Effective PR Techniques for Standing Out in Post-Pandemic Landscape
By Julie Freeman, EVP, Managing Director, MMGY NJF
One of the most valuable lessons the pandemic has taught us is how to pivot quickly as the travel recovery landscape is constantly shifting. Not that long ago, huge news was announced that spurred international travel toward pre-pandemic levels and beyond: The U.S. lifted the COVID-19 testing mandate that had been required for all international travelers entering the country by air. While most PR efforts had already restarted during the months leading up to the announcement, the latest travel data and restriction eliminations gave us license to hone our PR strategies, returning to many of our pre-pandemic approaches while combining them with others that we had created and adopted during the pandemic to live on as new best practices. Our goal remains unwavering – to help travel brands stand out and create the most effective strategies to generate earned coverage in today’s post-pandemic media landscape.
Recent reports by MMGY Travel Intelligence, including MMGY Global’s 2022 Portrait of American Travelers® “Fall Edition” and Portrait of American International Travelers™, revealed that COVID-19 concerns have faded, and that even inflation, rising gas prices and other global events seem to be no match for the allure of a vacation. Highlights of the surveys include:
MMGY Global’s 2022 Portrait of American Travelers® “Fall Edition”
- Sixty-three percent of U.S. travelers intend to take a leisure trip in the next six months despite obstacles present in today’s travel environment.
- Among those who plan to travel in the next 12 months, intended travel spend is the highest reported in over a year (more than $600 greater than a year ago), and Boomers are expected to spend the most on leisure travel during the next 12 months.
- Concern for personal financial situations is now the most significant barrier to travel followed by concern for the rising cost of travel. The survey concluded that gas prices will impact travel for nearly 8 in 10 active leisure travelers. However, it’s not expected that Americans will cancel their trips – they’re just more likely to travel closer to home (48%), decrease their spend on entertainment/shopping (35%) or make meals instead of eating out (30%).
- The perception of safety continues to improve domestically and internationally. According to the survey, the perceived safety of domestic travel is up 7 points from one year ago, while international travel is up 12 points year over year.
International travel has come roaring back in recent months, and we’ll continue to see a surge headed into the winter.
- Seventy-nine percent of active leisure travelers are interested in traveling internationally during the next two years. Younger travelers, travelers with children and travelers with incomes of more than $100,000 are more interested in traveling internationally.
- Europe and the Caribbean are the most popular destinations of interest.
- Following the federal announcement, MMGY Travel Intelligence’s research showed that a third of Americans say they are more likely to travel internationally now that the U.S. has lifted its COVID-19 testing entry requirement.
Since rising costs are now impacting travel decisions, including how far people will go and how they will spend their travel budgets – particularly for younger and less affluent travelers – creative and targeted promotional offers may be important to help drive volume and will be an important component of our messaging and media outreach. In order to market to diverse travel audiences, we need to embrace different perspectives and work hand in hand with media and influencers who truly represent all American travelers.
So how does all this translate into effective PR programs that result in earned media coverage?
Relationships Are Everything
Significant changes in the media landscape throughout the pandemic impacted the way that we as PR professionals interact with the media in order to tell our clients’ stories. These changes have resulted in the elevation of our role as connectors, triggering an evolution of our tried-and-true ways of communicating these messages effectively to the media.
As the link between travel brands and the media, our job is to serve as the go-between for these two critically important travel audiences. We investigate, liaise, package and deliver travel’s best stories; bring visitors to overlooked and undiscovered destinations; and shed new light on well-known ones. Transactionally, it’s about connecting travel brands with credible journalists and platforms that help them reach new customers. However, the most important thing we can offer is more foundational – our relationships, which are more critical now than ever before.
Stretched thin with fewer resources, our contacts are wearing several more hats than they were two years ago. As communicators, we can make their jobs easier and lighten their loads by identifying trends, sourcing key spokespeople and locating visuals. If we work to maintain our position as both an extension of the brand and of the newsroom, we will all come out ahead.
Back to Firsthand Experiences With Press and Influencer Trips
One of the most effective ways of telling our clients’ stories is providing firsthand experiences. We believe seeing is believing, so as soon as press and influencers became comfortable with traveling again, we began lining up personalized visits, which led to feature story results. While interest is high, time has been an issue with many editors, and many assignments they want to give out are going uncovered as their go-to freelancers are so heavily booked. Now with the restrictions lifted, the floodgates have really opened, and it has proven critical that we create strategic itineraries and memorable experiences in order to compete for the media’s and influencers’ time to travel on behalf of our clients.
While travel journalists and influencers are on the road again, it’s still important to ensure we are providing a safe experience for potential attendees and creating contingency plans around potential issues. For example, what is the cancellation policy should the attendee contract COVID-19 before traveling? What is the plan if someone contracts COVID-19 while on a press trip and needs to quarantine in-destination?
We’ve learned other valuable insights while planning press visits during and after the pandemic that we think will be beneficial to others in the industry.
Journalists attending a press visit or event with someone they’re connected to helps them feel more comfortable and enhances their overall experience while still garnering the same stellar coverage that a firsthand experience delivers. It’s important to build in additional free time and create space for flexibility on press trips. Overwhelmingly, journalists and influencers have requested that hosts do away with overpacked, restricted itineraries that lead to burnout. Engaging attendees at the outset about which experiences align most with their expertise gives them a more active role in creating content. In addition, providing free time allows them essential time to catch up with other work, rejuvenate and immerse themselves in their surroundings organically. Finally, go off the beaten path whenever possible. Interest in undiscovered, hidden or exclusive activities is more important now than ever. Showing journalists more of the authentic culture and less of the touristy spots will help drive deeper destination stories that will set the destination apart.
Honesty continues to be the best policy, and transparency is essential. Press trip attendees trust us to know the latest destination entry and exit requirements, as well as necessary health and safety precautions. Additionally, topics such as coverage expectations and the type of trip – whether group or individual – should be noted at the beginning of the invitation process. While we’re back to planning both group and individual press trips, individual trips have become the preferred method for many journalists, as well as the travel brands hosting them.
Interactive and Engaging Experiences Are More Meaningful Than Ever Before
Finally, something that we didn’t predict coming back as fast as it has is large-scale consumer activations, which have historically been a strong component of a successful PR campaign. Even though we believed events would start out smaller and build over time, we knew that consumers had been starved for interaction with others throughout the pandemic and were very eager to experience the world again.
Research shows that 76% of adults value experiences more than material possessions, and 72% agree that the memories they make on vacations are more valuable than any material item purchased in the last year. This reinforces that a noteworthy event in a key market can be a smart use of budget to capture the attention of time-starved media, influencers and prospective travelers. These days, journalists’ inboxes are overflowing with messages from all sorts of brands; but a creative and engaging event is a powerful tool to stand out to those who are reserving their in-person calendar for bigger-picture, meaningful and memorable experiences.
With consumers craving these experiences, the team at MMGY NJF was quick to respond, developing creative activations and executing multiple large-scale consumer events. We’ve interacted with thousands of potential travelers at each event, engaging them directly with standout elements of our clients’ destinations. Here are a few highlights:
Base Camp California
This past spring, MMGY NJF and Visit California worked to bring a dose of Golden State sunshine to frosty New York City through a partnership with CAMP, a leading family experience brand. CAMP’s Fifth Avenue flagship location was transformed into Base Camp California, an immersive minigetaway activation featuring iconic scenery, including a redwood forest and skate park, branded surfboards, and California culinary delights plus an appearance by celebrity chef Jet Tila at the opening event. This two month–long activation leveraged the opportunity for earned media and content while inspiring more than 50,000 consumers who visited to plan a California family getaway. The inventive program, also timed around CAMP’s West Coast launch in Los Angeles, generated 3.8 million digital impressions and 28 million earned media impressions including Cheddar News, Mommy Poppins and the Los Angeles Business Journal. Attendees who visited the store had the opportunity to be entered in a sweepstakes to win a dream trip for four to explore California, and there were over 4,800 sweepstakes entries with 77% email opt-in.
The Stars Shine Brighter in Texas
To celebrate Texas’ participation in the International Dark Sky Places conservation program and the state’s wide-open spaces, we created an immersive experience for our client Travel Texas at Santa Monica Place in Southern California to surprise and delight consumers with a two-minute night sky moment. As visitors stepped inside the custom-made portable space with projection dome, they heard the sounds of local wildlife, smelled a mesquite wood campfire and felt what it’s like to stand beneath a vast dark sky full of stars, enticing them to book a trip to see the state’s designated Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries for themselves. More than 1,860 people saw Texas’ stars with total event impressions of 65,000; our media outreach resulted in an article in Condé Nast Traveler; and the experience garnered over 13,000 social engagements and more than 1.3 million potential impressions.
Let’s Do London
In May 2022, London landed in New York City’s Times Square, thanks to an event we conceptualized and spearheaded on behalf of London & Partners. In collaboration with the office of the Mayor of London, this Times Square takeover marked the launch of the #LetsDoLondon campaign – a multimillion-dollar tourism program aimed at attracting U.S. travelers back to the home of Big Ben during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. The event featured a performance from the Tony Award–winning musical “Six,” a demonstration by London’s iconic Coldstream Guards, and appearances from London’s Mayor Khan and London & Partners CEO Laura Citron. In addition to a packed audience, MMGY NJF secured attendance from AP News and every major broadcast affiliate in New York City. The takeover garnered a massive 1.7 billion impressions online, 17 million broadcast views and an additional 141 million online impressions in the U.K. media.
As we have emerged from the pandemic, executing a successful press trip, activation or pitch has required unparalleled communication skills and extraordinary attention to detail. A strong, proactive and targeted media relations program has been critical to securing coverage, driving consumer buzz, and getting clicks, calls and bookings. We must continue to encourage our clients to think big, embrace flexibility and trust our expertise. In addition, it’s our responsibility to advocate for media and influencers to ensure they have all the tools they need to create their best and most impactful work. As we approach new challenges as opportunities for innovation, our North Star remains unwavering: PR is the key figure standing between supporting brand messages and deploying stories to the right audiences at the right times.
EVP, Managing Director, MMGY NJF
With 25 years of experience, Julie is an expert at creating innovative programs that build and elevate travel and hospitality brands through media relations, consumer engagement, and strategic partnerships and events at the local, national and international levels. She leads the agency’s public relations, social media and experiential marketing brand, NJF, in addition to MMGY Global’s New York City office.
Julie talks the talk when it comes to international destinations and brands and is fluent in Spanish. Her hands-on approach is evident, as she’s personally involved in overseeing business development plus strategy and implementation of programs for NJF’s growing portfolio of clients, ensuring they integrate into overall marketing efforts and generate maximum exposure and impact. In 2018, she was named one of PR News’ Top Women in PR, and she has won numerous HSMAI Adrian Awards for her work.
Previously, Julie spent 17 years at Edelman, helping to build the firm’s global tourism and hospitality offering as executive vice president and deputy global director.
Julie graduated cum laude from the University of Southern California with Bachelor of Arts degrees in public relations and Spanish. She enjoys playing tennis, spending time at the beach, skiing, and hanging out with her puppy and is always looking for her next big adventure, no matter where in the world it takes her.