“Where did you go on holiday last year?” I asked my friend.
“Ah yes, I remember now,” I insist, probably a little too vehemently. “What made you think of going there?”
“I kept seeing photos on Instagram and thought it looked uh-mazing.”
I’m paraphrasing but I’m sure it sounds familiar. We’ve all seen an incredible hotel or destination on the platform and mentally added it to our ‘must visit’ list. In fact, a recent survey by Expedia found that two thirds of 18-34 year olds say the ‘Instagrammability’ of a location is the most important factor when booking a holiday.
There are now over 800 million people around the world using Instagram each month; with a combined daily photo upload of more than 95 million. Most of these users are aged between 18-29 years old, meaning young adults are greatly influencing (and simultaneously being influenced on) how the world is viewed today.
And with copious awe-inspiring travel accounts at their fingertips, it’s no wonder millennials are putting Instagram firmly at the forefront of their travel planning. There’s no shortage of inspiration, but this does present a fairly big challenge for businesses: with so many picture-perfect travel accounts already dominating the space, how can modern travel companies break through and build an agile brand centred around customer loyalty?
Here we take a deeper look at the changing landscape of the travel industry, including the behaviours, patterns and habits of modern travellers, as well as what challenges and opportunities are being presented in this social-driven era.
Instagram as a Travel Marketing Tool
“Now you’re less than 10 clicks away from seeing an image on Instagram to purchasing a ticket to go there,” said Chris Burkard in an interview with National Geographic. Burkard is an American travel photographer with three million followers on his personal Instagram account, so it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about the power of the platform.
But if you’re still doubtful about Instagram’s ability to shape modern travel, we only need to look at the direct impact it has had on tourism figures.
In 2015, a (then) relatively unknown town on the South Island of New Zealand called Wanaka decided to invite Instagram influencers to visit, with the agreement that they would photograph their travels and upload them to the social platform. The result was unprecedented. Tourism surged 14 percent, out-growing the North Island nearly two-to-one, which the Lake Wanaka Tourism board largely attributed to the Instagram marketing.
According to James Helmore, General Manager at Lake Wanaka Tourism, “[Influencers] come across as very credible and authentic, as opposed to looking at an advert you know is being paid for by a company or a region.”
Another example of social media’s power as a travel marketing tool can be seen with the Rakotzbrücke (or the Devil’s Bridge) in Germany. If you haven’t heard of it you might well have seen it on Instagram. These picture-postcard images have inspired many a traveller to pack their bags and head off to Germany. Blogging couple, Travelerschild said, “Rakotzbrücke was that one place that from the first time we saw it somewhere on Instagram we knew we had to visit.”
And sure enough, Germany’s tourism is booming. Tourist numbers are forecast to rise for an eighth consecutive year, and the country has officially become the top travel destination for young Europeans (aged 15-24). While Instagram can’t take all the credit, it has certainly played a part. The German National Tourist Board (DZT) is well aware of this, with its own research finding that 85 percent of foreign visitors get information before and during their stay online, making “social media an integral part of DZT’s digital strategy” according to a Board spokesperson.
The Experience Economy
This social-driven era has unequivocally helped travellers discover new and exciting destinations, but ironically, the industry now faces new challenges as a result.
A major topic of the moment within the travel sector is the rise of the more personal experience. Social media has increased the average person’s expectations of ‘what’s possible’ from a holiday experience and luxury is no longer exclusive to a niche segment of society. Nowadays, the modern traveller demands Instagram ‘inspo-worthy’ getaways on a much more accessible budget.
Airbnb has been disrupting the traditional Online Travel Agency (OTA) marketplace since it was founded almost 10 years ago. The company offers immersive and competitively priced experiences to its customers by providing authentic accommodation with local hosts across the world. This personal, flexible and convenient model centred on the sharing economy is forcing other travel companies to go above and beyond their usual offerings, in order to maintain customers’ interest and build loyalty.
Airbnb’s Jonathan Mildenhall explains: “There’s a demand for individual experiences, not just in the travel industry but in bars, restaurants, museums, you name it. Experiences, rather than possessions, have become the new markers of success. The notion of owning an iconic pen, an iconic watch, an iconic car – that doesn’t seem to sync with, in particular, the millennial mindset. They are much more about collecting experiences that are personal to them. They don’t want to experience a great city like Barcelona and stay in a hotel that’s devoid of any kind of originality and personality. We’re seeing this whole shift from commoditisation to individual, personal experiences – and that can only be good for the traveller.”
Scoping out these wider experiences is now a key part of the travel planning process. Rather than simply looking for a hotel and then ‘winging it’ on arrival, the modern day traveller is more researched and savvy. Using Instagram’s geo-tagging feature, users can search for a destination and discover beautiful locations, cool hotels and restaurant recommendations in a few taps of their phone screen.
Travel shots on Instagram (especially the ones that appear under ‘most popular’ or ‘most recent’ in searches for particular destinations or hashtags) now serve as adverts for must-see experiences. Brands can take advantage of this exploration process – so long as they utilise a few key rules.
Firstly, while it may sound obvious, brands need to be consistently using hashtags. However, this should not be confused with repetition, as Instagram’s algorithm favours the use of unique and highly specific hashtags for every post.
Something which is equally as important as hashtagging is locations tags. People can make the mistake of thinking that if a location is stated within the name of place, then it’s pretty obvious where it is, right? Right. But although obvious, Instagram won’t necessarily pick up on this, and it definitely won’t be discoverable under the ‘places’ filter without a tag.
Furthermore, if your brand is a hotel, you should post images of places that people can visit nearby. Potential guests want to be excited at your offering, but now more than ever, travellers are placing value on the wider adventure and overall experience – so if your hotel is located next to a beautiful beach or idyllic park, be sure to show that in your Instagram feed as well.
Another way your brand can increase its discoverability is by capitalising on the reach and influence of established bloggers (or Instagram influencers). Inviting travel influencers to visit a place and document their experience on the platform can positively impact tourism. This can be implemented in a range of ways, from large-scale blogger trips, to meetups hosted by a specific influencer, or by simply inviting individual bloggers on a ‘one-off’ basis.
Lastly, ensure your own images are great quality. Travel influencers have set the benchmark extremely high, therefore anything less won’t stand a chance of making the ‘most popular’ page for destinations or hashtags.
How to be More Instagrammable
The seemingly endless choice of destinations now available to travellers poses a problem for travel brands. While a ‘world without borders’ seems like an ideal notion for many people, for brands it throws up the issue of how to get noticed in the noisy, global marketplace. The world truly is our oyster, and travel brands are no longer just competing with a few close competitors. So how can they stand out in an international market?
“Hotels are going the extra mile for Instagram. Whether it’s witty blackboards, artsy place-settings or making sure there are towels on loungers, hotels recognise the importance of being Instagrammable,” says Louis Sheridan from hotel booker Mr and Mrs Smith. “It’s not uncommon for our sales team to hear ‘I saw it on Instagram’ while taking a booking,” he adds.
Last year the Conrad resort in the Maldives even introduced an #InstaTrail, which involves a dedicated ‘Instagram Butler’ taking guests around the island to showcase the most Instagrammable locations and advising on how to capture that perfect shot. Not every hotel has the scale and resources to create a dedicated Instagram tour, though, so how else can you get more people to take pictures of your hotel ‘for the gram’? One of the easiest ways to give character to an interior is through the use of unique features. Nobody wants to take a photo of a generic bedroom or reception, but many people will pull out their phone camera for something that makes them think, “hey, that’s different.” The LINE Hotel in Los Angeles does this brilliantly. Its extremely distinguishable industrial style rooms have become something of a magnet for the ‘cool kids’ of Instagram, earning the brand a rapidly growing social following. It describes itself as “a second home for travellers seeking a rich, layered experience … a haven for creative expression and your jump off for urban exploration.” Indeed, with such a strong brand identity, you don’t need to invite influencers to stay; they’ll seek you out. Another thing that can make or break your hotel’s Instagrammability is lighting. Natural light is always best for creating a winning photo, so try to generate as much as possible through balconies and large windows, for example. If that’s not possible, however, you can get creative with interior lights by using them to create focal points. The New York EDITION hotel has become known for its trademark atmospheric lighting; with its subtly lit winding staircase and backlit beds proving to be Instagram favourites. Another way to position your hotel for Instagram success is with impressive bathroom features. Nothing says ‘living your best life’ quite like a huge bath sitting proudly in a state-of-the-art room with an incredible view to boot. The PuLi hotel in Shanghai knows this all too well; a favourite among Instagram influencers, with most of its tagged photos showcasing the enviable bathrooms.
So if your hotel is due a revamp, take into consideration how you can maximise its Instagramability. Maximising photo opportunities for guests will help them spread the word for you, which can have a significant impact on your brand’s awareness, reputation and bottom-line, long-term.
Building a Successful Travel Brand Driven by Customer Loyalty
The travel industry has never been so commoditised; with price, package, promotion being pushed front and centre. In light of this, you could be forgiven for thinking that building a successful brand centred on customer loyalty is no longer possible. Although difficult, there are ways to overcome these challenges.
Firstly, brands must know their niche. You probably can’t compete on price every single time (and even if you could, it’s probably not the best strategy). Authenticity goes a long way with the modern consumer, and focusing on those key segments of people whose values and expectations are most aligned with your offering is a more effective way of increasing business than trying to please all of the people all of the time.
Brands must understand their customers in order to speak their language and cater to their desires. Those who can provide a coherent and smooth user experience that is personalised to customers interests and their stage in the buyer journey will win out.
While this aspect of personalisation involves using data and tech to refine the onsite experience, many brands overlook the need for a seamless social integration as well. Using customer and user data to remarket relevant offers to those who have previously shown an interest in a certain package or offer is an effective tactic for generating more business from Instagram.
There is also demand for a ‘human element’. Today’s consumers are bombarded with thousands of messages all day, every day, so providing an authentic and relatable voice in the right context at the right time, will cut through that noise. As seen with Lake Wanaka in New Zealand, influencers can be a great vehicle to build credibility for your brand, while simultaneously growing an engaged audience.
In a world of faceless corporations, having a more personable brand voice will also help travel companies connect with their customers on a more personal level. Larger corporations are often restricted by lengthy guidelines and red tape, but a boutique hotel, for example, can show its character and flaunt what makes it one-of-a-kind through its social media content.
In order to drive consumer trust and loyalty, all components must work together in a virtuous circle, connecting the dots to create a relevant and meaningful customer experience.
Although the actual booking process remains the same, social media, and especially Instagram is changing how people discover holiday destinations and find travel inspiration. The key difference is that there is so much more choice than ever before. To build a successful travel brand and stand out in the noisy marketplace, you need to focus on creating individual and personal experiences, optimise for discoverability and Instagramability, and ensure the brand message is authentic and relevant at all touchpoints.