Skift Take: Travel brands face new challenges as consumer demands change, the role of technology grows and the landscape becomes increasingly crowded. Top marketers in travel recently gathered to talk about the approaches they’re taking to meet these challenges.

— Dawn Rzeznikiewicz

Consumers today value deep, rich, and fulfilling travel experiences more than ever before. This shift in values is driving the growth of travel spending, and today’s brands are stepping up to help travelers connect and become a part of something greater than themselves.

Oath recently partnered with the Advertising Club of New York to bring together travel industry leaders to discuss how they’re connecting with consumers beyond the transaction.

Joe Diaz, co-founder of AFAR Media, set the stage with a travel industry overview, followed by a panel, moderated by Alia Lamborghini, vice president, travel and disruption at Oath. Panelists included: Ken Jones, vice president, marketing and insights at Carnival, Stacey Milne, vice president, portfolio marketing strategy and planning at Marriott and Alex Sutton, director of digital acquisition at Avis.

Here, we share the day’s top five takeaways for travel marketers looking to redefine and deepen the customer-brand relationship.

Connect through shared values

Consumers are increasingly prioritizing authentic, purpose-driven experiences over material goods. While millennials are often most associated with this shift in values, this “millennial mindset” is not specific to age. As Diaz explained, “It all starts with a psychographic and a set of values.”

The travel decision-making process is often a lengthy, complex one, with travelers clicking on hundreds of sites before booking. This process gives brands the opportunity to engage with consumers across a proliferation of touchpoints—via desktop and mobile search, social media and video platforms, online booking engines, online review sites, and mobile apps. Each touchpoint offers the brand an opportunity to truly connect with the customer, build a relationship, and tell their story. According to Diaz, “When brands champion something they truly believe in, consumers are happy to align with them.”

Build meaningful relationships by focusing on loyalty

Building traveler loyalty and forming long-term relationships with customers is pivotal for brands to survive today. Customers are flooded with hundreds of thousands of pieces of information daily, so brand interactions need to resonate with the customer to truly stand out. Offering customers meaningful rewards—both large and small—through loyalty programs is one way brands can help make consumers feel known, recognized and valued. Customers in top-tier loyalty programs are proud of their status and enhanced brand experience, while something as small as a free cocktail at the hotel bar is likely to delight travelers as well. In exchange, they’re often happy to provide additional data and brand advocacy, both online and off.

As Jones explained, “Loyalty isn’t a program—it’s a behavior managed through our programs. Travelers who are looking for experiences tend to be loyal to a specific type of behavior.” Milne agreed: “Experiences are the new currency in travel. Loyalty is playing a much larger role in how we’re able to provide our members with the experiences they want to have.”

Harness data to create a personalized experience

The power of customer personalization is a major focus for travel marketers, as consumers expect seamless processes spearheaded by mobile and machine learning technologies. “It’s all about making life easier for the customer,” said Sutton. In Avis’ case, that means enhancing the company’s mobile app to solve renters’ frustrations while on the go, such as locating the closest gas station to the airport return lot, or providing recommendations based on personal and geo-location data.

Similarly, Carnival is revolutionizing personalization in travel with the Ocean Medallion platform on its Princess Cruises. The first platform of its kind, the Ocean Medallion aims to create a seamless experience via wearable devices that communicate passenger preferences and location in real-time to crew. Powered by customer data and activated by beacon technology, the consumer can engage or disengage with the devices at their discretion, but as Jones explained, “These technologies are best when they’re invisible.”

Inspire action with storytelling

Not everything in travel marketing comes down to the tech side of things. Basic storytelling through custom content has become one of the most powerful ways travel marketers can get their messages across. Milne explained how Marriott Traveler, the consumer-facing travel and lifestyle publication, has garnered tremendous booking conversion from readers. She emphasized the importance of focusing on the individual story of each brand based on customer needs. “The same customer could be traveling with her family one month, and then be traveling for business the next month, meaning she should be presented with different messaging for each purpose.”

The travel industry has traditionally invested heavily in bottom of the funnel, user acquisition marketing—but last-click attribution doesn’t tell the full story. Travel content and content creators serve an increasingly powerful role in shaping consumer behavior, but unfortunately, are often overlooked within brand’s larger media plans. Doubling down on brand storytelling can help build the emotional connections travelers today are looking for.

Leverage innovative partners

When Lamborghini asked the panelists if there’s anything that vendor partners can do better to help travel marketers, each agreed that vendors should have a strong point of view and give them something to think about. Milne advised that vendors “put aside the technical jargon and think about what’s best for the customer.”

Meanwhile, Sutton explained he sees a growing gap between what businesses want from their marketing and media activations and what’s actually being measured. “Be flexible in how you calculate ROI and how you rely on impressions, frequency and reach. Be careful of the word ‘drive.’ … There are a lot of things that happen on site before booking. As a business, we want to understand all of it so we can make better decisions.”

Lamborghini closed the session by summarizing what travel marketers are looking for from their partners today: “Bring me the big ideas, look through the lens of the consumers, and help me measure it.”

Want to see more? Catch the full panel and executive interviews here.

This content was created collaboratively by Oath and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.