As a tour operator and a small business, Bunnik Tours copped the full force of the pandemic’s impact. But thanks to some agile thinking, savvy strategising, superior systems and a dedication to helping people realise their travel dreams, Bunnik Tours stands strong. Here, Chief Marketing Officer Catherine Kelly shares her insights and learnings.
From natural disasters to political unrest, we’ve seen it all at Bunnik Tours. When you tour to 80 countries all over the world, risk comes with the territory, so we always have an ear to the ground in each of our destinations and have been adept at managing crises when they arise. When the Egyptian revolution of 2011 occurred, for instance, we got our clients home well before the first government repatriation flights began. Being proactive is key to keeping the customer experience paramount, no matter what’s going on.
So when the COVID-19 pandemic started to emerge, we had the systems in place to move fast and we cancelled our China tours very early on, followed soon by Japan and South Korea.
But the pandemic has been challenging in different ways to any crises we’ve experienced before and even as we were cancelling those tours, it was very difficult to forecast just how dramatic its impact would be.
Our first priority was to get our clients home safely and we worked hard to do exactly that. Our dashboard provides an immediate, real time picture of where all our customers are at any given time which meant we could work fast to return them to Australia. It has been a crucial tool for identifying where customers were during the Sri Lankan Easter attacks of 2019 and has proved again to be critical not just in day-to-day operations, but in times of crisis.
The European high season, a peak period of business for us, was fast approaching and our volume of calls increased significantly as anxious customers called wondering what would happen and how they could get refunds. For many clients, these trips were long planned and saved for. Our average transaction is a significant investment for a much anticipated experience of a lifetime, so communicating with our customers about that issue was extremely important. Refunds in the travel industry are very complicated – we could be retrieving refunds from up to 40 different businesses in any destination including airlines, hotels and ground operators. Taking the time to communicate that to our customers meant we could mitigate their understandable worry, reassure them and help maintain their trust in Bunnik Tours. One change we might see come out of this is a standardised set of terms and conditions for the travel industry.
Often customers would contact us through three or four different platforms in their anxiety to get a resolution. Our CRM allows us to see immediately the record of any previous conversations and respond consistently and appropriately, letting them know that we are taking care of them.
Making sure our clients got home safely and managing the repercussions of the pandemic and associated border closures on upcoming tours was one thing. Figuring out how to move forward was another.
We stopped all our print advertising which, in the travel industry especially, is no small thing. The travel section of the weekend papers that so many of us daydream over was either hugely reduced or gone. Our email marketing campaigns were suddenly redundant and social media had not generally been high engagement platforms for us.
But this was an opportunity, not an ending. By using our existing resources in different ways, we could keep delivering unique and valuable experiences and services to our customers.
By March 25 we had launched the ‘Still dreaming? Still Bunnik Tours’ campaign to let our customers know that we are still here for them and we will still be here when we come out the other end of all of this. We don’t want our customers to not have that wonderful pleasure of reading the weekend travel section and imagining where they’d like to go and writing bucket lists of exotic locations. It’s not about selling a product, but about reassuring them that we, as a company, are not going anywhere and, when the time is right, we can take them everywhere. So in the meantime, they can keep dreaming.
We started using our social media and email marketing to bring different kinds of beautiful content to our customers. Where previously we had focused on getting out a certain number of posts per day, we started posting less but with greater consideration for what our customers want at this time and have seen improved feedback and engagement as a result. Instead of listing the dozens of locations we tour to, we now focus on one destination a week using multiple channels and make it come alive with deep dives into local food and webinars on amazing cultures. This way, we are able to maintain our reputation as experts in our field and stay closely engaged with our customers.
As we were able to introduce a small range of domestic tours in South Australia and Tasmania, our CRM segmentation tools came into their own. By segmenting our databases, we could make sure our customers only received relevant and appropriate information. We never want to compound a client’s disappointment at a trip cut short or cancelled by sending them information on a product they can’t even access. Our CRM allows us to meet our customers’ hunger for content without jeopardising their faith in Bunnik Tours to do right by them.
Another unexpected benefit of this experience has been that our managers have been able to take the time to gain insights into other departments. We were delighted recently for the sales team manager to join the marketing team on an “internship” of sorts for a few months which really opened her eyes, and consequently her teams’, to what we do here in marketing and the contribution we’ve been able to make at this challenging time. We hope that there will be more opportunities like this as we keep moving forward.
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