How Xanterra is standing out in a ‘sea of sameness’

Understanding customer behavioural data is vital in the travel industry but never more so than now. The chief marketing officer of Xanterra Travel Collection tells Pamela Whitby about rising to this challenge in no ordinary times

At Windstar, the upscale cruise line of the Colorado-based Xanterra Travel Collection, the brand tag line is for travel that is ‘180-degrees from ordinary’. But these are no ordinary times.

“In a normal month of August, I would have been planning budgets for 2021 and revenue targets by quarter, and putting in place initiatives that span all of our 15 brands including Windstar,” says Betsy O’Rourke, the group’s chief marketing officer who will be joining the first Reuters Events Travel webinar next week.

That process would have involved building on the previous year’s successes and looking ahead for growth opportunities. Then there was the curveball of Covid-19. “As we started to see more cancellations than bookings we started to think, mmm, okay, let’s instead look brand by brand and try to establish reasonable revenue targets for next year,” she says.

We are not exactly trying to convert the bikers who explore our national parks into becoming first time cruisers

For O’Rourke, who oversees everything from revenue management to reservations, advertising, and e-commerce for Windstar, as well as the group’s three award-winning tour companies, the Grand Canyon train, six national parks, and four hotels, it was time for granular common sense. “We are not exactly trying to convert the bikers who explore our national parks into becoming first time cruisers,” says the travel industry veteran who led the global marketing team at Royal Caribbean before joining privately owned Xanterra.

Attracting people back into cruise industry, which last year carried a record 30-million passengers, but has been one of the hardest hit travel verticals is not going to be easy. Indeed, many empty ships are still standing empty, waiting for the opportunity to once again deliver guest vacations or face the scrapyard. So instead, the focus has been on finding people in their existing database who have cruised before and perhaps not only with Windstar.

The campaign pivot

Unsurprisingly, across all the group's brands there has been a complete rethink of this year’s marketing campaigns. The wanderlust travel sale earlier this year, for example, had to be immediately scrapped and replaced with something much softer, along the lines of ‘travel when you are ready’, and ‘we are ready when you are ready’.

Today, in September, Xanterra’s web page is using stunning imagery to do three things: first visitors to the site are encouraged to look ahead and ‘book your bucket list’; secondly it is offering a saving of 30% on trips to its national parks, the arm of the business that is recovering fastest; and thirdly there is the focus on health and safety. 

The website is the guest's first experience of the brand and Xanterra has worked closely with its technology partners to ensure engagement across all channels. One of these is Redpoint Global and John Nash, the chief marketing and strategy officer of this customer data platform, says the crux is to "recognize a customer across all channels and devices, and know everything there is to know in order to proactively engage in real time." 

5 Steps to standing out 

In these unpredictable times, it is very difficult for travel brands to predict the future and plan for it. “The focus is once again on the nuts and bolts of marketing. It really has to be. Marketers have to get back to basics, to really understand what the market is telling you, says O’Rourke, who will be sharing more in next week’s Reuters Events Travel webinar. In times of great uncertainty times this has included:

1. Monitoring external developments such as how air travel is recovering, as well as the ongoing work to develop a widely available vaccine. “In the past we were very focused on doing what is best for our business and not getting lost in what competitors are doing. Now we are definitely using external factors to determine consumer sentiment,” O’Rourke says.

2. Avoiding short-termism and too a narrow focus. It may be true that local travel attractions, such as drive-to destinations like Colorado’s national parks recover first but wanderlust will return, and a too parochial focus could hinder a travel company’s recovery when it does. “My point is that we can’t just be US centric – and we tend to do that here – because our guests are travelling internationally,” she says.

3. Understanding bookings and scrutinizing activity in social channels. The ability to grasp consumer sentiment and to pivot really quickly is a reality of this new normal. As Nash stresses, "it's got to be seamless". 

4. Differentiating the health and hygiene message. With every brand banging this drum, O’Rourke says it’s a question of getting the ‘messaging hierarchy’ spot on. Outstanding examples from others have helped to focus the mind  – for example, the Virgin Voyages health and safety video. She also acknowledges that just as there were changes to travel after 9/11, health and hygiene, and that extra layer of cleanliness is never going away. “Hospital-grade HEPA air filters are the new norm, and we are adding the extra layer of  UV irradiation into all six of our small ships,” she says.

5. Drilling down into existing data, and working existing resources harder than ever. As sales and marketing budgets are allocated as a percentage of revenue, being creative while keeping costs low has been vital. On the plus side, O’Rourke says there has been more time to focus on what previous technology investments really can do. For example, making better use of  Redpoint's Golden Record, which helps brands connect disparate data sources in real time.  “We are getting into much deeper segmentation with each of the brand databases, and are looking for opportunities to cross market and cross sell to micro segments,” she says.

Join Betsy O’Rourke, CMO, Xanterra Collection, Rob Paterson, CEO BWH Hotel Group Great Britain, Michael Jos, CEO, Bidroom, and John Nash, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, Redpoint Global for Reuters Events Travel webinar on Wednesday September 16


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