She was already piloting the business to a digital future. Then the pandemic grounded tourism.
Now facing a cost-of-living crunch, Katie McAlister, CMO of the UK's largest tour operator, TUI, continues to believe staying close to customers is a winning strategy.
In this interview with me, Katie discusses TUI's broader new brand platform and how mass media continue to ignite holidaymakers' interest.
1. Rebooting the brand
VS: How is your message now different since the pandemic?
KM: "COVID gave us the chance to all really understand what holiday is all about ... those moments and those memories that stay with you forever ...
"We redeveloped our brand purpose, which is to recreate the moments that make life richer - enrichment needs to happiness. We adapted this new end line of 'Live Happy' ... it ties in perfectly with our logo, which is a lovely smile. ... It's allowed us a broader platform to be able to talk about the things that we do beyond sun and beach (holidays) ...
"We've just finished a campaign around TUI Blue, our premium hotels range, which is in the same style as 'Live Happy', and we've got a lovely blue smile on that campaign."
2. New focus on cost
VS: We are looming into a cost of living crisis. What's on the marketing roadmap to work through this?
KM: "The good news is ... people are still saying they're going to take a holiday. ... We will be helping customers to understand how they can holiday within a budget. Things like all-inclusive will become really, really, really popular. ...
"Themes that will be trying to help customers with (include) how can you plan out holiday money (and) putting down a low deposit."
3. Mass media move the audience
VS: What is the role of mass media in your marketing mix?
KM: "We have everything on the plan and we use media for different things depending on the job we need to do.
"We would use traditional media for reach and for awareness. Things like TV and radio and print... because we have this virtual product, which is all about inspiration and how things look and how they sound, then we're better with things that move."
"Those traditional media channels would very much be always on our plan for awareness.
"When you get in consideration, then that's when things like social can really come into play because you can really buy an audience and still tell a story in a really rich way through social media, but very targeted. ... We've got these other products other than sun and beach ... social media's really good for targeting in that way."
4. The holiday customer journey
VS: Where do different media and marketing sit in your customer journey?
KM: "The media spend is all really around the inspire phase and maybe a bit around planning ... and re-booking, too. Once the customers are within our ecosystem and book, then we can market to them directly.
"But when you look at the overhead in our business, where people are and the technology costs, then that's all in that booking phase, of course, through things like the web platform but also CRM. We invest heavily in CRM, heavily in our app and the link between the app and the CRM system. ...
"Our customer journey is really long between thinking about booking holiday to booking one, to travelling. On average, it's six to eight months. So we have a long time to really have a good relationship with our customers."
5. Leaning on agency support
VS: How do you use agencies and how well configured are they to meet your needs?
KM: "We have we have Mediacom as our, as our media agency and they're an extension of our marketing team. ... They run the overall plan for us.
"When you are selecting agencies, you need to work out where you want to build capability internally. You're never going to be able to build capability in certain areas. In media, that's where we are as a business."
— MediaCom UK (@MediaComUK) October 19, 2017
"But we do run all of our digital media in-house. Over 70% (of holidaymakers) book through our own channels, up to 95% buy through shops as well. We have a team in-house, they're supported by an agency as well on that.
"But Mediacom run our overall plan. They're very well set up to do that. They know the business really, really well. And of course they have relationships with media owners. So do we - (but) they have the advantage of being able to get all those media owners together for us, which is, which is fantastic.
"They're pretty well configured to serve our needs. We've adapted that model over years quite a lot depending what we need as a business. They've always been able to provide that.
"We are focused on having digital in-house and building that case internally, which has been quite a long journey. You really need to be committed to that being an important thing for you."
6. Building digital capability
VS: How do you see your team changing?
KM: "We're really committed to building that digital capability either in recruiting new people and or through training and development and making sure that everyone's got the opportunity.
"We try to move people around so that. ... We have quite a lot of internal and external training that we put people through to make sure that they're rounded marketers.
"I don't think the world is in a place where you go 'I'm a brand marketer and I don't do digital' or 'I'm a digital marketer, I don't understand how brand works'. So I think that that discipline's really important of, making sure we've got well rounded people."