The Brochure is Dead: Luxury Travelers Want More

It’s summertime and the living is easy. Time to load the crossover SUV and point it in the direction of the nearest beach, lake or mountain range. Hot dogs on the grill, cold beer in the can and Kanye on the battery-powered boom box!

Or, if you prefer, grass-fed burgers and estate pinor noir on a shaded hillside in Burgundy. You know, a special place where you can sing your own songs of freedom.

According to a recent survey by American Express, American travelers plan to spend  an average of $1145 per person on their summer vacations this year. That’s enough for a lot of encased meats and domestic beer. But the truth is affluent vacation travelers — people with a quest for adventure, unforgettable experiences, and serious bragging rights – are driving that average higher. They’re much more likely to vacation, and much more likely to travel internationally. But for marketers looking to reach them with branded content, they can be enigmatic.

What works, it seems, is a mix of ultra-personal, short-form content — and not necessarily in the typical social media channels — and high-production-value, long-form brand journalism. There’s often little in-between.

Part of the reason why luxury travelers are such an unusual target for marketers is that they’re strapped for time, so all the hours of patient research that goes into vacation planning is delegated to a trusted travel agent instead. That’s right, the Internet and its wealth of unparsed data has not extinguished the need for travel agents. Far from it.

What works to reach affluent travelers is a mix of ultra-personal, short-form content — and not necessarily in the typical social media channels — and high-production-value, long-form brand journalism.

“Luxury travel agents today, they’re consultants who educate their wealthy clients and guarantee them a good time, the best rooms, amenities and experiences,” says Jason Friedman, general manager of The Siam, a luxury resort destination in Bangkok’s historic district.

Recommendations from trusted sources, more so than advertising or content campaigns, influence purchase decisions at The Siam, says Friedman. “The awards the property wins and the editorial coverage we receive from the international travel press is the content our prospective travelers covet most, and skilled travel agents know how to use this information to close,” he says.

For Friedman, reliance on high-end travel agents, influencer marketing in social channels, and one-to-one marketing on Facebook are the hallmarks of his approach to creating interest and bookings at The Siam. “We had a blog, but there was no significant demand for the content,” says Friedman. “And we don’t need Twitter because our guests don’t care about updates from the hotel. They care about a relationship with the hotel and with me.”

Friedman notes that his personal Facebook page has become an important outlet for The Siam, as many travel agents and travelers he’s known for years prefer to follow him there. It’s a three-pronged approach, as also he maintains a general manager’s page on Facebook, in addition to managing the hotel’s official Facebook page in-house.

Given that the cozy-sounding “Connie’s Cottage” at The Siam is currently $1475/night, it does take more than traditional advertising or a trusted recommendation to motivate a purchase. It takes handmade one-to-one messaging—here content is the very material of relationship marketing. When you hold up the personal attention an hotelier like Friedman brings to The Siam against traditional resort advertising, which is often lifeless and stiff in its approach, there’s no comparison. Lifestyle photography-laded advertising, as important as it is to this category, can tell part of the story but not all of it.

The Inn at Palmetto Bluff, an Auberge property in South Carolina’s Low Country, also finds value in creating timely content for Facebook and Twitter, but it’s only about 20% of the marketing team’s focus.

Courtney Hampson, Marketing Manager for Palmetto Bluff says, “Social media lets us be ourselves and lets our personalities shine, which is important because interacting with staff in a positive way helps makes Palmetto Bluff the experience that it is. We have fun even though we’re high-end.” (The Inn’s Riverview Cottage is going for $555/night, and the three-bedroom Tennis Club Home is going for $901/night during  available dates this month.)

“Whenever we post a picture of the water, people react,” says Hampson. She notes that she collects photos all year and now asks event photographers to provide portraiture. Many of the images she collects end up in The Bluff, a 64-page glossy magazine published twice a year and mailed to 5000 households. This puts it among many high-end travel brands, from resort groups to airline elite-status programs, that publish printed magazines.

“We didn’t want to put out collateral with no shelf life,” says Hampson, “We wanted a coffee table experience that people can share with their friends when entertaining.”

The Bluff, which is also available online, could be confused with a fundraising piece put out by The Nature Conservancy — Palmetto Bluff is tucked away on 20,000 acres of mostly undeveloped wetlands, and the property is an important sanctuary for wildlife — but The Nature Conservancy does not offer one well made article after the next about world-class golf, delectable treats from a master chef’s kitchen, or polished wooden boats for river touring. The Bluff also touts Palmetto Bluff’s glowing endorsements from Travel & Leisure, Bon Appetite, Condé Nast, U.S. News and World Report, and Golf Magazine.

Four Seasons Magazine’s second 2013 issue.

The Four Seasons is another luxury destination that invests heavily in its own print title. Friedman, who once worked for the Four Seasons at a tented elephant camp he helped develop near the Thai/Laos border, says, the Four Seasons Magazine (published by Pace Communications) is “very important” to the brand. Four Seasons has no loyalty program and doesn’t believe in free nights (that said, this stance is slated to change this year), but their “amazing magazine” helps keep guests connected to the luxury experience even when they’re not there, says Friedman.

But a glossy printed magazine or brochure with long-form content can’t provide the kind of immediacy that any traveler craves, luxury or not. Another increasingly important bridge that helps span time and distance and keeps luxury travelers in close touch with their favorite destinations is the mobile handset. Like a subscription to a custom publication, a mobile app is a personal experience customized by user preferences and interests.

The Inn at Palmetto Bluff says it has seen great results with the release of its new app, which has become a notable new sales driver for the broader Palmetto Bluff resort home community that surrounds The Inn. Prior to its release, Palmetto Bluff did not list properties for sale on the Multiple Listing Service. Now interested buyers, their brokers, and local residents are alerted to new listings and closings via push notifications.

“The App gives them more confidence in the conversation,” she says. And it seems to be working, seeing as Palmetto Bluff has sold twice as many properties this year compared to last year at this time.

“We find that people lurk for a few months and then a new listing will trigger them to visit,” says Hampson. Buyers fly in from New York City and elsewhere for these visits, and naturally, they book rooms at The Inn.

Image by Iryna Rasko
Tags: ,