Tauck: Marketing During and After a Pandemic
By Tim Sweeney
How does one of the first international travel tour companies stay on top for nearly a century, weathering a pandemic that halted global travel completely? It combines modern marketing tools and top-notch content with tried-and-true practices, such as direct mail.
When Arthur Tauck Sr. launched his first guided travel tour through New York and New England in 1925, he had one simple philosophy: to make it fun and satisfy his guests. A former traveling salesman, Tauck Sr. thought vacationers from the big city might enjoy experiencing the places he saw on his sales routes with the help of a knowledgeable guide. He hatched the idea of a one-price, all-expenses-covered itinerary, and the guided tourism business was born. The travel company that still bears his name has been sailing—and flying and driving—along ever since, growing to offer tours the world over. At least, it was . . . until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
In March 2020, for the first time since World War II, Tauck canceled all its operations. With a client base consisting of mostly high-income earners over the age of 55, one might think Tauck would face challenging times immediately following the pandemic. What the company learned, however, is that their customers were eager to get back on the road—or bus or plane or ship—as soon as the world reopened.
“One of the things we’ve learned over our 98 years is that when external factors force people to postpone their travel dreams, those dreams don’t diminish. They only grow more intense,” says Julia O’Brien, Vice President of Marketing at Tauck. “The demand for travel is there, even with the lingering presence of COVID.”
Indeed, by 2022, Tauck was back to offering 140 itineraries in 61 countries. While the demand for adventure among a travel-starved public is partly responsible for the business rebound, another reason is the company’s marketing efforts during and after the pandemic—a strategy that is a blend of some tried-and-true tactics and a few modern tools.
In the early days of the pandemic, when travel ceased around the world, Tauck CEO Dan Mahar made it clear to customers and advisors that the company would “leave its porchlight on” so that when they were ready to travel, Tauck would be there. The company implemented flexible cancellation and booking offerings, as well as global safety protocols, in an effort to make guests feel comfortable even when they weren’t operating.
Tauck also continued to market the idea of travel, even if it was not possible at the time. In March 2020, to virtually connect with consumers and partners, the company launched Inside Tauck, a monthly virtual event series designed to educate, inform, and inspire future travel. The platform remains active today as a content hub on Tauck.com, providing past and prospective guests with an hour’s worth of travel inspiration in the comfort of their own homes. It features partners, product architects, and Tauck Directors from around the world sharing what guests can expect on tour with Tauck. O’Brien proudly says the entire marketing team at Tauck believes a silver lining of the pandemic has been the brand’s advances in its content marketing.
“One of many reasons our guests travel with Tauck is because of the unique and exclusive access we provide—the kind of experiences that would be difficult to curate on your own,” O’Brien says. “When the world shut down to travel, we needed to find a way to stay engaged with our loyal patrons during the height of the pandemic and still connect with those patrons and inquiries who were not ready to travel with us.”
Once travel resumed, Tauck’s marketing efforts included a number of guest and supplier testimonials “from the road” as well as real-time images and videos in the brand’s content and communications to help show that not only were guests back out there exploring the world, but they were having a great time doing so. Collectively, the brand has a wealth of shareable insider knowledge about the destinations that Tauck tours visit and the people who inhabit those places, and O’Brien says the company’s digital channels—including a robust blog, a prominent YouTube channel, and an inspiring Instagram account—are focused on driving deeper connections and a stronger two-way dialogue with customers.
“The goal of any content should be to inform, engage, and/or educate your audience on topics of interest or value to them,” O’Brien says. “Although it often takes more cross-departmental coordination and creativity, our owned marketing channels, such as our social media accounts and the Taucker blog pages, give us a platform to bring our shared purpose to life outside of the on-tour experience. And when we do it well, we know it creates better customers.”
The most unique of all Tauck’s content platforms might be the Taucker Blog, a collaboration between Tauck brand management and creative team members that gives the brand a home to tell stories and deeply engage with customers. It’s also a place to extend what O’Brien calls the “behind-the-velvet-rope” experiences of a Tauck tour to anyone, even those who don’t go on a Tauck journey. A prime example is a recent blog post from Carolyn Robb, a longtime partner of Tauck who spent 13 years as executive chef to then-Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Robb authored a heartfelt letter after Queen Elizabeth passed, sharing personal accounts and stories of her interactions with the queen.
“By collaborating with partners like Carolyn, travel writers like Colin Treadwell, and our own Tauck Directors located throughout the globe, we work hard to surprise and delight our readers with unique perspectives and stories,” O’Brien says. “We want Tauck to become that trusted guide of unknown stories and beyond-ordinary experiences that helps someone daydream about their next travels.”
O’Brien and the marketing team at Tauck are wise enough to measure the success of their content efforts beyond clicks, likes, and dollars. They understand that their work has long-term value across every part of the funnel, whether driving awareness, leading to sales conversions, or generating more website visits. O’Brien believes wholeheartedly that Tauck’s content efforts led to greater loyalty and retention during the pandemic.
“I think a lot of marketers tend to focus on customer conversion, understandably, but there are so many other KPIs that matter when it comes to content marketing,” she says. “The longer shelf life of a blog post or video can deliver returns for years. An emotionally moving brand video can inspire a candidate to interview and ultimately accept that job offer. And as we experienced in 2020, content can boost company morale and invite others to contribute to future stories down the road.”
Founder Arthur Tauck Sr. was steadfast in his belief that investing back into his business would improve the experience for customers, driving repeat business and creating evangelists for the brand. Today, word of mouth is still a huge business catalyst for Tauck, and social media amplifies its effect. In a world of “travel influencers” and “professional travelers,” O’Brien and the customer service team at Tauck recognize that their existing customers can reach thousands of other potential customers with a recommendation or an Instagram post.
“Our existing customers are already influencers themselves and, truly, the best marketing we could ever ask for,” she says. “In 1925, a satisfied guest might have told his immediate family and 5 or 10 friends about a great Tauck trip. Nearly 100 years later, a single happy guest can easily reach thousands of other potential customers with their recommendations.”
Despite all their digital marketing prowess, direct mail still plays an important role in Tauck’s marketing mix. O’Brien says that “there is staying power with print” and that Tauck’s proprietary database of names is a new-customer acquisition engine that the brand relies heavily upon. Committing to a high-price vacation like a Tauck tour is normally not a hastily made choice. The decision funnel is often lengthy, taking months or even years for a brand to establish credibility in the mind of a consumer, and a multi-touchpoint strategy—direct mail plus digital—helps Tauck remain on a prospect’s radar over a prolonged time period.
“Particularly at the ‘inspiration’ stage of a decision-making process, brochures and direct mail help build awareness as well as provide ideas on where to go and cement why seeing that destination with our company is different and/or better,” O’Brien explains. “Our customers appreciate being able to hold something in their hands, and in an increasingly digital age, if we do our jobs well, those direct mail pieces break through the clutter.”
To keep up with the ever-changing advertising landscape, Tauck’s marketing team is constantly testing and learning, which will be especially important as their core customers age and the company shifts its focus to refilling the customer pipeline with people from increasingly digital-minded generations. Exiting the pandemic, Tauck explored a new strategy that married its existing direct mail strength with digital tools, such as QR codes and Informed Delivery from the United States Postal Service. The company worked to test a new prospecting format that incorporated personalized QR codes into each mailer; with the quick snap of a smartphone, a prospective Tauck customer was driven to a lead-generation page that was pre-populated with the prospect’s mailing information, allowing them to quickly and efficiently request their preferred Tauck brochures and free calendar.
With Informed Delivery, the United States Postal Service emails recipients each morning, telling them what will be delivered in their mail that day. In the Informed Delivery email, the sender can include color images that link directly to a landing page on their website. In Tauck’s case, the campaign recipient clicked on the color image of the direct mail piece. The hyperlink moved them to a personalized URL where they could respond immediately and ask for information on a specific tour. It gave Tauck two points of personal contact on the same day from one direct mail piece, which goes a long way to building brand awareness and credibility. And when combined, the digital and direct mail touchpoints have proven to be very successful.
“Not only does the personalized QR code enable a better guest experience, but it also saves on our response times and delivers potential savings opportunities on the fulfillment side for every scan that generates a response, versus a business reply card or phone call response,” O’Brien explains. “This was another testing opportunity for us, using the technology as a new vehicle through which a prospect could interact with our brand even before our mailing arrived in their mailbox. We’ve been excited by the very promising use and results of these personalized QR code URLs as a response channel and will continue to monitor over the coming months.”
In nearly a century of doing business, Tauck’s travel destinations and means of bringing people to them have expanded dramatically to meet customer demand. If it is to survive another 100 years, its marketing strategies must also evolve with the needs and demographic changes of its customers. O’Brien says the pandemic accelerated Tauck’s use of digital channels and laid the groundwork for an entirely new way of connecting and engaging with customers. It also allowed the company to tell its brand story in unique and impactful ways, using rich storytelling and other digital product marketing.
“As we look to the future, we know the 65-year-old today is going to behave a lot differently than the 65-year-old 10 or 20 years from now, and, accordingly, we must be thinking differently now about how we are going to reach them,” O’Brien says. “Taking an always-on, channel-agnostic approach to communicating with our travelers is key. We will soon be implementing a modern CRM that should also mark a meaningful step in our continued digital transformation, allowing us to connect the dots to ensure all our marketing campaigns are that much more personalized and relevant for our customers.” As Tauck continues forward with the implementation of a new CRM, O’Brien is certain they will have the opportunity to improve the customer journey from end to end and get the complete picture of who each customer is. Being able to personalize communications—both print and digital—for each guest will be an evolution in and of itself. “I saw a stat at a Salesforce Marketing Cloud conference this past summer: 86 percent of customers say an emotional connection makes them continue doing business with a brand,” says O’Brien. “We already see how powerful that connection can be among our loyal repeat patrons; the opportunity in front of us is to move to a more personalized approach that will meet every prospect, patron, and inquiry where they are and deliver the right message in the right channel at the right time.” These changes feel like major steps forward for Tauck and its marketing team.
“As we navigate this next chapter,” says O’Brien, “I have no doubt we will continue to focus on the values that have made us who we are: our people, keeping our guests at the center of everything we do, and moving forward with the goal of transforming lives through travel.”
Find this article in the Q1 2023 issue of Inspired Momentum