©istockphoto.com / Dave Long

©istockphoto.com / Dave Long

I recently attended a lunch with the founder of a leading experiential travel group. After his talk I was struck by how passionate and positive people were about the experiences the company offered.

It reminded me once again that our industry offers one of the most exciting, memorable and rewarding experiences imaginable. Even the most mundane trip has its moments. On business trips, it might be the deal you close or the glimpse of a city that you might never otherwise visit. On a ‘fly and flop holiday’ it might be that moment when you finally pause and get some perspective.

But if an alien tried to guess what humans cared about by looking at communications for different products or services, I don’t think travel would figure on his list. That’s because most travel communications focus on price instead of experience.

I’m not saying that no one in travel does emotional advertising – think Morgan Hotels’ FTR campaign, Emirates’ “Keep Discovering,” or Qantas’ “I still call Australia home.” But compared to other industries – many with weaker emotional pulls – travel tends to emphasize fares and function over fun.

Take iPhones or iPods, for instance. I haven’t seen a single ad from Apple about price. They’re all about the freedom of music, or the magic of intuitive design. Despite a global recession and a consumer mindset favouring caution over consumption, Apple hasn’t been able to fill orders fast enough.

The travel industry, on the other hand, has been awash in discounts and offers – each lower than the next. Yeah, we put a few bums on seats and heads on pillows, primarily in areas that the customer already wanted (cruises), but the constant discounting may have done long-term damage. It’s caused consumers to devaluate travel.

Our Domesticate research, which explores why Australians are travelling less within the country, found that many Aussies forsake travel for other luxury products – pools, home entertainment systems, landscaped gardening – which more effectively leverage emotion in advertising. The impact of this on the future is an extended period of low yields. And on the way, we shortened the booking cycle to historic lows – making our lives harder than ever.

One reason might be budget. Our industry is fragmented, operates on a global basis and has narrow margins. Money is tight and every message has to deliver immediate gain. Price-centred messages seem to drive conversion.

Well, of course they do. If you always talk about price and features, that’s all the customer will consider. Increasingly, the industry is like a hamster on a wheel. However hard we run, we stay in the same place, because there is always someone who can pitch the price lower and every step down makes it harder to drive price back up.

Here’s the good news: Creating compelling promotional content isn’t as hard or expensive as it used to be. In the digital age, small budgets can go a lot further. After the 2002 Bali bombings, a group of Bali hoteliers put together an ad costing US$18,000. Adapting Tourism Australia’s high-profile “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign, it asked “So where the Bali hell are you?” The visuals were poor, but it was cheeky and it reminded Australians why they loved Bali.

Tourism Queensland’s much-heralded “Best Job in the World” campaign, while not exactly low cost, generated return on investment well above its weight. The campaign also demonstrated that social media like Facebook and Twitter, properly managed, offer a world of opportunities for low-cost, high-return engagement.

Perhaps us travel types spend so much time travelling that we’ve started to take the experience itself for granted. But if we want to build a sustainable industry, we’ve got to get off the hamster wheel. We need to start investing in great content and stop being so afraid of emotion.