Sharing Sri Lanka’s Tourism Message Effectively - Interview with Alyna Haji Omar

29th September, 2020 News and Updates,Opinion Pieces

Countries around the world spend millions of dollars every year to advertise their destinations to travellers. Australia’s marketing budget for 2018/19 was approximately USD 108 million[i], while Indonesia has earmarked USD 258 million to boost the tourism sector by launching new marketing initiatives[ii]. Sri Lanka’s destination marketing spend is estimated at 3 billion rupees, and the strategy for spending this funding has to be revisited due to the COVID-19 crisis. Having had the experience of building the So Sri Lanka brand – the Alliance spoke with Alyna Haji Omar on what role the well conceptualised, and executed campaign can really have on a destination – and more importantly when we can see results.

Alyna has been at the helm of Wunderman Thompson (formerly JWT) as CEO since 2015, prior to which she was the CEO of Response Marketing. She headed the Wunderman Thompson team that developed the So Sri Lanka tourism brand campaign, which recently won an award for Best Viral Film at the Brand Film Awards in London. Alyna has been a strong supporter of the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance from its inception, graciously sharing her time, creativity and resources with the Alliance on a number of initiatives, pro bono.

The following interview with Alyna offers some great insights into how the tourism industry should market its offerings and engage with potential customers during this period.

Q: What do you think is the tourism message Sri Lanka should be pushing during this period?

A: The priority now is to ensure we demonstrate that a consistent, scientific, data led health and safety perspective is key to Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 response strategy and our destination recovery strategy. A professional, internationally recognized health and safety audit is important, and digital infrastructure around disseminating clear, accurate and current information is vital – app, website, daily briefings, etc. The key beyond this is to assure people that their holiday experience will be just as enjoyable as ever. We are the perfect, tropical escape where you can have a beach, a mountain and an ancient temple all to yourself!

It is equally important to capture the world’s imagination through powerful, immersive and relevant storytelling – authenticity is the key to this. People are feeling alone, scared of the ‘other’ and hopeless – Sri Lanka’s finest and most powerful asset is our nature of nurture and our brand of life is tremendously relevant today. Our identity is rooted in generosity and our brand of hospitality is informal, spontaneous, obliging, sympathetic, unreserved, company loving, helpful and demonstrative. This combined with our rich heritage of healing and our ancient legacies in healthcare and wellness give Sri Lanka a very special perspective.

We have a very real opportunity here; we can evolve from an island destination into a true destination brand – famous for our tremendous natural beauty and our way of life. Sri Lankan’ness is an underrated and under-valued export!

Q: Should local tourism businesses be engaged in marketing at this time? If so, what kind of message should they be pushing?

A: Absolutely, reframing this as an engagement strategy is perhaps more useful; build meaningful engagement with your specific audience – build for one, scale for many! For the first time (perhaps ever) there are captive audiences everywhere who are exploring the world, their passions, new ideas in the digital world as a means of escaping their physical realities. There is opportunity here – people are actively trying to repurpose or replicate their out of home experiences in-home and their physical experiences virtually and willing to pay for it – staycations are being embraced, self care and emotional wellbeing are becoming a priority. We are all busy reevaluating our relationships, our pace of life and priorities – be aware of how your brand and business can become relevant in this context. We may find product innovation here that opens up brand new revenue opportunities well past Covid-19.

Q: What’s your opinion of the channel mix the tourism operators should use?

A: We live in a mobile first digital world, full stop. There is endless potential across platforms – social, gaming, apps, websites, e-commerce, chat, streaming – multidimensional digital platforms are the only meaningful way forward.

Q: Since domestic travel has become the lifeline of the industry at present, how do you think tourism operators should be marketing to local travellers?

A: The domestic market is always the first to reignite; through war, natural disasters, terror attacks, political instability and disease. Discounting strategies are inevitable here but if we view the potential of domestic tourism as a marketing and PR tool then it becomes more interesting – domestic travellers are wonderful engines of optimism and credible original content and smart brands will find incredibly engaging ways to amplify this value.

Q: When tourism resumes, and travellers are weighing their options, how can we reassure and encourage them to pick Sri Lanka as their preferred destination?

A: We keep prioritizing clarity and provide control; the clarity of process, protocol, information, infrastructure, etc. and the control that it affords the traveller over their experience. This is key. We support this with wonderful authenticity – make the experience of Sri Lanka something that is not interchangeable with another island, or another beach or another culture. As the world traveller re-emerges, pent-up demand will be met with unprecedented supply and serious ad budgets from across destinations and regions. We need to tell game-changing stories – it is not enough to do something, we need to develop data-driven strategic, targeted engagement strategies built around meaningful insights executed to perfection, in order to compete with world standards – cheap and cheerful generic drone footage is not enough.

Q: Any advice to local tourism businesses on how they should tweak their marketing message during that period?

A: Look for relevance and innovate from there. What is happening in someone’s life that your business/brand can empathize with and play a role in? Is there new value that can be provided based on new need states? People trust brands that sound and act like they are rooted in the reality of what is happening. Find your relevance and engage meaningfully.

Q: Do you believe it’s a destination marketing campaign’s responsibility to promote the entire country, not just what’s popular, so that tourism benefits are driven to communities across the island?

A: It’s massively important for a destination marketing strategy to consider the entire country – this doesn’t necessarily mean we have one ad campaign that skims across the diversity of the offering or that we look at this only from a promotion perspective. We need to unlock the potential of the entire country and all its attractions and offerings to be able to drive sustainable and highly profitable tourism development strategies. New destination marketing strategies and new product development ethos is vital – we need to fuse destinations, experiences, attractions, culture, cuisine, identity, value systems, heritage and pop culture to create the fullest Sri Lanka experience.

Q: Any advice on how to effectively target the right audiences?

A: Let meaningful data inform all your strategies – there are many sources for data/insight/trends across platforms. Digital first strategies are the most effective and there are many different mixes based on your segments.

Q: How can our members utilize the country’s So Sri Lanka campaign in their marketing?

A: ‘So Sri Lanka’ is designed to be an ecosystem of collaboration and shared value. So Sri Lanka means Sri Lanka is unique. Sri Lanka is consumed through the products and services delivered by the wider tourism, hospitality, retail sectors as well as by the people of Sri Lanka, our heroes, our villains, our musicians, artists, comedians, armchair critics, gossips, soothsayers and night kade keepers – So Sri Lanka is a brand built to amplify our Sri Lankan’ness from fashion week to the fishing hut – we need to start telling our insatiable stories – they are precious and powerful and will be the magic ingredient that helps unlock our potential.

Q: Any thoughts on the importance of a united industry voice, especially in the current context?

A: The industry is changing (and change is almost always too relentless to unify) – we need to adapt and evolve quickly to survive – being alive to this reality is important- it’s important to agree on this and to democratize opportunity.
I would imagine that a well-informed, agile, future focused industry is more valuable than one fighting to hold old ground. Sometimes change must be affected for the greater good and that always comes with its fair share of anxiety. We’re seeing this across every sector – I filter through this lens; it is more important for industry stakeholders to shed light on the facts rather than generate heat through emotion.

Q: What advice can you give small and medium tourism operators on promoting their properties and offerings to international travellers?

A: Insight, innovation and imagination will triumph over the generic every day – you don’t need big budgets – you need brave ideas. A great example of winning engagement / marketing in Covid-19 times is Sweet Farm, an animal sanctuary in the US that launched Goat2meetings on Zoom – essentially recognizing that people were stressed and fatigued over endless Zoom calls and enabling you to invite a lama or goat to your meeting for under $100. I thought this was brilliant! Finding an imaginative and authentic way to weave your brand’s value into people’s real lives and their real challenges is the best way to make a real impact. We have so many great assets that can be leveraged into impactful engagement platforms.