Top 5 Online Travel Marketing Trends in 2021

Online travel marketing matters more than ever in 2021. The pandemic has undoubtedly fast-tracked the transition to a more digital world, resulting in changes to online shopping behaviour that’s bound to have a lasting impact.

Just look at Amazon’s explosive growth last year. Or, these e-commerce statistics from Forbes. Does it come as no surprise?

Stay at home orders have triggered a surge in online orders as people have adapted to shopping online — whether it’s for groceries, clothing, electronics, or other weird stuff to get through quarantine

Not only that, but around 51% of U.S. adults have increased their social media usage since the outbreak, inevitably exposing them to more in-feed advertisements to keep the cycle of online shopping going. 

But what does this mean for the tourism industry, considering international tourist numbers were down 65% in the first half of 2020? Should operators even bother with travel digital marketing if there are currently no travelers (or very few of them)?

The answer is 100% yes. 

In our Booking Channels Report for 2019, 49.2% of bookings were online — 58.1% if you count the 8.9% of bookings made through online travel agents (OTAs). Our Mobile Booking Report also showed that 44.3% of online bookings came from mobile devices. 

See the breakdown of results by downloading the Booking Channels Report and Mobile Booking Report for free. 

Despite travel coming to a screeching halt, we’ve seen operators pull up their bootstraps by pivoting in some way or adjusting their marketing strategy. We’re curious to see how their efforts have affected the numbers in our upcoming Booking Trends Report. 

But it’s safe to say that online booking will continue to trend upward as people have grown accustomed to buying online. Meaning, if you want to capture more bookings when travel resumes, you’re going to need a solid digital marketing strategy. 

So let’s take a look at the top tourism marketing trends to keep on your radar this year. If you still lack a booking system, however, we suggest starting there, seeing as your attempts will likely be fruitless without the natural next step of booking online. 

Latest digital marketing trends for tourism

1. Virtual experiences

We’d be remiss not to mention virtual experiences as one of the latest trends in the tourism industry, considering it was the number one buzzword of 2020, quickly validated by the launch of Amazon Explore and Airbnb Online Experiences.

Many operators experimented with this strategy last year as a means to make a profit during the downturn or, at the very least, create and maintain buzz around their brand. It makes sense. If travelers can’t come to you, why not go to them via their screens?

But does this new trend actually work? Some operators argue no.

Jessica Hammer from Taste of Toulouse advised in her Tourpreneur interview that “unless you can create an online experience that seems so in line with your company’s mission that you can see it seamlessly integrated with your real tour offerings a year or two from now, you might be better off focusing on long-term projects that you know will pay off.”

Whereas, John O’Sullivan from Depot Adventures has jumped on board with Amazon Explore, predicting that virtual tours will become a travel planning tool in the future. By dedicating 25% of his time to virtual experiences now, his tour company will be in an advantageous position if this does happen. (You can hear his full interview here). 

Other operators see it as a temporary solution while overlooking the risk of Zoom and webinar fatigue on the guests’ end. But considering that more than 40,000 people expressed interest in a Reykjavik virtual walking tour last Christmas, it seems like people still regard video as an acceptable alternative to real travel.

Things to keep in mind for virtual experiences:

  • Make it short; people have limited attention spans online
  • Make it unique so that it’s worth watching over HBO Max (a challenging endeavour, indeed)
  • The experience won’t be the same online as it is in-person, so treat the delivery differently than a live tour
  • Use the lack of distractions, like traffic and crowds, to your advantage by controlling the narrative in a creative and compelling way
  • Invest in a Gimbal to up the production value
  • Think about what you’re going to do with the buzz. Build your mailing list? Position it as a gateway to paid private virtual experiences or online classes?
  • If going with paid live streaming, charge what your expertise is worth; don’t undercut the tour’s value

2. TikTok

TikTok — a video sharing app from China — became a lockdown sensation last year as the younger generations made the most of staying home by showcasing their dancing skills, lip-syncing, pranks, reactions to viral TikTok videos, and 15-second stories.

With #lifeathome content overwhelming the feed, there’s a unique opportunity for operators to stand out on the platform with travel-related videos — what many people are desperately craving more of right now since they can’t go anywhere themselves. 

And thanks to the generous TikTok algorithm that shuffles through relevant content to both followers and non-followers on the “For You” page, it’s relatively easy to get views. We’re not just talking about a measly 70 views, which is the average for a first-time YouTube video, but in the thousands and, if you’re lucky, millions. 

TripHacks DC is living proof. Owner Rob Pitingolo experimented with posting one video per day for December to see if TikTok was worth all the fuss and ended up getting 738,551 video views, 3,511 new followers, 92,300 likes, and 6,572 profile views. That’s huge! (Check out his results and takeaways in detail here).

But while he didn’t do anything special to get those numbers other than post videos, there are some tricks you can use to increase your chances of success on the platform.

TikTok marketing tips for travel content:

  • Tell a story; it’s the key ingredient to a successful TikTok
  • Use relevant hashtags the same way you would on Instagram to show up for those using the search feature
  • Geo-location is a factor in the TikTok algorithm, so don’t forget to add your location to your account
  • Play around with the effects in the TikTok editing tool (as tricky as it is to use) to help your videos stand out
  • Jump on the Challenge trend by starting a unique challenge that’s related to your tours using a branded hashtag
  • Link another social media account on your profile to convert profile views into followers on a platform where you have more pull

It does take time to create TikTok videos consistently to maintain traction. But the good news is you can repurpose the content for Instagram Reels (another video sharing hotspot that gets big results) and Instagram Stories to engage your current followers.

3. Facebook Ads

With all the uncertainty in the travel industry, you might’ve tightened the purse strings on your marketing budget and for good reason. What’s the point if you’re not going to get much return on your investment right now? Paid advertising is out of the question.

But is it?

There’s an advertising platform that gets you more bang for your buck, is relatively affordable, has the potential for massive reach, and complements your inexpensive marketing strategies — like blogging. It’s Facebook Ads

Last year, a few operators braved Facebook Advertising and ended up seeing astounding results, generating six figures in revenue for bookings with less than $1000 ad spend. But we highly doubt they experienced this level of success overnight.

It all comes down to testing. What works for one operator may not work for another. So while you can learn all the tricks and what not to do, it’s best to get your hands dirty and see for yourself what content, ad format, and audience delivers the greatest results. 

After all, you never know what you’ll learn from it — like this tour operator who found out that she gets the most engagement from the older generations for her history tours. 

If you haven’t dabbled in Ads Manager yet — a beast of a platform that’s constantly evolving — become familiar with everything you can do first. And then give yourself the best chance possible by using the Facebook Pixel to target website visitors and lookalike audiences who are more likely to be interested in your offerings.

Need a little help? Download our Facebook Ads Guide for Beginners. 

4. Blogging

One of the biggest upsets of 2020, besides the pandemic itself, was the unfavourable changes in pricing made by some of the larger OTAs. For operators who rely heavily on these channels for bookings, it was a wake-up call.

They started to see the importance of branding in tourism, strengthening their website, and doubling down on marketing to drive direct bookings and take back control over profits, booking cancellations, and refunds. 

The best way to do that? Blogging, believe it or not. 

With a well-maintained blog, you can establish authority as a destination expert, attract more visitors to your website, and best of all, boost SEO (search engine optimization).

How does blogging help with SEO?

  1. It keeps your website fresh and current — Google likes updates
  2. Increases the average time people spend on your website
  3. Targets those long-tail keywords that are easier to rank for
  4. Helps you implement a robust internal linking strategy
  5. And presents an opportunity to gain more backlinks, AKA votes of confidence, which bumps up your domain authority score, helping you rank for higher volume keywords on your conversion pages

That said, blogging can be time-consuming, and you might not have wiggle room in your busy schedule to commit to publishing two-three posts per week, let alone one. But the truth is, quality is always better than quantity when it comes to blogs.

Why? Because high-quality blog posts — posts that answer the audience’s questions thoroughly — drive more traffic, shares, and backlinks in the long run. We’ve seen this first-hand on the Checkfront Blog.

That’s why we dedicated a day to brainstorming evergreen content in our 30 Day Tour Operator Challenge. So instead of running on the hamster wheel of content creation, you can do less work by focusing on blog posts that will be good and useful year after year. 

How to write for your audience (and Google):

  • Choose topics that will be relevant to your audience long after publication by expanding on your frequently asked questions (FAQ) or referring to Answer the Public and Google’s “People also ask” section to find out what people want to know about your destination or type of tour/activity
  • Use your primary keyword in your headline, slug, meta-description, and body text
  • Based on your keyword research, use secondary keywords in your subheadings
  • Make each post scannable with subheadings, bold text, bullet lists, short paragraphs, and images
  • Link to other blog posts that are under the same topic umbrella (external included) — if linking internally, use your chosen keywords as the anchor text
  • Always add a call-to-action (CTA) at the bottom or middle of your post, whether it’s a newsletter sign-up, downloadable guide, or booking a tour

5. Local SEO

With travelers out of the picture, local marketing has become one of the top tourism marketing trends for this year and last. Strategically, operators decided to pivot by encouraging locals to visit the tourist attractions they once avoided, explore their backyard, and fall in love with the little piece of the planet they often take for granted. 

To accomplish this, many operators took the necessary steps to optimize their online presence for local searches. Hundreds even referred to our 52-page Local Marketing Guide for guidance on finding local website keywords, claiming local business listings, and maximizing ad spend with geo-targeting.

But it’s one thing to show up for local searches and another to convert locals into guests. Especially since you’re no longer competing with other tours, but the likes of Netflix and free outdoor activities, which Von Mack Agency pointed out in their tourism marketing workbook, Sit. Walk. Run — a big hit at Arival 360 last year. 

So, along with geo-targeting, you need to think about how to tailor your offerings, pricing, and marketing messaging for a local audience. The two go hand in hand. For some helpful tips on both strategies, listen to these Tourpreneur episodes:

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