Turning 3% into 100%: A Product Pivot During COVID and a New Long Term Marketing Strategy for a Luxury Adventure Tourism Operator
We began working with Northern Escape Heli Skiing (NEH), a Terrace, BC-based adventure tour operator, in late 2020. Northern Escape has been in business since 2004, and provides high-end, small group heli skiing excursions to very affluent clientele from around the world. In 2020, they opened a brand new luxury lodge at a cost of $5 million, to further position NEH as an industry leader in the sport. However, with covid, the 2020 season was cut short and the new lodge received little PR and marketing.
Marketing New Tourism Products for Locals
Winter 20/21 would be a very challenging ski season, with borders closed and covid still raging. But NEH adopted new health protocols, and decided to open for private trips, for Canadians only. In normal years, nearly all of Northern Escape’s guests typically come from the US and overseas (Canadians make up about 3% heli skiing clientele), so to operate with a Canadian-only market, would require a major pivot. We worked with their team to create and market new, discounted heli and cat skiing products, specifically designed for Canadians. This involved market and competitor research, website work, SEO and Google and Facebook Ads.
Building a Long Term Foundation
Shortly after we began working with them, NEH’s president and GM, John Forrest, shared an email chain from a guest. This guest was considering Northern Escape and another competitor for a 2022 trip (these tours often book 12+ months in advance) and decided to book with the competitor instead of NEH, because they had ‘a more superior heli ski tour.’ This was a large overseas booking, well in excess of $100K, and the loss stung. Worse, the competitor’s heli tour was clearly inferior to NEH’s. This was also a marketing failure.
Up to this point, NEH’s ideal client was anyone who wanted to go heli skiing and could afford to pay for it. And their marketing reflected that, being essentially identical to their competitor’s and offering no clear point of differentiation.
We had our work cut out for us and began working on a new, long term strategy. Using the Duct Tape Marketing System, our first task was to begin ideal client interviews. We made over a dozen phone interviews with NEH’s top clients, the trip leaders who return year after year, and bring groups with them. We soon began to spot trends and key differentiators and by the end of this exercise, and with additional deep competitor and market research, we developed ‘ideal client personas’ and new core messaging for NEH.
Our new personas clearly defined exactly who NEH’s ideal clients were, the ‘benefits’ NEH provided them and a clear picture of their customer journey.
Armed with a detailed strategy, we began the tactical side of the marketing plan. NEH did not have strong reviews, despite having large numbers of very happy customers. Ratings and Reviews are not only a ‘trust factor’ they’re also a ranking factor, so we created a new reviews workflow that could be easily integrated into their operations, to prompt all happy guests to leave 5-star reviews and to deal with any problem reviews before they’re posted.
Core messaging was updated on the website and social channels to reflect those benefits most important to NEH’s ideal clients and we got to work on improving NEH’s Google search rankings (SEO).
A PR program was started and the new core messaging and points of differentiation were used in Facebook and Google pay-per-click ad campaigns.
As NEH began incorporating our ratings and reviews program into their operations, their number of 5-star ratings on Google and Tripadvisor increased over 400%. We got a mention in The Globe & Mail, for their new 2021 locals cat ski tour, and their Google search rankings (SEO), for their most important search term ‘heli skiing’ moved from the bottom of Page Two up onto the middle of Page One for their most valuable market, the US. Further, our Google Ads PPC campaigns began seeing strong results, with more than 5X better performance and CTR than NEH had achieved before working with us.
As a result of our work, winter 2020/21 was nearly sold out with 100% bookings coming from Canadians. Further, as of late spring 2021, Northern Escape’s most valuable Elite package is almost sold out for winter 2022.
Marketing a New Tourism Business During COVID
When we began working with At The Water’s Edge Adventures (AWE), a new kayaking tour outfitter on Northern Vancouver Island, in mid-February, our job was to grow bookings in a very competitive market against several well-established operators. Only a few weeks in, COVID hit, and operations were shuttered. But owner Wesley Gibson was committed to staying the course, so we developed a new marketing strategy.
In normal years, the majority of bookings would come from US and overseas guests, something not possible as borders were closing. We immediately began aligning the product and messaging to COVID, with a new pivot to the local market, and private-only ‘bring-your-bubble’ tours, should the BC government begin allowing local travel. The majority of the competitors in this space offer ‘glamping’ style products with large mixed groups, base camps, hot tubs and use of covered power boats to shuttle guests around. All of these amenities now became disadvantages to AWE’s self-propelled, private, nature-based trips, so we emphasized this in our messaging, while stressing the importance of spending time in nature for mental health.
Building a Foundation
As a brand new business, AWE had no site traffic and virtually no Google rankings. On top of that, there were numerous website issues and suspended Google accounts, left by the previous developer. Our first job was to fix the website and unlock accounts.
With no budget for paid ads or PPC, our goal was to increase traffic and bookings with SEO. We created new long-form, highly authoritative blog content and optimized AWE’s online channels for the BC market. We also began outreach to the local and regional DMOs to build relationships with key contacts and to secure valuable online tourism listings. As a result of this outreach, AWE was invited to take part in a social media campaign and contest with Vancouver Island North Tourism and other local businesses, to further boost awareness of the new brand.
When BC’s Phase 3 reopening began in early June, AWE was the first operator on the water and was well positioned to take advantage of the BC market. We built a review funnel and further optimized AWE’s Tripadvisor and Google My Business pages.
With a focus on storytelling, we created several media-ready pitches and invited a high-calibre group of local journalists on a press trip we designed to further build awareness. The FAM trip yielded articles in The Washington Post, BC Magazine and its email newsletter, Destination Canada’s blog, top outdoor blogs and several more articles and press coverage are slated for the coming months and into next year.
The press generated buzz, and increased site traffic and awareness of the AWE brand. Combined with the tourism SEO work we had been doing, AWE’s Google rankings began to improve dramatically, and several of AWE’s most important pages, including their ‘rentals’ and ‘outfitting’ pages are now in the top five Page One search results. Their ‘kayaking tours’ have reached the coveted Google My Business 3-pack.
As a result of our work, AWE is now competing successfully with its far larger and more established competitors, and booked out for the remainder of the summer. All of this was accomplished without any paid ads or PPC.
“The phone has been ringing off the hook,” Wes Gibson, Lead Guide and Owner
Development of a Media Program for a Remote Backcountry Ski Lodge
Keefer Lake Lodge is a high-end cat skiing operation located in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. We were brought in at the start of the winter 2018/2019 season to develop a PR program, where none had existed before. Keefer was a new business only a few years into operations.
We began with a deep strategy engagement to understand Keefer’s vision, values and voice. This involved interviews with the company owners to understand where they wanted to see the business going and with their ideal clients. We asked Keefer for a list of their best customers, the trip leaders who had been at least twice and brought groups with them, and set up phone interviews with them. The interviews gave us a good sense of what appealed most to this valuable clientele and also told us what media they consume, such as magazines, online publications etc.
Two big differentiators for Keefer, that came from the calls, were the ‘luxury’ aspects and ‘laid back vibe’. After some additional research it was decided that this value proposition would also be used to create story pitches. In the past, the cat skiing industry was seen and heli-skiing’s poor cousin, with mediocre accommodations and meals. The work Keefer had done was breaking new ground in the industry and worthy of press.
As the winter season was already getting underway, Keefer was receiving incoming pitches from ‘media’ requesting free ski trips. Many of these media were unqualified and Keefer had struggled with these types of requests in the past, so we immediately installed an evaluation system and trained staff how to grade these requests and when to refer them back to us.
We then began identifying Tourism and DMO backlinks opportunities. We reached out to Kootenay Rockies Tourism and discovered several sites where Keefer could post free listings and videos, in particular the Powder Highway sites. These consumer facing channels are funded by Destination BC and have strong social media components and high traffic so we began to create content for them. We also began to build relationships with key contacts within Destination BC, and in particular with DBC’s ski media manager, whom we supplied with pitching materials for international travel trade events she was attending and journalists she was meeting with.
Finally, we began a targeted campaign to ski media using story pitches that emphasized Keefer’s ‘luxury aspects’ and the new trends in snowcat skiing.
The DBC backlinks work immediately began to Increase site traffic. Keefer was able to eliminate bogus media trips, built new relationships with DBC and their regional DMO, and got on the radar of some top shelf ski media. Confirmed assignments by Snow Magazine, The Ski Journal and an upcoming trip by a ski writer from Outside magazine are planned for 2019/2020.
A New Adventure Tour and Media Exposure for a European Photo Safari Operator
Waterworld Adventure Tours is a high-end photo safari tour company based in Innsbruck, Austria. The company specializes in unique, off-the-beaten path tours to the far corners of the globe. Trips have included Antarctica expeditions, swimming with humpback whales in the Caribbean, scuba diving in Lake Baikal and Cocos Island shark diving amongst many others. Waterworld’s clientele are typically wealthy, age 40-plus professionals from Germany, Switzerland, Austria and more recently China, where they have opened a new office. The guests are keen photo hobbyists, often traveling with tens of thousands of dollars of professional grade camera equipment and are looking for experiences that cannot be found anywhere else.
We were contracted to develop and provide media coverage and support for a new Canadian based photo safari, to photograph spawning salmon in the interior of British Columbia. The project required logistical planning, location scouting, transportation and securing of necessary permits. Additional activities, such as helicopter flights and custom First Nations experiences not available to the general public, were arranged, further adding to the exclusivity of these tours.
The project involved considerable PR and media production, by our team and by working with visiting journalists. It was decided early on that all trips would host professional media who would produce magazine, newspaper, online and video content. Media coverage was subsequently used in travel trade shows, social media and on the Waterworld website and made up the bulk of Waterworld’s marketing for these tours.
The high quality press that was produced generated a buzz amongst Waterworld’s key prospects, who wanted to come and create for themselves the same stunning images our pro team had produced. Growth in bookings for Waterworld’s salmon spawning trips exceeded 450% and are now sold out more than a year in advance .