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To better understand the big marketing challenges facing travel brands in an age when consumers are in control, Skift’s What Keeps CMOs Up at Night will talk with the leading voices in global marketing from across all the industry’s sectors.
These interviews with leaders of hotels, airlines, tourism boards, digital players, agents, tour operators and more will explore both shared and unique challenges they are facing, where they get insights, and how they best leverage digital insights to make smarter decisions.
This is the latest interview in the series.
Lindblad Expeditions has been busy this past year, and not just with small-ship voyages to the Galapagos, Antarctica and other destinations.
The expedition travel company completed a merger with Capitol Acquisition Corp. II in July, went public, and late last year announced plans to build two new ships and acquire a third.
Lindblad, which owns six ships and charters another four seasonally, has set a goal of growing from 20,000 to 30,000 guests a year over the next five years.
Chief marketing officer Rich Fontaine is charged with helping to achieve that growth, particularly among the company’s core demographic of active recent retirees.
Fontaine, who joined Lindblad Expeditions in July of 2013 after spending 18 years at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, spoke to Skift about why TV advertising is tricky, the importance of offering a better customer experience, and how climate change is changing the business.
Skift: When you joined, what did you see at that point as the real opportunities for you to tell the Lindblad story?
Rich Fontaine: There’s not one silver bullet that was going to say, ‘Hey we can drive 30% growth in the business over the next five years if all of a sudden we focus exclusively on this.’
We are a multi-channel marketer across both direct channels and trade marketing channels, and obviously we have a very critical, invaluable alliance with National Geographic who we picked up as a partner of ours. Those were all things that I evaluated and challenged my team to say, ‘Where are there incremental opportunities that we can get another x-point improvement in each one of these?’
That’s what we’ve really been focused on. Whether it’s in the digital marketing arena or through our traditional channels of print or direct mail, it’s all about continuous improvement, and more creative testing, and more innovation, and trying to stay on top of what are consumer trends, and trends and development of new tools and technology, that make it more efficient for us to market, to drive a great number of leads and to convert those leads into bookings, and ultimately to tell our story across these multiple channels in using a number of different content resources that are available to us.
In particular, video. We are sitting on a trove of video assets. The company has always done a very good job of leveraging those, and we’re trying to now ramp that up even further.
Skift: Do you do any TV or would it be all online that you’re using those video assets?
Fontaine: It’s all online. We looked at television, we challenged our media planning agency to give us a recommendation, and the biggest hurdle we found is that it’s so hard to target a relatively narrow demographic that has the affluence to be able to travel with us.
Targeting that psychographic is also really hard too. So we chose not to even really test television. I know for example, Viking, they’ve done a phenomenal job of using television to build a brand for themselves, and to create a whole aura around European river cruising. Well, that market and that industry is significantly larger than expedition travel, and the price points and the entry points are a lot lower. It’s a more accessible travel opportunity for people. We didn’t think that television, at least in the current environment, was the right platform for us to do that.
Skift: Given that and given the difficulty in targeting the right demographic and psychographic, what do you find are the most effective channels for you when you’re trying to market the product?
Fontaine: In the traditional channels, I would say direct mail continues to be incredibly productive and efficient for us. For a few reasons. One, it allows us to tell our story in kind of long-form content, so someone who’s intrigued by the concept of expedition travel, and is willing to devote the time and attention, that gives us the platform for doing so. It also allows us to target individual households with a lot of data overlay and modeling capabilities that help us identify who, through third party cooperative database, we know transactional activity, we’re really good at being able to pinpoint household incomes, other type of travel and transactional activity that would indicate a propensity for expedition type travel. That has proven to be very powerful.
Similarly, in the digital space, there’s nothing that is as robust as paid search. It just continues to get better and better.
I fully expect Facebook is going to become nearly as powerful as Google in due time. We see that that is the platform in terms of all the social media options, where it’s where we have the greatest penetration of usage of our past guests and our prospective guests. It’s where we can tell stories really well….
We continue to experiment with various things in the social media sphere, particularly Facebook and Instagram are the two that we devote most of our energy to. I think in due course those platforms will prove to be as effective as paid search.
Skift: Are you guys tracking or noticing, or responding to any really interesting trends as far as what your consumers are asking for?
Fontaine: Well, I mean we know that the demographic trends are certainly in our favor, right? We’re on the early wave of a big population of retiring boomers who are hopefully, fairly affluent, adventurous. They want to do things that are more experiential. We’re well positioned for that.
We also see that consumers are far more demanding, certainly in terms of expectations about the guest experience. We’ve had to step up our game in areas like food and beverage, and hotel operations on board our ships. We’ve always had phenomenal expedition teams and their interactions with our guests. I mean, it comes naturally to them, but at the same time we’ve upped our training to make sure that that guest experience is beyond reproach.
I think people want more access to local, authentic experiences, and so we’ve done things like we now have a field correspondent who travels with us to places like the Arctic and other regions, and helps us better tell stories of access to locals in authentic experiences. We do our best to avoid the major tourist draws in the places that we go. We don’t want to be anywhere near where the crowds are. I think people appreciate that, respect it, and are willing to pay a premium for that type of experience. We do everything we can to avoid the masses.
Skift: What are the things that you really worry about? If they keep you up at night, or if they are just things that are constantly coming back as something that you are dwelling on?
Fontaine: Obviously, I hope it never happens, but a catastrophic event like 9/11, or a major recession like 2008 or 2009. I wasn’t here, but many of my colleagues were, and I’ve heard how challenging it was to operate in those periods. To the company’s credit, it survived and thrived beyond those periods.
I’m always concerned about civil unrest or other events and crises that create uncertainty to travel to certain geographies. For example, Egypt. We used to have a pretty big Egypt program, and obviously we had to pull out of there. When will it be safe to go back to Egypt? We ask ourselves that question every year. We had a phenomenal expedition scheduled for West Africa two years ago when the Ebola virus exploded, and so basically we had to proactively address and cancel that. We’d love to get back there because we know there was tremendous demand for that experience. Those things keep me up at night.
I guess also, any sustained decline in consumer confidence. We’ve been on a five-year run, obviously in the market, so a pretty robust consumer confidence. In the second half of last year, there were some periods where I think people were feeling a little less confident. I think that’s a short term thing, and I think we’ll evolve out of that, but those are the things that worry me.
Skift: Your company goes to the polar regions, and has very long history in the Antarctic. How much do you think about, or how much does the company worry about climate change and it’s effect on those areas? Not just because it’s bad for the planet, but also because that’s an important part of the world for Lindblad.
Fontaine: Yeah, ironically it adds and creates some opportunities for us, because those regions are warming, there’s less ice. We can now get to places and explore new regions and geographies that we weren’t able to access before.
For example, in 2015 we traveled to the northernmost point we’ve ever been: an island in the Canadian High Arctic called Ellesmere Island at 80 degrees north. We just couldn’t access it before, but now the ice had cleared enough for us to get in there.
Obviously it’s a big deal to provide those experiences to our guests, it is absolutely phenomenal. Climate changes also just created more acknowledgement and awareness of the issue, and people’s interest in wanting to see it first hand. Therefore, like I was explaining before, the robust demand we’re seeing in Antarctica, I think it has to do with people saying, ‘I want to witness it, and I want to hopefully then be proactive and preserve it so that my kids and my grandkids can go and see what I saw.’
Skift: Staying in that part of the globe for a minute, the company is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first citizens explorer cruise to Antarctica. Is that right?
Fontaine: That is correct. It was in January of 1966. [CEO and founder] Sven [Lindblad]’s father, a gentleman named Lars-Eric Lindblad, chartered an Argentinean Naval vessel, and brought 57 of the first non- scientists to Antarctica.
Skift: What kind of opportunities does that give you as chief marketing officer, and how are you capitalizing on that?
Fontaine: Well we are celebrating it for two full years, because in 1966 Lars-Eric brought those first non-scientists to Antarctica, and then in 1967 he brought the first non-scientists to Galapagos.
To this day, 50 years later, those are two of our core geographies. Places we still bring the most guests where we have incredibly robust demand, and incredible guest experiences. For us it reinforces our expedition heritage. This is what we do. This is all we’ve ever done and we will continue to do it. We are singularly focused on providing guests the absolute best experience in reaching these places that at one time only scientists could ever travel to.
This series is presented by Boxever. The Skift content team maintains complete editorial control over these interviews and the selection of subjects.
For more insights from Boxever, please see the following reports: