The pandemic wreaked havoc on the travel industry. Many marketers held back their ad spend in 2020, preparing for the inevitable end of this uncertain time when consumers would feel free to travel again. With vaccination rates & travel on the rise in 2021, brands that held their budget in reserve are chomping at the bit to spend it.

Of course, the trick is to spend it wisely. Doing so requires a detailed understanding of how consumer behaviors and attitudes toward travel have shifted in the last year. Reopenings and vaccinations do not mean the same thing to everyone. The travel audiences from a year ago probably no longer apply. Even frequent business or leisure travelers from 2019 may still not be comfortable getting aboard a plane.

In addition to using pre-pandemic travel behavior, brands need to grasp their prospects’ current mindsets, including how they feel about safety and vaccinations, as well as discounts and perks. This means looking at more signals than ever to segment their audiences to find the best prospects and drive ROI. Fortunately, those signals are out there for travel prospects in 2021.

Bucketing your targets

More often than not, the digital behaviors of travel audiences do not change in major ways year to year. However, the digital behaviors of travel intenders from a year ago have been heavily influenced by recent global events. In order to put digital travel marketing plans in place, it makes sense to bucket potential travelers into three segments:

  • Recent travelers
  • Travel researchers
  • Hesitant travelers

Observing the recent travelers

The best place to start is to look at recent signals. Even with a down year, some consumers have traveled and it makes sense to analyze their motivations, whether it be for leisure and vacation, for business, or for pandemic-related reasons, such as first responders.

Airlines (or their marketing agencies) should start by looking at people who have flown in the past four to five months, basically, those that traveled during the holidays and into 2021. This audience could come from purchase data or conversions.

This cohort’s behavior indicates that they are comfortable flying, and suggests they have a high likelihood to fly again. If your data shows that recent-flyers went to a vacation spot, re-engage them around vacation options in the near future. Welcome the actions of your recent customers, then find consumers who have similar behaviors by using modeling for scale.

Digging into the researchers

By targeting amenable flyers and helping them book more trips, travel brands can begin to normalize flying to wider audiences. This should be helpful in building out a segment that is already growing in 2021: the travel researcher. These consumers may be less ready to travel, but they are starting the planning process. Cabin fever has set in, and daydreaming about a future vacation has helped them keep from going stir crazy. Family travel planners and discount flight researchers are likely to pick up steam.

While these “travel researchers”‘ are merely thinking about a post-COVID destination, they are producing digital signals about where they want to go (Europe and the Caribbean are popular destinations, based on digital activity), the type of trip (resort, cruise, roadtrip), with who (business, leisure, family) and the activities. Now is the time to start informing these researchers about cheap flights, or special offers on destination vacations.

Whenever someone exhibits intent for a trip, no matter how soon or far in advance, they represent an opportunity to cultivate a relationship. It is entirely possible to find specific segments for online ad targeting that are tailored directly to consumers who are indicating a desire to travel in the early summer, once vaccination rates are higher.

Reaching the hesitant travelers

While the signals needed to understand their behaviors are unique in this post-pandemic period, recent flyers and trip researchers are obvious prospects to travel brands. The hardest nut to crack is reaching those who are hesitant to travel.

This may be people who travelled regularly pre-COVID or those who have the financial means to do so. They may also be looking up safety guidelines around COVID-19 as well as testing and vaccination news. Once you’ve identified this cohort, warming them up to the idea of travel will likely require two different approaches. The first is creative messaging that promotes deals further into the future than travel brands would usually advertise. Start serving this segment offers about all-inclusive resorts for early 2022 when things will return to some form of normal.

The other approach is to target this segment with creative messages educating consumers about the safety of flying and traveling. Messaging that reminds hesitant travelers of the joy of travel. Using helpful content about how an airline is taking the proper steps to guarantee safety, will go a long way toward reassuring consumers who may not be ready to travel yet in 2021.

Mining the signals

The segmentation we just walked through isn’t particularly difficult to do. Consumers are producing loads of online signals related to travel right now. Odds are that most brands already have a lot of this data at their fingertips. Travel brands that use as many of these signals as possible to create audiences will set themselves apart from the competition as they strategize creative messaging and targeted ad campaigns to build their revenue back up.

At a minimum, every travel brand should consider segmenting their target audience into the three buckets we just described – recent travelers, open to traveling, and hesitant to travel – and then drill down from there. That hesitant group will likely have subsegments of those who just want to wait, and others who remain fearful, but the signals are out there.

It’s no longer enough for travel brands to simply look at purchase history to engage prospects. A near-year-long pause in travel plans has thrown the old book on audiences out the window. For brands, the opportunity lies in expanding the scope of the signals they use to build their target audiences and using new behaviors to shape their campaigns and messaging strategies.

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