Inside Intrepid Travel’s pivot on tours and messaging

Grappling with disruptions to the travel industry from COVID-19, Intrepid faced the dual challenge of quickly developing new tours and responding with appropriate customer messaging

As the global coronavirus pandemic abruptly put a halt on travel, adventure travel business, Intrepid, needed new travel offerings to quickly respond to changes in consumer needs. Driven by this imperative, the group went back to its startup roots, pulling together a team to redesign its tours to meet the new customer demand. 

Led by Intrepid managing director and former marketing chief, Sarah Clark, the team was able to rapidly release new offerings such as Intrepid Retreats, a series of hyper-local itineraries to help people experience real adventures on their doorstep. But the immediate first priority for the business was getting people home who were at risk of being stranded when international borders started closing as the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The second priority was those needing to suspend upcoming trips.

“Getting people home initially and suspending trips was a really big focus and trying to communicate with all of those customers,” Clark told CMO.

“We then had a couple of projects on the side and the leadership team was divided into groups to work on. I was lucky enough to take on the role of looking at how we could launch a range of travel that was closer to home, because we could see that borders weren’t going to be opening up quickly, especially from Australia."

Starting up

In response, Intrepid pivoted, developing a new startup business unit to respond to disruptions to the travel industry during COVID-19.The Intrepid team was able to imagine, design and launch new offerings into the market within six weeks through a combination of quick thinking, rapid development and agile deployment by leveraging the flexibility and scalability of AWS cloud technology.

A key innovation is Intrepid Retreats, a series of hyper-local itineraries to help people experience real adventures on their doorstep. Since its June 2020 launch, Intrepid has seen a high number of travellers choose Intrepid Retreats in Australia, helping to support local communities and boost domestic travel. 

“We launched it in the UK and in Australia and New Zealand. It was something we had started looking at probably about 12 months ago, being a socially conscious travel company and very focused on sustainable travel," Clark said. "A lot of the conversation had been around flight shaming, especially in Europe, so we were looking at those short-haul, shorter duration trips. We really accelerated that idea.”

One learning has been the need to get out there and have something on sale for customers to see if they’re actually interested in it.

“This means rather than focusing solely on investigating and researching behind the scenes, we get it in front of customers,” Clark said. 

The program itself had around six weeks to be operational and a date to get something out by that time. Clark points to a startup mentality as key. “We had a few rules, and they were that we couldn't spend any additional money, we had to utilise the services and platforms that we have already, and we had to get it out in six weeks,” she said.

When messaging is a moving target

Developing the right messaging in the context of COVID-19 was integral to success of the new offering. While the pandemic is a global event, Clark pointed to a localised experience and context depending on factors like the extent of the outbreak, mandated restrictions and government messaging. 

“In different markets, the messaging has been quite different. People are in different stages of the pandemic and when government messaging to stay home is so strong, like here in Australia and in New Zealand, people aren’t ready to start moving around right away,” Clark said. “Initially, we're really seeing people booking into 2021 a lot more because it was a little bit more open, the thinking around travel.

“But the travel close to home message is what we landed on with our trips and that's been really well received. People still want to travel, but they feel comfortable doing it closer to home. So putting that direct messaging in the market has really helped.”

While Intrepid's website reflects strong interest in travel - the thinking and dreaming part of the process - not surprisingly conversions are still down. Clark saw changing sentiments around travel reflecting changing consumer confidence as lockdowns return, for example, and she expected the messaging will adapt as the pandemic continues to unfold.

“We will look at how we go out with messaging, not just this specific offering, but also to travel in 2021 and as we see a New Zealand border open, for example, or maybe even an Asian country.  We will see more confidence and people will start rebooking again,” Clark said.

“That messaging is really important. We’re going out in really small increments to our key customer base, testing those different messages. That's been really small calls to see if people are ready to utilise their travel credit; to see if people are ready to even click through from emails or engage with social media. And there's only smaller amounts of data when you're testing the smaller pools.”

The marketing mix

Intrepid's startup approach flowed through to its marketing strategy. “We could use all of our own channels, but we weren't able to launch these new products through any paid media," Clark said. "So thinking like a startup - to go back into partnerships, to make sure we're really focused on our PR side of things - has been really interesting.

“You need to go back to basics, which has been refreshing.”

Looking ahead, Clark envisaged more of a cost-of-acquisition style approach to Intrepid’s marketing activities in this new environment when the customer hasn’t been on one of its experiences before and “you’re not sure what you're going to be doing”.

“It's hard to put out a heap of brand marketing when you don't know if you're going to get that return,” Clark said. “That cost of acquisition piece is probably a little bit more enticing because you know you're getting that booking and you're paying on the booking.”

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