The power of storytelling
April 13, 2020

When the market comes back – as it will – how can you make sure visitors choose your destination, airline or hotel as their first choice? By telling them a really great story – a story about you

There’s an old saying that nicely underlines why storytelling is so important to the travel industry: “I’m not sure what I want,” the saying goes, “but I’ll know it when I see it.”

Because nobody really knows that they want to go scuba diving in Tahiti or enjoy wine tasting in Santorini until someone else has put that idea in their head.

Before they’ve booked their trip, they’ve first dreamed about it. And, more than likely, that dream has been inspired by something that they’ve heard, read or seen.

It’s upon this concept that the business of promoting global tourism is founded.  

As the CEO of a global travel media company, producing magazines, video and digital content for some of the world’s biggest airlines, we’ve been inspiring the choices of travellers for more than 26 years. In that time, we’ve helped many, many thousands of our travel and tourism partners to bring many, many millions of people to them with the stories that we’ve told.

It’s astonishing how the adverts, magazine features and documentaries we’ve made have helped all those millions of customers choose one particular place over every other destination on the planet. Let me give you an example.

We produce a monthly travel show for United Airlines, which runs on its inflight entertainment system. Each episode features a video guide to a destination on the United route network, called Three Perfect Days. What makes our video different is that viewers are shown around by locals, be they tour guides, business owners or local celebrities.  

The very first one we made, back in 2018, was for Springdale in Utah. As a destination, they’d never done anything like this before, but just from featuring in our show, their room nights and visitor numbers shot up astronomically. This was a place with only one hotel. It’s tiny so you could easily see the uptick when people suddenly started arriving. Everyone in the local tourism industry was so happy with the story we told that we still hear from them, more than two years later.

And remember, it’s one thing convincing people to spend their hard-earned savings on a trip to London, Paris or New York – everybody already knows how great these places are – but to encourage people to go to Springdale? That requires a big shift in perception.

So, what made our narrative so engaging? Aside from the stunning footage, which showcased the area’s natural beauty quite brilliantly, the fact that the message was delivered by real people was the clincher. It told a real story, rather than just relying on information from a guidebook.

There’s a statistic that perfectly illustrates why this method of delivery is so much more impactful for driving engagement: according to the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has been wrapped in a compelling story.

Stories evoke excitement or suspense. The best ones actually encourage you to picture yourself in them – something psychologists refer to as “narrative transport” – and the emotional response they trigger is far deeper and longer-lasting than anything a simple statistic can achieve.

Think about it: when it comes to booking your next holiday, are you more likely to choose Grenada because you’ve heard it has 45 beaches or because you’ve heard that the sand on those beaches is powder-soft and pearlescent, and shimmers pink as the sun sets? I know what makes me want to visit.

Now, more than ever, the travel industry needs great stories. Global tourism is under existential threat. We have already experienced, first-hand, the impact this crisis has had on some of our longest-serving clients and airline partners. But stories can help us to heal. In the short term, they transport us to far-off climes at a time when we’re unable to leave our homes. And when the recovery begins – as it will – people all over the world will be hungry for inspiration. Many millions will be excitedly asking, “Where shall we go first?”

When that happens, our industry needs to be ready. Time was when all a destination needed to market itself was a shot of sparkling blue waters, powdery sands or snow-capped mountains under a dreamy slogan, and you’d have visitors queueing up.

Today, with cheaper flights and more destinations than ever before, not to mention the vast range of media through which people can be targeted, everyone is going to have to work very much harder to get their stories across.

When we started Ink in 1994, somewhere in the region of 1.2 billion people used air travel. Last year, that figure was nearly four times as many. In Europe alone there are around eight times as many routes as there were in the early 1990s. The choice today is mind boggling, and when travel comes back, every destination will be trying its level best to bring visitors in.

Part of how they’re going to do this is by lowering prices – mark my words, there is going to be an epic price war – but it’s the destinations that cut through the noise by telling the best, most compelling stories that will be the most successful.

I think there’s huge opportunity here, especially if you’re smart. It’s never been cheaper, for example, for Americans to visit Europe or anywhere else in the world, so now is the time to market to those millions of US tourists. Likewise, places that we’ve all taken for granted – the Londons and the New Yorks – will need to work just as hard as those under-the-radar gems to rebuild confidence and remind everyone why they’re so amazing. And this is where we can help.

For travellers it’s going to be an extremely exciting time, so I’m already looking forward with optimism. Back in 2008 during the last global recession, I was in Palawan in the Philippines. That was a similar period of global upheaval, and for an island so heavily reliant on tourism, you’d expect there to be a feeling of doom and gloom – but not in the slightest. We were there visiting as guests of the mayor, and during one lunch together, he turned to me and said he wanted to thank us.

I said, “What are you doing, thanking me? We’re the ones who are enjoying this amazing food in a tropical paradise.”

And he said: “If you didn’t bring travellers here, we wouldn’t have the lights on the street, the clean roads or the schools for our children. You don’t realise how important tourism is to our economy.”

It was a humbling moment, but one that really resonated with me at the time, and the message has an even more powerful meaning today. Now, as then, it’s storytelling that can help us to rebuild, it’s storytelling that can get the world moving again.

So please, give us a call, send us an email. And let’s talk about how we can tell your story.

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