Skift Take

The travel public relations industry is ripe for new models of digital engagement.

Many large public relations firms operating in the travel space are still doing things the way they have for decades, without incorporating the full array of tools available in the digital age.

The traditional scenario revolves around PR firms sending out press releases on behalf of their travel clients to members of the travel media within a specific niche. For some agencies, the only thing that has changed in the last 15 years is moving from mail to email.

Percepture Travel, a new travel marketing consultancy led by former leaders of Weber Shandwick and Edelman’s travel practices, thinks it can do things better. It will serve as a division of the eleven-year-old Percepture marketing communications agency in New York, founded by Thor Harris.

Most notable about the Percepture Travel team is the collective experience behind the long-time industry veterans leading the division: Rene Mack, President—ex-president of Weber Shandwick’s global travel practice for 18 years, and Cathleen Johnson, Managing Director—founder & director of Edelman’s global travel practice for 25 years. They’ve also brought on Veronica Stoddart, who was travel editor of USA Today for 22 years.

The outlier in the group is Stoddart, who was brought onboard to oversee the content marketing development. While many media groups from Forbes to Skift offer their own content studios to corporate brands, it’s not common in the PR ranks, especially utilizing someone with Stoddart’s street cred.

Mack says Percepture’s foundation begins with what the team sees as an antiquated and fractured system in the global travel public relations arena.

“There are all these large, publicly traded travel companies that get all of the attention,” he explains. “But it’s a fractured reality because tourism is really made up of thousands and thousands of smaller companies that don’t have the visibility, marketing budgets, or a voice or a face among consumers.”

That’s further propelled by the continuing fragmentation of travel media with the rise of search and social. The end result, asserts Mack, is the growing commoditization of travel driven by hotel management chains, cruise lines, airlines, and online travel agencies, etc., who collectively control much of the discussion surrounding travel in mainstream media. The exception, generally speaking, is the ultra luxury segment, which is out of reach for the vast majority of travelers today.

Johnson, meanwhile, says many PR campaigns today are antiquated because they’re not horizontally integrated externally across all digital channels, nor internally integrated across clients’ corporate structure.

“Travel companies can’t be siloed in their communications, and we often see companies where their digital department doesn’t talk to their PR department, or they don’t even have a digital department at all,” she suggests. “Or they see advertising as something completely distinct from public relations, or they really don’t understand content at all.”

We spoke on a conference call with all four of the principles behind Percepture Travel, with a selection of their quotes below.

Skift: Does public relations still work in driving business in the travel industry?

Rene Mack: We’ve told company founders and CEOs you really don’t need public relations because that’s not going to solve your problem. You really need search, you really need great content marketing. PR is the worst thing to do if you’re not showing up in search, because you’re just generating a lead for someone else. You want to ignite a conversation, and it has to be authentic, real and relevant, but you also, especially in the age of digital, social and a very active consumer, you have to make sure that the conversation is landing in the right place.

Skift: Is there a growing awareness among travel companies that their public relations is not necessarily relevant in the 21st century?

Mack: When you sit in a revenue management meeting versus a PR meeting, it is a very different world. So with PR, there are those who believe that it’s a nice-to-have, and believe in it but can’t really define it. But more and more, as marketing and everything assimilated under marketing such as PR evolves, clients are demanding a definition of ROI that is trackable to sales and business, unless it’s a crisis. And what we’re finding in the modern digital age, if you use marketing correctly, it allows you to track it as long as your clients let you to build that mathematical model into the system from the beginning.

Skift: And you’re saying content marketing that can be tracked is the next generation of travel PR?

Thor Harris: Yes, but you hear the word “content” thrown around a lot. It’s constant, constant, constant. When we first all sat down together, it occurred to all of us that everyone is talking about content but most people don’t really know what it is. And if you really want to do it well, why wouldn’t you have a journalist get it to your audience, so we’re working with Ronny, someone we’ve always admired.

Veronica Stoddart: Having a journalist on the executive team shows that Percepture Travel is really putting a stake in the ground around content marketing. For us, it’s really about brands creating and owning their own content to engage deeply with users, to connect them with the brand identity, and build trust and loyalty through engagement. Because content is ultimately serving the users’ needs and getting them useful information that can improve their lives. When you do that, you create a strong bond with brands and ultimately that bond creates demand.

Skift: How do you measure that?

Harris: One of the critical uses of content marketing is search and search engine optimization, use in pay-per-click advertising and other campaigns, and online reputation management. SEO and PPC give us a tremendous opportunity to measure traffic to the website, qualified leads, conversion and bookings. So the content becomes another tool in allowing us to create analytics, data and measurable impact for a client, whereas in the past, public relations has had some fuzzy math associated to it from time to time.

Skift: Are travel brands understanding better in 2015, that in order for content marketing to work, they have to give up some control of their brand?

Cathleen Johnson: I think one of the places where this is so vibrant and working well is in destination marketing. Australia, for example, does a great job with bloggers. At Edelman, we represented the state of Illinois for about 20 years, and for so many years, the state would always want control of its brand, and we couldn’t get past that. And then finally there was a visionary there who said, “Hey, social media is on the horizon, we need to give up our brand.” And I think more and more destinations are understanding that they have to share the brand.

If you can’t share the brand, and contribute to the conversation about the brand, consumers simply won’t participate. So I think that consumer products and services in the industry are being much more forward thinking.

Mack: It’s evolving into brands realizing that they know they need to be in the online conversation around their brand, and hopefully the conversation is intriguing and interesting and useful, but they also know what they don’t know. They know that they have to basically initiate that conversation and fuel that conversation, and they have some degree of ownership of what that conversation will be, even if they can’t control it.

Skift: So your goal is to develop in-house content marketing and integrate outside travel bloggers into campaigns?

Mack: Let’s embed real journalists into companies and brands, not to find brand stories, but to find the stories that really matter to consumers, and how they spend their disposable income, and what the experiences are that they want to walk away with.

For example, Ronny and her colleagues are heading to Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia, with full access to guests, the front of the house, and back of the house to find the stories that really matter to the guest. And I’ll bet you those won’t necessarily align with what’s coming out of the marketing department.

Skift: Do you feel the top travel bloggers you intend to contract really drive real travel purchase decisions?

Stoddart: This comes down to influencers. There are a lot of bloggers who are major social influencers in their niche. With family bloggers, for example, they may not have huge audiences individually, but if you get ten mommy bloggers together to go out and do stories, they’re going to be reaching the target audience. You’ve obviously got to vet them carefully and see what kind of audience they have, but a smart marketer can suss that out.

Mack: We’ve found, especially in drive markets, most influence comes from bloggers and local media within eight hours of a destination.

Skift: What can you do at Percepture Travel that you couldn’t at Edelman?

Johnson: I think that Rene and I are both huge fans of our former agencies, and I wouldn’t have been there for almost 30 years had I not loved Edelman and thought that they were brilliant. For me it was a matter of transferring the passion that I have for the travel industry into a more workable model for the industry, particularly since 2008 and the recession. It was increasingly difficult for a multinational agency the size of Edelman to really give the service and attention to some of the smaller travel businesses that in my mind are really doing some very exciting things.

Rene and I used to come head-to-head on so many different pitches, and you always want to have a peek under the tent and see what the other guy is doing. Now not only can we peek under the tent at what each of us brings to the party in terms of new business, we have a peek under the media tent with Veronica. We feel we have this unique insight among the three of us, along with the business and digital background of Thor, so it just makes this perfect package.

Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at [email protected]

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Photo credit: Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg is a Percepture Travel client. Kingsmill Resort