How changing course helped one travel company bounce back from disappearing sales

Steffen Kalve / September 2020

When you work in travel, you learn to be prepared for many eventualities. Everything, from unseasonably warm weather to a rise in the cost of aviation fuel, can have a dramatic impact on sales, both positively and negatively. But even the most conscientious marketer can be forgiven for not having a plan in place when a pandemic resulted in the closing of borders and international travel coming to a screeching halt.

“The first time I realised COVID-19 would be a problem in Norway was because of our client, Flåm AS, a large travel company with one million yearly guests,” says Robin Askevold, performance specialist at Norwegian digital solutions agency, Sempro. “I saw in Google Analytics that all sales were disappearing rapidly. And bookings from the main markets around the world — representing 80% of Flåm’s business in a normal year — ground to a standstill.”

Even the most conscientious marketer can be forgiven for not having a plan in place when a pandemic resulted in the closing of borders, and international travel coming to a screeching halt.

Faced with this unprecedented situation, Askevold and the team at Sempro did the only thing they could think of: they put their usual playbook aside and adopted a strategy they’d never used before. The decision paid off. In July, Visit Flåm’s e-commerce sales showed an 18% increase compared to the same time last year. But how exactly did Sempro achieve this turnaround, and will it be viable in the long term?

Planning travel campaigns with closed borders

Traditionally, it can take up to six months from planning a vacation to actually booking a trip. So agencies and their clients have to catch potential customers early, keep that interest, and be more relevant than the competition over a long time period. Once coronavirus hit, that was no longer the case.

Even before the pandemic, the Sempro team had spotted a trend of Norwegians wanting to stay at home for their holidays. But with plenty of local competitors, and many places to go outside of Flåm, having a captive audience alone wasn’t enough of a reason to pivot to exclusively domestic campaigns.

Only when the pandemic accelerated the need to change, the Sempro team realised a closer look at their audience was necessary, particularly within Google Search. While they would normally focus on a travel or cruise audience, they now put all audiences under observation to see where the most conversions were coming from. “The results were surprising,” says Askevold. “Avid newsreaders, for example, were suddenly producing 1,000 e-commerce sales per month, at the lowest cost per acquisition (CPA) I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Setting up for long-term success

Like many others, Sempro learned that predicting the future can lead to disappointment. After a successful 2019, during which they increased their revenue by 40.8% and their transactions by 31.7% year-on-year, 2020 was supposed to be Flåm’s best year yet.

But Askevold believes that what they’ve achieved in the midst of a crisis is evidence that there is still an opportunity for success in the travel vertical. Despite 98% of all sales being domestic, e-commerce transactions between May and June were only down 20%.

“I can't tell you what's going to happen next year, or even this winter,” says Askevold, “but I'm definitely taking on the learnings from the past few months and making sure I use them in the future. I've learned so much from it.”

One key learning is related to how people search, which has changed significantly since January. “We’ve never seen terms like ‘is it safe to go on a cruise’ before,” Askevold explains, “and it will impact how consumers decide on vacations in the future. If we can serve people content that matches those changes, we can continue to serve the needs of all customers.”

Get started

To learn more from Sempro’s navigation of the pandemic, here are three tips to help you turn short-term solutions into long-term strategies.

  1. Use all the tools at your disposal — especially around audiences — and don’t be afraid to experiment.
  2. If you have a playbook, don’t etch it in stone. There will be times you need to rip it up and find new ways of thinking.
  3. Dynamic Search Ads are a fundamental part of 'future proofing’ campaigns for your clients.
How to optimise your Search campaigns, with a little Belgian help