From snippets of inspiration-fueled fun posted on Instagram to stories told by tour guides, there are countless opportunities to communicate with travelers. Armed with information about their ideal travelers and the message they want to convey, travel companies, destinations, and other tourism service providers can choose where and how to release their stories into the world.
With a growing array of communication channels — many of them self-controlled, despite unpredictable algorithms — there are so many options for reaching potential and booked travelers. And yet what the tourism industry communicates has been slow to evolve, especially as it relates to pre-trip communication.
The post-purchase/pre-travel period is a curious one. After scouring through tons of inspirational content, someone has sealed the deal: A potential traveler is now a soon-to-be traveler by officially booking a tour, buying a plane ticket, reserving a hotel room, or otherwise committing to a trip.
They have invested money. They’re taking time off from work. They’ve pinned down the one place or one experience of all places and experiences as the one. They are all in yet not quite there as the day of departure lingers in the future.
And the tourism industry responds by … asking them to upgrade to a car rental? Reminding them to buy insurance? Sending them a packing list?
Right now, there is a gap between the customer journey (when people are being primed to buy, which is largely a sales and marketing function) and the traveler journey (when people have left home to engage in their travel experience). It is a gap hovering in limbo, sprinkled with logistical details and last-minute sales nudges.
Yes, these things are important from a procedural standpoint (though I could personally do without the upsell offers).
But from a communication standpoint, this is an incredible lost opportunity.
Why hasn’t the tourism industry taken advantage of this opportunity — a period of time when travelers-to-be are highly engaged yet haven’t left home?
Here are a few ideas on how to enhance pre-trip communication — and industry peers who are already experimenting in this space.
Provide More Context
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve learned about documentaries about an aspect of a place I’ve visited while visiting that place or a book recommendation that fills in serious knowledge gaps upon returning home. Unless a destination is known as a film location or the backdrop in some sort of popular media, travelers are rarely given information or suggestions on what to watch, read, or listen to before leaving home — but they should be.
Compile a list of suggested books, movies/documentaries, podcast episodes, and TV shows that provide background information highlighting the history, culture, stories, and landscape of the places people will be visiting. Consider making a publicly available playlist featuring local musicians and traditional music.
Remember to source suggestions from a wide variety of storytellers and perspectives, and pay special attention to including materials challenging the dominant narrative. This is a key opportunity to introduce perspectives different from that often one-sided story frequently reinforced about this particular place and the people who live there. Don’t be afraid if this material makes people feel uncomfortable; you want to challenge the status quo.
Students Shoulder-to-Shoulder, which offers leadership-focused trips for secondary school students, has a destination-specific pre-trip curriculum students walk through that provides historical and cultural context. The multi-session material includes a wide range reading material and videos, and students are encouraged to note unanswered questions they want to pursue either before or on their trip.
(Curiously, my research revealed student-focused travel companies have given much more thought into well-rounded pre-trip communications. Perhaps this is because of the “educational” focus, but it seems general tour companies could definitely learn from this particular niche to expand their pre-trip communications in general.)
Provide a 360-Degree Introduction to the Destination
It is astounding how many travelers are blissfully unaware about the reality of life for residents in the places they visit — and if they bump into this reality, how shocked they are to discover it. The tourism industry is partly to blame, as all that inspirational content does a fantastic job of pushing those unpleasant details into the dark corners. But not being open and honest about the places people visit is ignorant at best and downright dangerous at times.
In addition to providing background or historical context, provide an unfiltered, realistic briefing about what’s happening in this place right now. Do not assume that people know about anything related to environmental, social, or cultural hiccups in the destination’s fabric. Let people know about increased hostilities toward marginalized people, environmental issues like water and food shortages, political problems, societal challenges like homelessness and inflation, and the impact of the climate crisis.
Use pre-trip communication to clarify relevant issues, and, importantly, what travelers can do to ensure their visit doesn’t exacerbate these issues. Travelers are shielded by so much of this, but they can also be intentional in their knowledge and decisions related to these things. Even if their hotel isn’t subject to water rationing, travelers can still keep showers to a minimum. Or, travelers might be able to travel safely through a country, but they can also be mindful of how migrants are being treated just beyond the minivan doors.
The assumption that people are going on holiday and don’t want to know about these things may be incorrect; it might be they don’t know where to find this information, and people can’t be expected to know what they don’t know.
In addition to cultural and historical context, Students Shoulder-to-Shoulder gets into the nitty-gritty of daily life in all of its pre-trip curricula. In its Panama-related material, for example, students learn about the challenges in Panama’s educational system. For students headed to Costa Rica, there’s a video about the connection between conservation and poverty. And those going to Puerto Rico learn about the island’s work push of moving away from food imports to food independence.
When hosting certain student groups from the United States traveling to Peru, Vamos Expeditions facilitates a pen pal program whereby participating students exchange letters written in Spanish with Peruvian students in the months leading up to the trip. This is a chance to practice their language skills and learn about daily life from kids their own age.
Get People in the Right Mindset
Are we really surprised people are ticking off “must-see” sites when so much communication — including pre-trip messaging — hypes these attractions? The tourism industry is in need of a paradigm shift, which means the way it delivers travel experiences and the way travelers engage with them needs to shift too.
A lot of people know they need to travel differently, but they’re not sure what to do. Offer that guiding hand. Help travelers rethink their role and presence within the spaces they visit. Ask questions about their intentions and purpose for traveling: What is their why? Suggest they take time to journal or reflect upon what it means to be a traveler in today’s world. There are a lot of great guided journals and resources that can help with this kind of communication; take advantage of them.
Prior to departure, student groups traveling with STC Expeditions meet for an interactive session to talk about what they can expect while traveling and how to prepare appropriately. These conversations are wide-reaching, touching on both the positive and negative impacts of tourism in the destination. Students are encouraged to ask hard questions and reflect on how their presence as visitors will affect their experiences. They grapple with and talk through ethical quandaries, preparing them to travel more mindfully and intentionally.
Support Local Community Initiatives
While the element of surprise is important in travel experiences, it’s never too early to begin introducing travelers to the places they’ll encounter and the local residents they’ll meet. Booked passengers are already invested and supportive of the communities they’ll visit, so let them know what that support looks like.
Introduce them to local initiatives or charities your organization supports. Small, community-based groups often have shoestrap budgets, so this is a great way to amplify their work. Share the stories of changemakers and how these initiatives impact the wider community.
Keep in mind this isn’t the place for your company to play savior; rather, it’s a chance to highlight those organizations and people who rarely get the spotlight. It’s also a way travelers can begin to “give back” to the people and organizations that make their chosen holiday destination unique.
When guests arrive for their trip with Bodhi Surf + Yoga, they’re already well aware their stay is about far more than a yoga and surf retreat. In its series of pre-trip communications, the company introduces visitors to its Ocean Guardian mission, on-the-ground environmental efforts, and community impact through a video series. Bodhi also shares the full-length documentary, The Bodhi Wave, in pre-trip communication, which touches on conservation philanthropy, environmental stewardship, and social transformation through tourism.
Similarly, before diving into any logistical information with booked travelers, The Wild Source emphasizes its commitment to exceptional wildlife viewing and using travel as a tool to empower local people and conserve wildlife and wild places. The company’s close on-the-ground partnerships with Maasai, Dorobo, and Bushmen guides are deeply ingrained in its ethos, and it’s important for travelers to understand why.
Establish Expectations and Make it Easy to Be a Responsible Traveler
On those suggested packing lists, a growing number of companies are requesting that people bring their own water bottles — and that’s a step in the right direction! But take that one step further by being specific with best practice tips: Offer insight on appropriate ways to engage with local people and cultures to avoid appropriation or exploitation. Remind people how to behave around wildlife and that it’s inappropriate to photograph people without permission. Give a crash course on the Leave No Trace policies. These things are obvious to tourism professionals, but they might not be to travelers.
At this pre-trip stage, people might also still be making transportation-related decisions. Offer suggestions for people to make their journeys as environmentally friendly as possible. This is where companies should share information about partnerships with ground transportation companies or offsetting or rewilding initiatives.
Tourism has long been traveler-centric, but that doesn’t mean people have the right to do things like deface cultural landmarks, disrespect sacred sites, or defy rules for that coveted selfie. Use pre-trip communication to crystal clear about behavior expectations and repercussions for failing to follow those guidelines.
Booked Travel Matters guests receive extensive information about what it means to be a responsible traveler. This includes guidance ranging from tips for reducing carbon emissions if flying to appropriate behavior reminders related to wildlife, bargaining, interacting with kids, and water usage.
That responsible behavior can begin at home: Bodhi’s packing tips come with a sustainable pre-trip purchase guide that includes a list of brands with environmental and social commitments.
And at ASI Reisen, four weeks before guests embark on a trip, they receive information on the company’s ride-sharing program, which allows them to share select contact information with others on their scheduled trip. The idea is that folks interested in organizing a shared ride (and, therefore, reducing their environmental impact) can connect early on to sort out the details.
What Form Does Pre-Trip Communication Take?
Pre-trip communication for committed travelers can appear in a variety of ways. For companies that have confirmed bookings, these messages might appear as bite-sized emails or a series of pages that are “unlocked” on your website via booking information. For destinations, consider offering enticing, dynamic, and insightful “before you arrive” information that goes beyond the standard logistical reminders. Create Instagram stories with ideas and save them as highlights. Host Q&A informational sessions with local storytellers. Make a digital magazine that’s available to this uniquely situated, soon-to-be traveler.
The point is: Those in the tourism industry often act shocked that change is moving so slowly. They don’t understand why travelers fail to act as responsibly or sustainably as they claim interest in being. And professionals in all travel-related roles often seem to be waiting for someone else to take the first step.
Developing and implementing more thorough, thoughtful, and intentional pre-trip communication is something we can control. And it’s yet another touchpoint where we can continue to nudge the tourism industry in a better direction.