Axing ad spend hasn’t grounded the travel industry

Fernando Angulo
By Fernando Angulo | 22 September 2020
Fernando Angulo

Fernando Angulo is the head of communications at SEMrush.

COVID-19 may have caused chaos for many Aussie’s mid-year holiday plans, but it was the travel industry as a whole that was grounded.

At a time when travel envy is typically at an all-time high with images of European summer getaways and Bali poolside snaps rife on social media - this year’s winter travel itinerary has limited options.

There’s no surprise that the travel industry has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19, with Google search data showing a steep drop off in the typical getaway searches we'd see mid-year around cheap flights for AirAsia, Tiger Air and Webjet.

SEMrush analysed more than 450 of the top flight related keywords revealing more than 2.7 million individual searches over the past 12 months, with more than 1 million of these searches for flights to Bali. These searches have dropped by a staggering 60% in the first half of 2020 due to border closures, stay at home borders and (likely) fear of jumping on a plane.

With a lack of bookings and dramatically reduced revenue businesses in the travel industry chose to axe their ad spend. In the first 6 months of 2019, 10% of airlines and travel companies spent more than $150,000 on Google advertising. However, during the first half of 2020, this ad spend has halved.

But what if I told you that it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the travel industry?

Without the saturated paid advertising, this has shone a spotlight on those companies that have successfully built brand awareness over the past 12 months, and those that were simply paying for play.

I’ve spoken with a number of Aussie marketing agencies and those who have implemented a multichannel approach for their clients have still seen huge success. The focus has shifted; rather than a spray and pray approach, it’s now about rewarding loyal customers with a great number of discount deals. Don’t take my word for it, the details are in the data.

Digital Squad successfully grew luxury Bali yoga retreat Escape Haven’s business by 300% in 2019. And post-pandemic, the company has still managed to continue to grow its website traffic by 25%. The key - being agile and smart with client budgets.

Though the same cannot be said for airlines as a whole. In particular, TigerAir, with the lack of mid-year trips leading to a massive 78% drop in web traffic for August. It’s ad spending followed suit, decreasing by 66% in the first half of 2020.

The airline released a statement this month informing customers of its decision to close following a “devastating downturn” in travel due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

Website traffic for major flight websites fell across the board with Qantas down 41% year-on-year, and Virgin Australia, Webjet and Flight Center seeing traffic drop by half for the same period.

The website traffic isn’t the only thing that’s dropped, SEMrush data found there was an 80% increase in travel companies changing to a more modest $1,000 to $3,000 budget on Google advertising.

Webjet and Flight Centre took a knife to their marketing budgets cutting ad spending in half in the first six months of 2020.

The silver lining for the industry is in the domestic market, with local airlines getting a major kick at the moment as Australians are having to update their travel itineraries to local destinations.

This is supported by state governments committing big bucks to local travel campaigns, including Destination Gold Coast’s $1.5 million Come Back and Play Queensland campaign and WA’s $2 million Wander out Yonder campaign.

We should have paid more attention when Tourism Australia launched its $20 million “Holiday Here This Year” campaign in January this year.

Perhaps the organisation had a 2020 vision.

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