How NT Tourism avoids the potential pitfalls of partnership

Tourism agency's marketing leader details his external partnerships approach, the criticality of working with others, and how to avoid risk

External partnerships are a crucial part of brand building and growth. But fail to look beyond audience and brand synergies when inspecting a partner’s potential and you risk unexpected consumer and market backlash, NT Tourism executive GM of marketing, Tony Quarmby, says.

The government agency marketing leader caught up with CMO to talk about the importance of both traditional and non-traditional partnerships and his team ensures the partners they choose to work with deliver the right value back to the territory as a destination.

“The reason we see partnerships as a crucial part of the business is not only because the travel trade works that way. Also for us, as the smallest player in our category besides the ACT, we rely on partnerships to amplify our message beyond what our mere dollars can do,” Quarmby told CMO.  

NT Tourism groups partnerships into two camps: Traditional and non-traditional. Traditional partnerships include those with travel trade partners, such as Qantas, Flight Centre and Helloworld.

“These are where we both have skin in the game and both benefit from the end transaction,” Quarmby explained. “Then you have traditional media partnerships. That is beyond paid placement, but where you team up with a media organisation and it’s less about the money on the table and more about generating content as well as placements.”

Non-traditional partnerships are where things arguably get even more fun, interesting and allow NT Tourism to step out of ‘business as usual’ behaviour, Quarmby said.

“What we value is like-minded brands in terms of sharing the same ethos. For us, it’s all about that connection – to people, to country, and being open, free, transparent and authentic,” he said. “We’re a different destination to Sydney, Melbourne or the Gold Coast, with hotel chains, theme parks and big restaurants. The NT is very different: We don’t have a lot of major chains, it’s all very much bespoke.

“So we look for those attributes from our non-traditional partners. Then, of course, you need to factor in who is their audience, and does it align to our audience? Ultimately, you want to be talking to similar customers.”

Tony QuarmbyCredit: Tony Quarmby
Tony Quarmby

An example of a non-traditional media partnership for NT Tourism was with The Bachelor. Rather than a traditional advertising deal, the program of work involved an airline, The Bachelor program plus the tourism body and saw NT as a destination weaved into the storyline. On one date night, the bachelor and his date participated in an experience which consumers can purchase. The wedding proposal was also undertaken in a certain location. The airline then bought real estate around the program to convert interest into the destination.

“There were no sales or price points around this for us, it was about raising awareness,” Quarmby said. “We were agnostic and didn’t want to be seen as a commercial partner in this; we wanted to be seen as part of the content. The airline benefitted from airline sales, and we benefitted by being associated with that content. It’s how you authentically and realistically get into the narrative and content.”

Another partnership NT Tourism pursued was with Cotton On, one that took its cues from partnerships with several fashion brands over the years. The agreement saw the Northern Territory’s most picturesque landscapes including Nitmiluk, Elsey and Litchfield National Parks featured in Cotton On Body’s 2019 summer swimwear launch.

To launch the collaboration, Tourism NT and Cotton On Body took a group of six influencers, boasting more than 422,000 Instagram followers collectively, on a trip of-a-lifetime across the Northern Territory’s Top End. Influencers were photographed wearing the swimwear range at various iconic swimming locations. A competition then offered one consumer a holiday for two to the Top End via the Cotton On website, and all aspects were shared socially by both parties.

In this case, authenticity and audience alignment were crucial indicators of a strong partnership fit, Quarmby said.

“Cotton On has such a loyal following and is seen as a trustworthy brand by its audience. Their audience are largely females, who are also commonly the holiday decision makers,” he said. “It was a natural synergy to partner on the launch of the latest swimsuit range. The launch featured the products and our water experience in a natural environment, which they were after, while we were also able to talk to our core decision makers.”

While monetary value and sales growth are key elements of partnership, Quarmby said many of the most impactful partnerships are where there isn’t a monetary value but other forms of pay back. This could include reach, data acquisition or audience growth.

“That’s where it’s less about numbers and more about relevance and engagement of that audience,” he said. “We would much rather have a smaller and engaged audience, than a large reach and lots of likes and emojis. We try and find those brands and companies with those engaged audiences then have the brand attributes we want to be seen associated with emphasises.”

What’s more, non-traditional partnerships are often about partners outside the travel spectrum. “This allows us to talk to a consumer in a different way to how we normally would,” Quarmby said.

The potential pitfalls

Yet Quarmby is quick to point out neither audience reach nor external brand alignment would have been worth pursuing if Cotton On, or other such non-traditional partners, didn’t also have the right values and credentials right through products and supply chain.

“You can’t just go for audience size or synergy – whoever you partner with, that brand will rub off on you in terms of your brand and the messages you want to put out there. In this day and age, if you partner with the wrong brand and they say or do something out in the space, you’ll be impacted,” Quarmby said.

“For example, we partnered with a football club and one of the players did something that brought the team a bit of media backlash. That is a danger – just by going that’s a great brand based just on their audience make-up.”

As a result, Quarmby said NT has devised a thorough scoping and desktop research process on any prospective company it plans to partner with, checking their social feeds and followers, eco-credentials, as well as political stance.

“These are all things you have to monitor now. Yes, they may be agnostic in what they believe politically, but even that has a reflection on you. Because if they don’t take a stance, that can increasingly turn consumers off,” Quarmby said.  

“The days of companies sitting on fences are diminishing quickly. Consumers want to know what you stand for before making a purchase decision. That’s especially the case for high-value purchase decision, which holidays can often be.”

This process saw NT Tourism knock back an approach from one fashion company, for instance. “They were getting a lot of flak for how much wastage their products and activities generated. We didn’t want to be associated with that,” Quarmby said.

“We did see another destination partner with them later and that did come out. You have to be more thorough than ever.”

Next normal and partnership

As the travel trade starts to move into the new next normal post-COVID, NT Tourism is again looking at how partnerships can support the fresh brand positioning it’s had on ice since the global pandemic hit.

“We are looking once again at the brand positioning we were going to launch at the beginning of 2020 as we still think it’s relevant. But we’re also looking at who are the partners we want to really get behind this and can seize the value in this positioning as part of their product messaging,” Quarmby said.

“Brands are being very cautious about messaging they’re putting out and specifically around travel based on consumer mindsets right now. But we are in conversations with partnerships and we’re hoping to make those synergies happen.”   

There’s no doubt in Quarmby’s mind that more organisations are open to partnerships with external players as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

“People obviously look at their bottom line and what their outcomes are – be it sales, data acquisition or whatever it is you want out of the partnership – but they’re also looking at how this partnership can support my business and help me through these tricky times, rather than how am I going to maximise revenue from this partnership,” Quarmby said.

“It’s a human need to weather the storm in a group. Companies have been showing that same behaviour of trying to ride it [COVID] out together by joining forces and helping each other out.”  

As brands settle into this next normal, Quarmby said it’s a good time to create partnerships now just for now, but also for the long term.

“It’s no surprise to any CMO: We know it’s the brands most active in a downturn that see benefits not just during the downturn, but gain advantage when things turn around. It’s just as relevant for partners and partnerships. If you look at creating partnerships now, they’ll pay more dividends than when things turn around and people are looking at how to maximise the revenues once more,” he said.

The checklist

Quarmby said success comes back to “investigate who you’re getting into bed with”.

By way of warning, he pointed to a tour operator that decided to partner with a local food and beverage company. The sustainable-oriented tour operator wanted to be seen as eco-friendly and to minimise the amount of transportation of products throughout its tour experience. But what they didn’t realise was when the operator was out on a trip, there was no way to dispose of the waste products created.

“These were not eco-friendly and weren’t recycled. That reflected on the tour operator, even though the intention was to be more sustainable,” Quarmby said.  

“So you have to look through the entire product lifecycle and now just the brand synergies, size of audience and reach. You have to work through from a consumer point of view as you can’t put the wool over their eyes. If they truly live those beliefs and values, they’ll look at every aspect of your business to see if you truly are committed or if it’s just a partnership of convenience.”

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