How APT’s digital marketing transformation helped it survive the pandemic

Marketing leader for Australian travel group details the martech investments, pivots, customer strategies and personalisation strategies that have set the foundations to now pursue growth

Australian family-owned travel business, APT Travel Group, had already made the big commitment to digital marketing transformation and was a year into its considered roadmap when Covid hit.  

Having invested in Salesforce Sales Cloud and Service Cloud, the business made the decision to rollout the vendor’s Marketing Cloud platform in late 2018 and also started optimising its website. As APT Travel Group general manager of marketing and digital, Vanessa Russack, put it, the investment was about delivering a sustainable business that could thrive through the digital age and pass safely in the hands of the next generation.  

Up until that point, APT had been a traditional marketing business largely focused on printed brochures, press advertising and above-the-line, traditional media.  

“APT needed to move into personalised omnichannel experiences,” Russack told CMO. “That first 12 months was about truly understanding customer needs and wants at that time, plus a lot of customer journey mapping to understand the pain points. We sized the prize and did proof of concept to go for the biggest gains first. That helps you to continue investing and leveraging the platform.”  

First use cases for Marketing Cloud were about implementing best practices. This included developing the right email modules and templates so the APT team could use the platform efficiently. Also on the agenda were trigger-based, lifecycle customer journey communications, looking at key moments across key phases of the travel journey: Dreaming, researching, booking, anticipation prior to tour, on tour and post-tour.  

“Retargeting was another big one. Previously, with our old email platform, it was full-based sends and advertising what was already above the line. This gave the business the opportunity to look at engagement metrics and audiences to be able to retarget and follow up again,” Russack explained.    

Initial retargeting efforts showed phenomenal result, and Russack highlighted up to 80 per cent open rates on emails and clickthrough rates of up to 36 per cent as other achievements.  

Another milestone was unblocking tech gateways so the team could be more efficient. Collecting more clickstream data sitting in Marketing Cloud and exposing customer objects and fields meant the team could self-serve and go after different segments with more targeted, real-time communications.  

“In that first year, we also implemented a universal control group to attribute incremental sales to the email channel. So if we were doing last-minute sales campaigns, we could attribute the uplift in sales that emails delivered as the targeted offer was only in that email,” Russack said. “That was when we could harness the power of that email channel and demonstrate to the business this channel is as great as press is.  

“When the business has put the majority of budget in traditional channels, but hadn’t yet proven how direct marketing could do, that was the moment and led us to ask what more we can be doing.”  

Salesforce Partner Community was also launched in 2019 so retail travel agents could access APT’s bespoke reservation system and marketing collateral.  

Pandemic pivot  

So far, so good. But as all readers know, the global pandemic struck, shutting down international and state borders and immediately forcing travel and tourism operators and retailers to halt product and service sales. At that time, the largest percentage of APT’s business across its six brands – APT, Travelmarvel, TravelGlo, Captain’s Choice, Antarctica Flights and Botanica – was international, led by Europe, Alaska, Canada and Asian tours. Its domestic tours sat in a distant fifth place.  

“It was March 2020 and all of a sudden, we couldn’t sell international product anymore to our customers,” Russack said. “Covid put every business around the world on notice that you couldn’t be stagnant. We had to look at what things would get us through, but also how we change to survive this and think about the long tail.”  

APT went back to grassroots, going after domestic in the biggest way. And that’s been all it’s sold in two-and-a-half years.  

“We had international product available in the hope each year international borders would open. But it was a massive pivot for the business,” Russack said.    

Vanessa RussackCredit: APT
Vanessa Russack


Just one example of how things shifted was APT’s website, which had been going through a process of optimisation using heat mapping, testing different positioning and content and analysing what customers were researching.  

“There was a hypothesis around whether a customer would book an actual trip on our website. Because at that stage they weren’t,” Russack said. “A large percentage of business is booked via retail travel agents, so our strategy is both B2B and B2B. We know a lot of customers use the website for discovery and researching to make their choices, then book directly via the agent. The question was how far we could get them down the funnel on the website.  

“With Covid, we couldn’t invest to optimise that part of the site further. But what we did was improve booking experiences, getting it down to three clicks. We could see customers were going through.”  

When Covid hit, APT also quickly reimagined the customer experience. “Early days, we were using the platform to keep customers and retailers informed of changing restrictions and tours suspensions,” Russack said. “Every day, the situation was changing. The [Marketing Cloud] platform meant we could get emails out to customers and retail agents to inform them quickly.”  

For example, in the first stages of the pandemic, APT removed messages that encouraged customers to ‘book your next trip’. It then began positioning itself as a facilitator to help customers ‘dream of travel again’.    

“Once that subsided a bit, it then became about nurturing customers and continuing to inspire them in their love of travel. It wasn’t selling trips; it was bringing the content to life in email form,” Russack said.  

To help, a content hub was launched across three brands in six weeks, the team’s first project working remotely. This centralised pot of content digitally was used to engage with customers through email and social channels.  

As sentiment started to recover, Russack’s team looked at the right time to promote destinations to customers. Propensity modelling and implementing customer lifetime value segments were key here. These were used to identify cohorts about to ‘hibernate’ through to those more ready to book.  

“The team also looked at prior destinations and where they’d most likely book again. We could promote local destinations on where customers were most likely to travel domestically,” Russack said. “We saw phenomenal results through personalised campaigns and journeys. And we got bookings.”    

Credit: APT


Over the last two years, APT chalked up an average open rate of 40 per cent and doubled email click throughs to 4.2 per cent. It’s also reported a significant increase in traffic flowing to its websites, with visitation up by 25 per cent year-on-year across all brands, and by 37 per cent for APT specifically. Optimising Web pages meanwhile helped total pageviews increase by 52 per cent for APT and 39 per cent overall.  

“We were getting growth in channels in a couple of years when we had questioned if customers would be inspired by travel if they couldn’t go anywhere,” Russack said. “Domestically, we could target states they could go to. It was brilliant - we were able to get departures away for our guests.”    

Today, personalisation is achieved through segmentation, customer lifetime value and personalising communication itself so it’s relevant to that customer.  

Customer service demands  

Another area of complementary innovation was customer service. At the beginning of the pandemic, APT was inundated with phone calls and struggling to keep on top of the magnitude of work.  

“We had a lot of manual processes in place as well so to streamline, Salesforce recommended implementing case management with the platform we had,” Russack said. “That was huge as it streamlined and centralised everything, which gave the customer service team efficiency and visibility to prioritise the work.  

“Since we implemented that, we have been able to contact more than 40,000 passengers with travel impacted by the pandemic. Having that in place truly helped our business to maintain our CSAT score of 98 per cent, while responding to customers in a reasonable timeframe.”  

In addition, APT turned on Social Studio to better manage the social presence of its six brands.

“Social Studio enabled us to keep our finger on the pulse with social listening to react quickly and proactively, while improving customer service levels as well,” Russack said.  


A further silver lining was transforming the marketing mix. As budgets by necessity decreased, APT’s attention turned to retaining investment in owned channels and communications enabling ongoing timely engagement with existing customers.  

“Then with the funds we had, given we were doing a great job with owned channels, we used Ad Studio to focus on digital ad spend and go after new customers,” Russack said. “Suppression audiences of existing customers allowed us to maximise ROI on Google paid and discovery ads. For APT, there were also instances where we ran campaigns and used existing customers for key terms to demonstrate brand authority.”  

Within Facebook ad targeting and using existing suppressions, APT saw a 196 per cent uplift in clickthrough rates alone. And thanks to this combination of strategies and Ad Studio, the group reduced cost per acquisition by 66 per cent for domestic products and most likely departures.  

Credit: APT


Then there are the internal collaboration efficiencies that have arisen. During 2021, APT was able to turnaround a new product across its product team, email out to customers and put paid mechanisms in play to promote the offering in 48 hours.  

“Our best time previously would have been 6-8 weeks. That shows the maturity of where business has got to,” Russack said. “It’s all because of data we have and how the team is using it.”  

Focusing back on growth 

Now that international borders have opened, APT is turning its attention back to growth. In preparation for this time, APT used the Interactive Forms tool to survey its database, asking customers what destinations inspire them and where they will travel to. All data is directly linked back into CRM, enabling the team to be even more targeted as things open up.  

Another significant step forward for APT’s personalisation ambitions is using Experience Cloud to build out a new portal for its loyalty customer member base. This will incorporate a community where members can see their profiles, get exclusive offers and participate in competitions, see past and future travel bookings, access redeemable vouchers, plus view loyalty benefits and how close they are to the next benefit.  

APT’s tier-based loyalty program has been in place for many years, but to date this data hasn’t been accessible to customers.  

“This portal is that next evolution of building better relationships with customers and continuing to build those one-to-one experiences they have with us,” Russack said. “It’s all using the Salesforce product and exposing what’s in the CRM, then putting that in a portal that is thinking about user experience.”  

The MVP is due to launch shortly and APT hopes to define the portal roadmap and what new features to bring on next through customer feedback.  

“We have done a phenomenal job through Covid to survive. Now it’s about emerging and thriving,” Russack said. “We’re looking to enhancing digital platforms to achieve these targets, improving websites and the ecosystems they live in, and thinking about the connected technology, processes and people.  

“We do know as a business we want to invest in data more, centralising that and having a source of truth for all customer data. The power of that is huge.”  

Headless CMS is another technology APT is eyeing to gain more efficiencies in content production. “If content is centralised, so many platforms can also connect into that and that enables us to get to market quicker in a range of different channels,” Russack said.  

A second priority this year is improving site user experiences. Russack said the team needs to revisit journey mapping again.  

“Customer triggers will be different based on what we have all experienced because of Covid. Simplification is a huge learning here – we don’t want to overdo content but give customers what they need and inspire them at the same time,” she said.    

Thirdly, Russack is looking to increase efficiency by establishing better business processes, lean methodology through content production, and creating that single source of content truth. Fourth is future-proofing technology.  

“My biggest advice to anyone on this journey is look at your complete tech stack, not just marketing technology. You need to look at core platforms in the business,” she said. “We have a reservation system, which is a bespoke dev platform. All that data is gold to a marketer. It’s thinking about those connections and where data stored, plus how all different tech platforms work together. That’s about understanding the enterprise architecture and how that all connects.  

“Marketers need to be a key player working alongside the tech team so roadmaps can be built out together to ensure the foundations are set up for success and you can deliver personalisation and omnichannel experiences for customers.”  

Dos and don'ts 

As to other learnings, Russack said transformation is about leveraging three elements: People, technology and business. Another is that while you can potentially do anything with these kinds of systems, thinking about customer pain points, needs and wants is vital to prioritisation.  

“Don’t go after the full list of 100 things to do, go for the biggest first. Focus is the key. Work out and take the time to understand what the customer’s pain points are and where you can have a competitive advantage and make the difference,” Russack advised. “Focus there as that’s where you can really accelerate growth.”  

What’s more, get back to the basics, Russack said. “As simple as it sounds, it does work. Make sure foundations are there to build teams for success.”  

And finally, Russack pointed to diversification of her team as a big win. “Working in travel, we have so many brilliant minds and experience in our industry. But we started to diversify and bring in experience from all different sectors for direct marketing and digital,” she said.  

“We created a team that could innovate, share stories about what they did in other industries and what that could look like in the travel sector. That was a game changer – when we diversified our team with different sectors of experience, we created so much curiosity and an environment that fosters even more innovation.”

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