Ones to Watch

CMO50 2021 One to watch: Ana Sofia Ayala

  • Name Ana Sofia Ayala
  • Title Chief marketing officer
  • Company Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia
  • Commenced role July 2020
  • Reporting Line CEO
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 42 staff, 6 direct reports
  • Industry Sector Travel and tourism
  • 2020 ranking New to CMO50
  • Brand Post

    Celebrating Australia’s indigenous culture by developing a brand platform that challenges the norm and leverages both cultural enrichment and abundance of experiences has certainly been a big marketing milestone for Ana Sofia Ayala over the past year.

    The ambition with Voyages Indigenous Tourism (VTC) Australia’s new brand platform was to relaunch Ayers Rock Resort as more than ‘just the rock’. And it worked: The team has quadrupled bookings despite losing international tourism over the past 20 months.

    “While the destination remains highly attractive as a unique place for travellers, Uluru lives comfortably on the ‘bucket list’ rather than sitting at the forefront of travel plans,” Sofia Ayala says. “The visitor lens is narrow, and many see Uluru as the rock alone.

    “The brand platform hadn’t been refreshed for over 10 years. Our challenge was to trigger a reappraisal of Uluru, helping people understand the range and diversity of experiences available and inject a sense of urgency to visit.”

    To stand a chance against the competition, Voyages engaged new creative agency, BMF, to develop a platform opposite to the ‘touristy’ advertising templates and instead leverage its unmatchable differences.

    “We knew if we could promise both cultural [enrichment] and investment [abundance of experiences] return to potential visitors, we could kick Uluru travel intent into action,” Sofia Ayala continues. “So, we created an 'awe inspired' brand platform that any curious traveller could relate to.

    “Two simple words that perfectly describe the energy and the gravity of the sacred place that is Uluru: Just. Wow.”

    Critical to the process was local Anangu community involvement in creating and producing the campaign. There’s a strong use of visuals and collaboration with the Anangu Iwiri choir, who composed a bespoke piece of a cappella music for the films. Their song, in Pitjantjatjara (the local language), translates as “Come and see our beautiful country” and represents the first ad ever written in local language.

    The campaign came to life in film, social, digital, print and out-of-home. Preliminary booking results during the campaign quadrupled, with nearly 30,000 room nights delivered at a record average daily rate. Total visits to the website doubled and topped pre-Covid levels, averaging nearly 10,000 visits per day. On some days, these topped pre-climb closure numbers, which were the highest Voyages has seen to date.

    For Sofia Ayala, learning through listening, engaging with indigenous communities in a deeper level over the past two years has also been instrumental to marketing effectiveness.  

    “This time has taught me that listening allows you to gain knowledge and empowers you to be not only a better person but a better leader,” she says.

    Business smarts

    The global Covid-19 pandemic has clearly been extremely challenging for the travel and hospitality industry. For Sofia Ayala and the Voyages team, it’s had a significant impact on staffing and budgets.

    “However, it was clear a transformation across several business units was needed to drive efficiencies, profitability, and commercial outcomes,” she says.

    An action plan was quickly put together identifying items that could move the needle most rapidly. These included redefining the media and brand strategy to improve cost-effectiveness and reducing isolated planning. Voyages has also recruited new creative and external PR agencies to better help tell the story and bring new and creative partnership opportunities.

    “We’re investing in our future CRM and data capabilities and integrating data to build a data warehouse that could drive guest insights and connect data from past guests and prospects,” Sofia Ayala continues. “This evolved CRM strategy is about driving lead acquisition, customisation and personalisation. And finally, we had a big shift and evolution of the sales and marketing team into a data-driven guest centred operation.”

    Sofia Ayala has also helped to transform call centre operations to create operational resilience, increase guest satisfaction, convert more enquiries into bookings and mitigate risks. This has been achieved by investing and optimising systems, leveraging assisted channels to complement the digital transformation and maximising direct bookings - while still supporting trade.  

    Other business wins for Sofia Ayala over the past year have been new product development and event strategies.

    “These are about delivering on the promise of cultural tourism experiences and activating our strategy of increasing ‘return’ opportunities to our destinations by offering reasons to visit,” she says.

    A final achievement Sofia Ayala points to with business impact is rebuilding air capacity to increase access to Voyages’ destinations.  

    Data and tech-driven approach

    Pushing things forward is a reimagining of the Voyages Digital Ecosystem. The program of work saw the group move from isolated systems and multiple applications to a single-architecture solution that is scalable, mobile-first, guest-centric and driving a seamless, personalised shopping experience. This includes the Voyages corporate website, Ayers Rock Resort and Mossman Gorge Centre portals.

    Alongside this, a new destination mobile app has been created which can automate and personalise the guest experience at the resort. Guests using the mobile app will be able to check in and out of the hotels remotely, make restaurant reservations, organise table service, order in-room dining, plan tours, order resort amenities, manage reservations and create activity itineraries.

    “The app exponentially improves and helps to streamline the guest experience and, most importantly, enhances guest safety measures to adhere to social distancing norms and guidelines set by the Northern Territory Government,” Sofia Ayala says.

    Another tech win has been implementing a Web chatbot and live chat functionality to enhance the booking experience and help guests manage their reservations – a must given the many disruptions Covid-19 has had on itineraries. Sofia Ayala says this has reduced service calls to the VTC reservations team, allowing the group to better maximise staff resources.

    The chatbot, called Malpa, means ‘friend’ or ‘helper’ in Pitjantjara. It’s specially programmed to help with specific questions and offers translations in the Pitjantjatjara language used by the local Anangu people of Uluru so that when guests arrive to resort, they are familiar with the local language.

    The combination of these many data and technology innovations has driven strong results. At time of CMO50 submission, the Ayers Rock Resort website has seen ecommerce conversion increase by 235 per cent, reduced staffing by 30 per cent.

    “Most importantly our direct sales contribution has grown to 55 per cent year-on-year versus 40 per cent pre-Covid,” Sofia Ayala says. “This is important as we reduce trade commission levels that vary from 15 per cent to 30 per cent per booking.”  

    The guest application has also increased the penetration rate by 70 per cent since launch, while ancillary revenue has grown 35 per cent as guests increase F&B and tour purchases directly via improved ecommerce functionality.

    Customer-led thinking

    According to Sofia Ayala, the data journey at Voyages started in early 2020. In partnership with Lexer, the team implemented a customer data platform (CDP) as well as CRM strategy that enabled the business to build direct and ongoing relationships with guests informed by customer data to enhance digital and offline experiences.

    “The integration also allows to have a single view of our guests that drives a ‘customer-first’ culture, with persistent and automated unification,” she says. “We have increased our accommodation and ancillary revenue by improving our customer lifetime value, develop highly targeted and segmented marketing and drive higher conversation rates via email/direct channels.

    “With data modelling, we are able to identify new segments that have changed over the past 20 months. Given the sourcing for our destinations was 50 per cent international pre-Covid and our source is 100 per cent domestic now, the demographic has changed and evolved to a younger family market. Through data, we are able to create new products and experiences, such as cultural immersion for kids, programs and itineraries designed for families, and adapt our F&B and activities throughout our destinations.”  

    All this also increases speed to market, a critical capability for travel and tourism businesses right now.

    “We are now able to segment and hyper target guests pre-arrival when there are travel disruptions driven by Covid-19 or when we have specific tactical sales by market/demo. This process has eliminated manual handling 100 per cent across the business,” Sofia Ayala adds.


    In a year where change was the only constant, Voyages was shifting its strategy and approach almost daily.

    Sofia Ayala’s examples of adaptability in practice include key partnerships with tourism boards and airlines to maximise exposure for its destinations. One with Tourism Australia, Northern Territory Tourism and Endemol Australia led to a MasterChef integration and one-hour prime time TV show shot entirely at Uluru. Another saw the Qantas Flight to Somewhere (Uluru), while a third saw weather segments with the Today Show delivered from Uluru.

    The list also included a charter program to provide access to the destinations from regional Australia to complement Jetstar’s scheduled services, a revamped event strategy to drive new and return visitation partnering with organisations such as Opera Australia, and the National Indigenous Training Academy (NITA) communications and marketing plan inclusive of a content hub, enrolment and CRM strategy.

    People and capability

    “This year has challenged many and I’m grateful to have a great team that supports and embraces change driven by the environment and by my vision,” Sofia Ayala says.

    “Celebrating daily wins, recognising hard work, being human, listening and learning from them is where I can contribute to a better culture. It isn’t just one act of leadership but an ongoing exercise of teamwork and positivity. Trusting them as experts in their fields and challenging them when needed I believe is the right balance and what has worked in my tenure with Voyages.”

    As the pandemic has progressed, Sofia Ayala fostered communications across the full team through town halls, happy hours, morning teas, celebrating mums and making them feel special to keep teams engaged and happy.

    “Understanding everyone’s day-to-day challenges and giving them an opportunity to provide insight and ideas that can drive change,” she says.   

    “Finally, and most importantly, every single person in my team has a passion for social responsibility and strive to deliver our core purpose, ‘Through cultural tourism we create opportunities for Indigenous Australians so that customers experience excellence in Indigenous cultural tourism and the business drives employment, education and business opportunities for Indigenous people’.

    “Understanding and committing to reconciliation is my driving force and acting upon our core values of respect, trust, excellence and courage is the principle of my leadership.”

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