“A Lightbulb Moment”: Inside the Content Program That Helped Marriott Weather the Pandemic
COVID-19 sent shockwaves through every industry. But in travel? It was like the earth had pulled itself inside out.
It was hard to know what to do in those early days. Even harder to know what to say, which is why so many “Our brand is here for you in these unprecedented times” emails flooded our inboxes.
But in that sea of platitudes, one message stood out: a video from then-Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson getting choked up talking about how the pandemic would impact associates through no fault of their own. (Sorenson tragically lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in February, and has been replaced by new CEO Tony Capuano). The video was viewed millions of times, and it may have just been the first time a Fortune 500 CEO received so many overwhelmingly positive Twitter responses and YouTube comments.
But then Marriott had to figure out next steps. Communication about safety protocols and points flexibility was crucial, but the brand’s marketing team also knew that their audience wanted more than memos.
A pivot to “armchair travel”
For years, Marriott had been inspiring travelers through its flagship publication, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, which started by covering 3 destinations in 2014. Today, Traveler spans 87 local editions across the globe. And just because there was a pandemic didn’t mean that wanderlust suddenly disappeared. Marriott just had to approach it differently.
(Disclosure: Marriott Bonvoy Traveler has been a Contently customer since its launch in 2014.)
“We pivoted our storytelling to focus on armchair travel,” explained Robin Bennefield, Marriott International’s editorial director of Marriott creative and content marketing.
Robin Bennefield, Marriott International’s editorial director of Marriott creative and content marketing.
In 2020, the team scrapped an editorial calendar previously focused on beach vacations. Instead, with the help of its team of trusted freelance Contently writers, Marriott quickly published stories that would fuel its audience’s day dreams about travel. It showed them how to go on a virtual world tour, what trips to add to your travel vision board, and how to make their home feel like a luxury hotel.
These stories went out in Marriott Bonvoy Traveler’s April 2020 newsletter—just after the editorial team went on furlough, reaching nearly 12 million people. The newsletter averaged a healthy open rate of 15 percent. This one got a 28 percent open rate.
“The newsletter did gangbusters,” Bennefield said. “I think that was a lightbulb moment for a lot of people. They started to realize that telling these stories was more important than ever to keep people in the mindset to dream about travel.”
Local travel for a global audience
The success of that newsletter prompted Marriott to bring part of the editorial team off furlough. “People realized we need to keep these stories flowing,” Bennefield said.
Marriott Bonvoy Traveler has long had a powerful business impact across the customer journey. Traveler stories inspire people to consider new destinations. The smart design of the site makes it easy for Marriott’s audience to browse hotels and relevant activities when they’re researching a destination. After people book, the site’s stories—as well as its companion print magazine—help them make the most of their trip. Then, once the trip is over, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler sparks inspiration for the next adventure.
Despite the pandemic, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler’s role in the customer journey didn’t change. The publication just needed to focus on different topics. With the help of M Live—the jaw-dropping control room Marriott built in 2015 to track its audience’s needs—the brand realized that while people weren’t traveling far, they were interested in staycations, especially as the summer arrived and lockdown restrictions loosened across the globe.
“They were willing to explore their neighborhoods and cities again in ways that they hadn’t before,” Bennefield said.
M Live Studio
Instead of inspiring the American traveler to explore Barcelona, for instance, Marriott pivoted to help Catalans explore the gothic quarter in a way they hadn’t before, while still emphasizing safety. This is where having such a global content marketing program (Marriott Bonvoy Traveler will soon be available in 11 languages) and the ability to scale content production through Contently’s platform paid off.
“It has been hugely helpful to have Contently as a partner,” Bennefield said.
Road trip stories became a staple as well, as infection rates dropped and people felt safe traveling by car.
All along, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler’s performance climbed. Newsletter open rates remained above 20 percent—a 33 percent increase on pre-pandemic benchmarks. It generated $777,000 of search traffic value, nearly 4 million minutes of attention time, and a whopping 80 percent engagement rate, as measured by Contently Analytics.
“We rely heavily on Contently’s engagement metrics,” Bennefield said. “It’s a really strong way to measure how deeply people are staying with us and engaging with that content.”
The content is also driving a very significant amount of booking conversions—so much so that the content program pays for itself and is even “doing a little better than that,” said Bennefield happily. “That’s what everyone wants to see.”
Heading into the latter half of 2021 and 2022, Bennefield and the team are eager to continue to expand its content ambitions through a trio of engaging podcasts:
- About the Journey, which explores the inspiring stops and stories along Marriott Bonvoy Traveler’s favorite routes.
- Let’s Talk Points, a podcast for points aficionados.
- Behind The Design, which interviews top hotel designers on the latest trends and innovations.
“We really want to grow this audio form of storytelling,” said Bennefield. “We know that more and more people are consuming podcasts.”
Bennefield is also eager to return to a global lens. That means inspiring travelers to explore destinations they maybe haven’t considered before, via stories like Ghana Rising—a long-form piece of parallax storytelling that feels like it was produced by The New York Times.
“We’re excited about being at the table when we’re talking about the broader customer journey and infusing that traveler ethos into more of our experiences—to lend our expertise in the storytelling,” said Bennefield. “I’m really excited about the different formats that we’re embarking upon.”