If you’re an American of a certain age, you probably remember The Love Boat. It was a corny sitcom that ran from 1977 to 1986 and was set on a cruise ship. But beyond the campy fun, the show was notable for something else: It was the first successful example of content marketing in the travel business: The action took place aboard the Pacific Princess, providing invaluable exposure for Princess and the entire cruise industry.
I was reminded of the show when reading recently about Carnival’s recent success as a producer of television shows. The corporation, which oversees 10 cruise brands, now creates six different series on major U.S. networks through its Ocean Originals arm—including “The Voyager with Josh Garcia” on NBC; “Ocean Treks with Jeff Corwin” and “Vacation Creation,” both on ABC; and “La Gran Sorpresa” on Univision—in addition to programming for its own streaming video channel. In all, Carnival expects its shows to reach 260 million viewers this year—not including on-board views. (By contrast, CNN’s Parts Unknown with the late, great Anthony Bourdain usually attracts around 1 million viewers per episode in the U.S.)
Carnival’s shows aren’t glorified infomercials: They’re legitimately entertaining shows with recognizable hosts who travel the world to showcase what viewers can experience by cruising. The product placement is soft-pedaled: You might see a ship at port in the opening scenes, but the experiences tend to be land-based. Many of the company’s upscale brands are featured on the shows, including Cunard, Seabourn, Holland America, and Costa. Carnival is essentially using the content it produces to promote the cruising lifestyle and keep it top-of-mind among consumers. In fact, they’ve done research showing that viewers of the shows are twice as likely to strongly consider a future cruise than non-viewers.
That’s the whole point of content marketing, and I see it becoming a much broader trend in the travel industry. That’s because some might say traditional publications like magazines and newspapers are shrinking in circulation, and more people are turning to websites, social media, and YouTube to get ideas and information about travel. “We saw a change in the way people were consuming content,” says Scott Weisenthal, VP Global Creative + Content Marketing for Marriott International, explaining why the hospitality company created its own Content Studio around three years ago. “We noticed that travelers were looking for inspiring and premium entertainment-driven storytelling to help them in the decision-making process.”
This new media landscape is an opportunity for travel companies to, in essence, become publishers and producers themselves. Creating their own content—whether it’s a TV show, a blog, a video series, an e-book, even an Instagram Story—allows companies to take control of their own story, flesh out the meaning of their brand, and connect directly with readers to inspire and provide information. It’s a way to put your brand front of mind without being “sales-y.” Consumers (and especially the younger ones) have become more suspicious of advertising and other traditional marketing, but they do pay attention to branded content, as long as it keeps them entertained and informed. A recent survey by Time Inc. (now Meredith) showed that two-thirds of consumers trust branded content more than ads. “The audience doesn’t want content that’s going to be disruptive, like a lot of commercials are,” says Weisenthal. “They want content that’s going to be additive.”
Many other studies have been done on how content marketing builds awareness and loyalty, drives traffic, and is expected by consumers. But I’m convinced just by seeing how many companies in our industry have invested heavily in ambitious, high-quality content that goes beyond the typical PR-driven corporate blog. A few examples worth noting:
Rosewood Hotels & Resorts launched an online-only magazine last year called Rosewood Conversations. It publishes original, magazine-quality articles focused not on the hotels themselves, but on the destinations where they’re located, many of them featuring insights from local personalities, and written by contributors to Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, and others.
Away, the luggage company, has its own magazine (print and online) called Here. It publishes hipster-ish guides to various cities (Lisbon, Mexico City), personal essays, packing tips (of course) and profiles of musicians, designers, and other celebrities—some of them photographed next to their Away suitcases.
Airbnb partnered with Hearst to produce a quarterly print magazine called Airbnbmag. Some articles are also put up on Medium, the online publishing platform. Airbnb hosts write about where to go in their hometowns, while other articles focus on earthy itineraries and “real” people—in keeping with the sharing-and-caring vibe of the Airbnb brand.
Peninsula also went the partnership route, teaming with LUXE, the Hong Kong–based guidebook company, to produce up-to-the-minute destination guides for its website. The smart, relevant content (called “Pencities”) includes event listings and articles like “6 Iconic French Dishes and Where to Try Them” in Paris and “Tokyo’s Best Facials.”
Marriott’s Content Studio focuses on branded entertainment, from documentaries to scripted series; the company also produces the editorial platform Marriott Traveler, as well as M Live, a real-time social media command center. The studio’s efforts include StoryBooked, a video series that follows artists on inspirational trips—thus showcasing how travel, and by extension Marriott hospitality, can fuel creativity. An example of how the luxury brands are getting involved in content marketing is The Other End of the Earth, a cinematic “tone poem” inspired by the pioneering female explorer Nellie Bly and shot at all five Ritz-Carlton Reserve properties around the world. Narrated by Diane Lane, it received its premiere at the Boston International Film Festival in April.
You don’t have to have a Marriott-sized budget to get started with content marketing—just a well-produced blog or Instagram feed can be an effective way to tell stories. Here are a few tips:
- Do spend some time and creative energy making sure that the quality is high enough to stand out from the crowd.
- Don’t expect an immediate return on the investment. Your content is aimed at inspiring consumers at the top of the funnel, and it may take a long time—and repeated exposure to your content—before they decide to book with you.
- Don’t just talk about your brand or your product, but make your content entertaining and educational, so consumers will come back for more.
As always, I welcome your feedback on what’s changing in travel today. I look forward to getting your comments. Let’s keep the conversation going!