Now is the time for engagement, argues If Only general manager Gordon McCreadie

When the If Only team and I left the office in March to work from home due to Covid-19, never in a million years did I think we’d still be riding the storm in September.

Although bookings are picking up again as people look forward to safe 2021 travel, the situation hasn’t got any easier, with widespread uncertainty around quarantine, and Foreign Office advice changes on an almost daily basis.
Our commitment to supporting our agent partners, however, hasn’t changed.

Some may argue that amid the hubbub of rebookings, cancellations and refund credit notes, agents don’t have time for marketing and engagement, but I couldn’t disagree more.

Consumers might be nervous about committing to their next escape, but that makes it all the more crucial we create exciting content, enabling agents to inspire. We’ve got to have faith that the future is bright. The real questions are what does effective marketing look like amid the ‘new normal’ and how can operators adapt our promotions?

When I started in travel, social media marketing was non-existent. It’s grown arms and legs in the past decade. Facebook and other platforms have become key for operators, and their role today is bigger than I could ever have imagined.

Marketing reassurance

When we asked agents what the most important marketing tool was for them at present, a whopping 42% said social media offers and videos. An agent’s Facebook page is their virtual shop window, and the deals they share are their online window posters. When face-to-face interaction is limited, and an increasing amount of business is conducted online, operators need to deliver engaging digital content and support agents where it’s most effective.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly caused job descriptions to evolve. We’re having to wear more hats than the lead singer of Jamiroquai, with people going above and beyond to deal with situations they’ve never previously experienced. Marketing is no different. In the past, I’ve always regarded it as an inspirational role but, nowadays, marketing teams have a duty to reassure as well as promote.

Our agent survey revealed a strong expectation that operators should provide clear-cut information on the current travel rules, to install confidence in customers. Now, more than ever, the public are turning to travel agents to book because travel restrictions and entry requirements are so confusing.

So we need to enable agents to step up to that role with the assurance that we, the operator, are providing the latest information. At If Only, we’ve developed an Information Point about the destinations we sell, guaranteeing agents have quick access to the forms, entry requirements and details they need.

Brochure shift

I’m a big fan of physical brochures. There’s nothing better than browsing pages of luxury accommodation with a nice glass of wine (or in my case, a can of diet Irn Bru) to dream up your next escape. There is a real possibility, however, that we’re going to have to change tact regarding brochures and other physical marketing materials. Almost a third (30%) of agents who responded to our survey implied that, going forward, they would avoid displaying brochures to minimise the spread of germs.

Given the cost associated with printing brochures, and reduction in store visits at present, this will likely spark increased demand for digital materials. The same goes for window posters. While 10% of agents confirmed their store window was still important, more and more are working from home to save on overheads. So, perhaps in future, operators would be better served developing digital marketing methods.

With the situation constantly evolving, there is no magic spell to dictate how we survive this pandemic. It will need to be a combination of airport testing, effective government sector-specific support and that all‑important vaccine.

Supporting agents and their customers is equally key, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the industry’s mighty marketing teams take on peaks 2021. Who knows, it could be better than ever…