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Deep Dive 7 Jul 2020 - 5 min read

Fire, plague, travel marketing and China: Tourism Australia CMO Susan Coghill’s $61bn plan

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor
AANA Presents Reset Now

Fire, pestilence and who knows what to follow, it’s not been a great year for travel and tourism. But Tourism Australia CMO Susan Coghill has a plan to rebalance overreliance on China, to prime the UK and Europe to visit when borders reopen, and to keep the airlines from going bust in the meantime, all while getting Australia, and maybe New Zealand, to venture forth and spend. 

Watch this week's video below:


You need to know this:


  • Overseas, Tourism Australia is focusing on ‘visiting friends and relations’ category to keep airlines in business
  • Working on plans to balance economy away from China overreliance
  • Keeping a watching brief on border restrictions and rates of infection to determine when and where to allocate most spend via ‘Greenlight’ programme
  • Has switched from activation to ‘feeding the dream’ strategy to keep international visitors primed
  • Is pushing resources into areas worst hit by bushfires and most likely to suffer from loss of international travel
  • While trying to “spread domestic tourists around” as part of national strategy
  • Reallocating spend “while making sure we are not going dark” – CMO Susan Coghill.


Turbulent times

Tourism Australia has its work cut out. The sector employs about 5 per cent of Australia’s workforce, some 660,000, and last year generated close to $61bn, or 3.5 per cent of GDP.

This year, thanks to Covid-19 the industry is estimated to be losing $10bn a month and many of those jobs are likely to disappear for the foreseeable future.

While hope remains that domestic tourism can pick up some of the slack, the surge of cases in Victoria holes those plans.

Tourism Australia CMO Susan Coghill admits it has been “a bit of a year”.

Speaking before the extent of Melbourne’s second surge became clear, Coghill was optimistic that Tourism Australia could keep international demand on the boil ready for a quick release when borders open.

But she accepts it is not that easy. “You can’t drive to Australia”, she says, and the airlines are in all sorts of trouble.

So TA is for now focusing on travellers that are visiting friends and relatives, or ‘VFR’ in the industry vernacular.

“In tourism, we tend to focus on holidaymakers, because they tend to spend a bit more.  When you're talking about VFR, they tend to stay with their family. What's really important to us about that market is, that they will help us rebuild aviation capacity,” says Coghill.

“As an island continent, you can't drive to Australia. So we need to make sure that the airlines who have stopped service, or significantly reduced service at the moment, are able to rebuild their business, rebuild capacity and VFR, the friends and relatives coming back down and visiting their family here, will help fill those seats.”

Provided friends and family actually make the trip Down Under, “we will then have that capacity for the holidaymakers and the business travellers”.


The China question

Overreliant on China in many parts of the economy, Australian tourism is no different, with Chinese visitors making up the single biggest chunk of revenue. The long-term impact of geopolitical shifts remains to be seen and for the foreseeable future, the borders are closed. But Coghill offers a pragmatic view.

“China is our number one market in terms of visitation and spend, it's about 1.4 million visitors and about $12.5 billion in [annual] spend, I believe. So they're incredibly important, and going forward they will remain a really important strategic partner for us,” she says.

“But like any good business, we need to make sure that we are [continually] assessing. When you see one market having a share like that, you need to make sure that you're planning for what might happen if there's a slowdown for whatever reason, from any given market. So we do aim to have a balanced portfolio, and that way we can ride the peaks and troughs of various markets.”

Nevertheless, she says the expectation is that China will “bounce back”.

“They love to travel. They love what we have. We've got a differentiated and very appealing offer for China. So we really do look forward to the time when our borders are open and we can start to welcome Chinese travellers again.”


Old mates

Attracting more tourists from the UK is a major plank in that rebalancing strategy. Coghill says she was “heartbroken” to shelve the 'Matesong' campaign, now somewhat ironically starting to pick up awards after racking up tens of millions of views and with thousands of articles written in the UK press – despite being pulled after 10 days due to the bushfires.

Nevertheless Coghill says the experience laid the groundwork for what has since come to pass and TA has been working to keep demand primed in the UK and elsewhere so that it can be quickly pumped when travel restrictions lift.

That means “focusing on the dreaming and the planning type communications, giving people a bit of a respite from their lives in lockdown, giving them something to dream about - their next holiday in Australia,” she says.

Activations with news mastheads (The Telegraph and the Daily Mail) and lifestyle magazines (via Condé Nast) have delivered major results, says Coghill, with content from the Live from Aus series, a spinoff from the Matesong campaign, now being sliced and diced to keep demand simmering.

“The response to Live from Aus was amazing,” says Coghill. “We had, I think, over 300,000 people engaging actually with the content, the videos were viewed, I think, 30 million times. So the engagement was really, really strong.” Meanwhile, though website traffic has been “down a bit” during lockdowns, “we're starting to pick up now,” she adds. 

“So as we start to head into free movement, people starting to plan their holidays, we're starting to see a bit more interest in the content that we have on the site ... Then when the moment’s right we will start to bring our partners in again for that through-funnel marketing.”


Watching brief

For now, TA must keep a watching brief in order to decide when to allocate activation resources to the countries most likely to be able to travel as the numbers shift and politicians negotiate whether to enter into ‘air bridge’ arrangements.

“We have started what we're calling a Greenlight program, where we go through and look at key leading indicators: whether our border's open; what's the state of the Coronavirus situation in any of those markets; what's the consumer confidence; how likely are they to travel? And we're pulling that from our own research, but also from myriad other sources around the world as well,” says Coghill.

“Of course we're all hoping that the bubble with New Zealand happens, it would be an amazing first step in proving the model, I guess, of creating those sort of green lanes with another market. But we don't have any indication exactly of which market is going to open first,” she adds.

“But what I can say is, we're doing everything we can to make sure that we're planning out our marketing activities, such that we have that presence, we are visible, we are priming the market. We're staying relevant, driving that awareness, and as soon as the borders are open, we're able to shift and turn on that marketing that will drive conversion, and bring those travellers back as quickly as possible.”

When that happens, TA will take a bespoke, market-by-market approach, “really making sure that we're building in a multichannel strategy,” says Coghill. “We want that multiplier effect of having multiple channels, using each channel to its best strength, to tell the story - and making sure that it's integrated across all those channels.”


Home market

While the bushfires scuppered Matesong and much of last summer’s plans, they also laid the foundation for the domestic tourism strategy that TA must now deliver both nationally and regionally.

Coghill admits it’s a critical balancing act.

“It is important that we have an all of Australia message … but that we do think about those areas that are really affected by the bush fires,” she says.

The international perception of the fires was that much of Australia was burning, “so we had parts of the country that weren’t affected, but were losing out on international visitation,” says Coghill. Meanwhile areas unaffected by fires, but adjacent to them, have also been left worse off.

“So if you think about Kiama, down the south coast, or you think of Bendigo, for example, they didn't suffer the fires themselves, but they're close to those regional areas. So we need to make sure that we are supporting all the areas that suffered, both in the bush fires and from that knock-on effect.”

Likewise with Coronavirus, additional support must be directed to areas hardest hit due to movement restrictions.

“Our international travellers tend to be doing the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, they're doing the Kimberley, for example. And so these parts of the country have much more reliance on the international tourism,” says Coghill.

“So part of our role going forward in our domestic campaign will be to make sure that we're inspiring Australians to go out and see those parts of the country as well, and help fill the gap left by those international tourists. But when it comes to our bushfire affected regions, those regions that are going to be impacted by the decline in the international visitors, we need to make sure that we are getting Australians out, spreading them around the country, but of course we are going to be prioritising the regions that are most severely affected.”


Not going dark

While literally fighting fires and pestilence, Coghill and her team’s work has not gone unnoticed.

Peter Field, the UK-based ‘godfather of effectiveness’, has cited Tourism Australia as a textbook example of brands refusing to buckle in the face of cyclonic headwinds.

Coghill is delighted that Field has picked up on TA’s approach.

“I’m so glad that he's seen our marketing over there, and I'm sure he's a high value traveller, so apparently our targeting and marketing is working,” she quips.

The key thing is making sure that we're hitting the right levels in the right place at the right time through the crisis. So in the period where we're still in lockdown, making sure that we're not over-investing, and saving a bit of money to have the funds that we need to do the job at the other end - but also making sure that we're not going dark.


Check out last week's episode below:


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