lots of missed opportunities to help fellow humans in need. And if climate change continues to ratchet upwards, there will be more disruptions in various shapes and sizes in the years to come.

    • Thanks, OK, at least there is someone else out there who’s with me on this. I thought maybe I was being naive.

  2. In New York the Mayors office got discounts for people stuck – 15% off cabs to the airport, discount tickets to theatres, provided lists of free stuff, places to go with kids etc. Not a lot but good pr.

    In contrast RyanAir only reimbursed stuck passengers up to the value of the fare – myabe in some instances a £1. NBo wonder people dislike them.

    • Exactly. Cal and I had talked about New York – imagine all those European families who will go back home and tell people that not only is America awesome but New Yorkers are so nice!

  3. Exactly what I was thinking, although admittedly some did help out like in Amsterdam Schipol KLM stepped in and helped set out row and row of beds for passengers.

    My thought was also that the Embassies didnt shout out loud and clear to ask if expats had room to house their fellow citizens as an extra way of keeping tabs on who needed help.

    But I FULLY agree that so many marketing ops were missed so the sake of a few euros, but hey you know what it is ? In all these kin of situations now, greed enters in. They could see big dollars, but as always, they only look at what is obvious, never the long term effects.

    I would have thought that the airlines would have organised something along the lines of BA would transport the British back to the UK, AF the French, Lufthansa the German etc…. They all transport people via their hubs, it would have shortened journeys and been better appreciated.

    Missed oportunities…..

    • I didn’t even want to get into how the authorities dealt with this. I was embarrassed at the lack of information coming out of embassies. I wonder if it was the opposite of the Haiti effect – that these were not ravaged poor people, but “rich” (by comparison) travelers who should be able to fend for themselves?

      • quite possible. I really did think most embassies were very very absent. Like you said the only real action-type “media-come-to-me” was Gordon Brown sending out the Navy

  4. These occasions allow us with to uncover the nut and bolts of entities caught up into a vicious circle of plastic customer service and engagement.
    Problem for us is that among other things we don’t have good memory and are not rancorous.

    • I think the other problem was that there was no footage available to tug at heart strings and make people stand up and pay attention. In terms of a worldwide snapshot, everyone – from airlines to their passengers – looked like rich whiners. It would only have taken a few heartwarming stories to turn the tide of the coverage and place the focus where it belonged.

  5. I think you are dead on sister. And it’s interesting to me given how much companies talk these days about “relationships” and “tribes” how unwilling they seem to be to create either thing at the very moment when it is truly necessary.

    We’re flying to London on BA frequent flier miles in July – I sure do hope that ash has stopped spewing by then!

    • I want to come back to the US in late July for a couple of weeks, it’s worrying that the geologists are all wringing their hands.

  6. You are so right. I see many companies seeing the short-term dollar signs and completely missing out on the long-term value of goodwill.

  7. At least Swiss Air got the communications plan right and actually answered every FB post I saw….it’s not saying much though. Must have a good PR copy editor.

  8. And let’s talk about the French rail system deciding to go on strike during that time, too: imagine the support the workers would have had if they’d forgone the strike so that all those stranded people could get around France, then done it later when things were closer to normal.

    Nope. Travel industry blew this big-time. Got some stranded friends from Texas down here to visit, though, so it wasn’t all bad.

    • I know! Italy moved their rail strike, at least. This volcano thing has been a wake-up call to the EU.

  9. Of all your writings in all of our time as friends, this is my favorite. I am so shocked by the lunacy and sense of entitlement of the industries; I keep having this vision of a team of blue suits in a courtrom suing the volcano, represented by a man in a loin cloth with tiki dolls around his neck, lest we forget who has the real power.

    • I love that image. Their reaction to the event was so surreal, it wouldn’t surprise me if it came to fruition.

  10. Thanks for offering a different perspective from the doom and gloom in the mainstream media.

    Your Kenyan story was a particularly “sticky” example of a missed opportunity. It’s crazy that he couldn’t think of something other to do with fresh produce other than to throw it out.

    Such an excellent blog (love the photos, too)!

    • Thanks so much for your generous comment. I, too was surprised that there was not more about this aspect of the crisis in the media.

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