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Skift Forum Europe is here and we're excited! We have a jam-packed agenda that includes keynote presentations, panels, and brand talks with an array of travel leaders as we explore the future of travel leading out of the pandemic.

With destinations around the world forced to go on lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, many tourism boards and brands found themselves on unfamiliar turf — trying to promote their own destinations to locals.

“I think the communication right now during the crisis has been like walking in a minefield,” said Janicke Hansen, co-founder of NordicTB, a collective of storytellers and influencers in the region working on marketing campaigns for destinations and brands.

Hansen argued that a lot of companies that traditionally focus their marketing on an international audience don’t have a clue about connecting with locals discovering their own neighborhoods or countries.

Building better relationships with local communities is also something that could prove beneficial to these travel brands after the recovery as well. After all, local community members can access destinations in their own backyard quicker than international travelers can, making it easier for them to continue to visit in later years.

In addition, it helps build a sense of community for the local population as well, as they would be putting resources back into areas familiar to them, as opposed to giving it to places abroad.

Skift global tourism reporter Rosie Spinks led a panel on “How Travel Can Reach a Wider Audience and Loyalty for the Future” for Skift Forum Europe, which took place Tuesday. NordicTB co-founder Lola Akinmade Åkerström and Zina Bencheikh, Intrepid Travel’s managing director of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, joined the panel, as well.

Akinmade Åkerström said brands are missing an opportunity if they don’t leverage local storytellers.

“Lots of destinations keep bringing in international storytellers to tell their story to the world and yes, you do need sometimes a fresh pair of eyes to share your story, but then you forget the strong storytellers in your background and in your backyard,” Akinmade Åkerström said, “The storytellers who can actually be your local, natural ambassadors, right, to strengthen your brand image, as well.”

Intrepid Travel, which promotes “responsible, ethical small group adventures,” hadn’t thought about crafting experiences for domestic travelers until it recently launched Local Retreats, Bencheikh said, referring to trips around Australia, the UK, Europe and North America that were designed for domestic travelers. The response to these trips, which are shorter in length than its traditional tours and are usually drive vacations, shows this was an untapped opportunity, she added.

The panelists agreed that outward-looking tourism boards have little experience in marketing to domestic travelers, but they didn’t cite specific destination marketing organizations or campaigns that have fallen short.

Domestic Dangers

Spinks of Skift pointed out that the Covid-19 crisis has led to a reemergence in Europe of an emphasis on borders and nationalism, and she wondered what role storytelling could play in countering these impulses.

Hansen said brands have to be careful in telling their domestic stories so they don’t “build our nationality in a stronger way than it’s intended to be. We have to also tell the story of solidarity, the story of standing together, not just being protective.”

Brands have been remiss in not reflecting the diversity of their travelers, but also in not focusing enough on hosts and destinations, said Zinke of Intrepid Travel. Vulnerable communities that have suffered from overtourism in the past and are concerned about coronavirus may not be ready to welcome back tourists, she added.

The travel industry has likewise not been diverse enough in its selection of storytellers, said Akinmade Åkerström, who is originally from Nigeria. Letting someone with her background promote the Nordics would help connect the region to a wider audience, she said.

Black Lives and Transparency Matter

Brands need to be transparent and vulnerable when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement, said Akinmade Åkerström, pointing out that the travel industry has fallen way short.

Rather than “just showing all your numbers, and saying ‘Well we’ve got 20 percent, we’ve got that,’ but just coming out and saying, ‘You know what, we could be better, we could do this better,'” Akinmade Åkerström said. “I think the travel industry has a long way to go just in terms of diversifying and being more inclusive.”

Bencheikh said Intrepid Travel wants to improve and decided to ally itself with the Black Lives Matter movement even as Intrepid Travel knows it needs to increase its diversity, and improve its training tools, and marketing.

Companies shouldn’t fear taking a stand, Bencheikh said, whether it’s for Black Lives Matter or other causes.

The panelists agreed that establishing the right tone, and getting the timing right on messaging are crucial factors.

Photo Credit: Hafrsfjord Stavanger, Norway as seen on August 10, 2015. The Covid-19 crisis forced travel brands traditionally focused on international visitors to rethink how to market to locals. Giuseppe Milo / Flickr.com