03 MAR 2021
The travel industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with borders closed, cities and entire regions locked down the halt came in early March of 2020. In April 2020, U.S. net flight bookings were down 98% vs. the year before.
But now, there is hope on the horizon – as vaccines roll out, the world gradually reopens, and people start moving again.
Anna Rosenblatt, Managing Partner & Strategy Director at MediaCom, sat down with Dana Lawrence, Managing Director of Global Brand Marketing at American Airlines, as part of the Brand Innovators Summit to discuss the “Future of Travel: How Brands Can Adapt”. The conversation focused on how the travel experience has changed during the pandemic, what the future could look like, and how American Airlines adapt to the changing landscape.
Dana had this to say during the discussion, “Sometimes, the best ideas can come out of adversity. This past year was a testament to that. We were forced to think differently. It gave us the opportunity for so much innovation.”
Below are key themes and imperatives from Dana and Anna’s discussion.
You can also watch the entire conversation here.
AGILITY & THINKING DIFFERENTLY ARE KEY
The airline’s policies, operations, and communications all had to change in response to spreading case rates, global government regulations, CDC recommendations, consumer expectations – and they had to change quickly.
BREAK DOWN THE SILOS
From an internal organizational perspective, the pandemic forced teams across American Airlines to collaborate much more closely. Different groups – from marketing to revenue management – started sharing the latest data, brainstorming and ideating together, and learning from one another. This collaboration helped the teams drive results–and enabled them to try new things. And some of those new things, in turn, caused new best practices – ones that Dana says will continue past the pandemic.
FOCUS ON THE CUSTOMER’S CHANGING NEEDS
A top traveler concern during the pandemic has been cleanliness and safety. American’s priority was to reassure consumers, give them peace of mind, and to make them feel safe traveling again. American implemented their new Clean Commitment, ramped up touchless travel, partnered with Purell, and got certified by GBAC (Global Biorisk Advisory Council). They also started telling the public about HEPA filters in planes – something that was in place long before the pandemic but that consumers knew little about.
DO NOT BE AFRAID TO LET GO OF THINGS THAT ARE NO LONGER RIGHT – EVEN IF YOU WORKED REALLY HARD ON THEM
When the pandemic hit, American already had an entire marketing plan built out for 2020, including a significant new brand campaign – which they had been working on for a year. Although the team had already invested considerable effort, they knew the message was no longer timely and that it was not the right environment to launch this type of campaign. Dana and the team let it go – and focused on the new reality, pivoting to what was needed and what would resonate in the moment.
KNOW YOUR PURPOSE – AND BE AUTHENTIC IN EXPRESSING IT
At the beginning of the pandemic, some people questioned whether airlines should be flying in the current situation. Dana’s team started asking the most fundamental question of all: “Why do we fly?”. American Airlines realized that they fly because people need to get home (there were a lot of expatriation efforts at the time). They fly because lifesaving equipment needs to get to the people who need it. “Everyone was doing their part to keep the world moving – all of the amazing frontline workers, medical workers” – and American Airlines wanted to do their part too. And they realized that their part was to keep the world moving: both people and cargo.
ENSURE YOUR COMMUNICATIONS REFLECT THE CURRENT REALITY
In response to the pandemic, all of American’s marketing had to change–down to every single image on the AA.com website. Although it would have been easier to talk about the recent flying experience, including mask requirements, American wanted to portray it, too–which meant that all brand images should show people wearing masks accurately.
LEVERAGE EXISTING CAPABILITIES & PARTNERSHIPS IN NEW WAYS
Innovation does not need to mean new features. To drive revenue amid a severely reduced flight schedule, American Airlines refocused on cargo. While the cargo side of the business existed before, it hadn’t been a priority. But now, when American could no longer move people (as much), they leaned into moving things. Similarly, American found a new angle to their sports sponsorships–moving away from fun promotions and getting people to games. Instead, highlighting how their Clean Commitment helps teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the LA Rams feel safe flying with American.
EMBRACE NEW CUSTOMER BASES – WHILE REMEMBERING YOUR LOYALISTS
American has seen a younger demographic (especially under 30) flying more during the pandemic; perhaps they are taking advantage of lower fares, or they feel safer traveling than older passengers. This posed a new opportunity for Dana and her team: introducing a new customer base to the American flight experience and hopefully turning them into loyal travelers for the future.
NEW TRAVEL EXPECTATIONS ARE HERE TO STAY
Although many changes in the travel experience were driven by immediate needs during the pandemic, some changes will persist and become a permanent new way of doing things – as consumer expectations have been forever altered. Things like enhanced cleaning, contactless travel, and flexibility are here to stay.
NOT BEING ABLE TO TRAVEL HAS REMINDED US HOW MUCH WE LOVE IT AND WHY
Many of us can’t wait to travel again. The pandemic “reminded people how important travel is in their lives and how much they love it, what they love about it, what they’ve missed most, where they want to go next.” Digging into this, Dana’s team discovered that what people are missing the most and why they most want to travel is to be with family and friends. “It wasn’t necessarily about the destination or having that great vacation, it was not about going to Hawaii – it was about going to see grandma, going to see your best friend.” Inspired by this insight, American ran a campaign last summer called “The Best Places Are People.”
TRAVEL IS A GROUP EXPERIENCE – AND WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER
Before the pandemic, we viewed travel through a singular lens: where do I want to go, and how do I want to get there. Now, consumers are more aware that travel is a group experience – and that they play an active role in the collective. Specific travel requirements (like wearing masks) protect not just you as a traveler but also your fellow passengers, as well as airline team members.