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Case study: Driving direct, profitable growth in the middle of a pandemic

How Cape Byron Kayaks used online marketing to power direct bookings during COVID-19. 

Michael Lattig, 24th Aug 2020

2020 was set to be a banner year for Alice Livingston and Cape Byron Kayaks. It is the 25th year in which Alice and her team have shared the marine-life-filled waters of Australia’s famed Byron Bay with travelers from around the world. 

The company has gotten so good at knowing when and where to wow their clients that they were able to offer a “Dolphin Guarantee,” whereby kayakers could come back a different day and take the tour again for free if they didn’t see any dolphins on their trip. Add to that Byron Bay’s reputation as one of the best places in the world to witness the annual migration of Humpback whales between May and November, and you have a tour set up for ongoing success. That was, however, until COVID-19 hit. 

We all know the story, so no need to belabor it here, but for a tour that typically catered to international travelers (they made up 60% of bookings), and relied heavily on OTAs to drive those bookings (70% of Cape Byron Kayaks’ bookings came through 3rd parties in 2019), COVID was particularly disruptive. Add to that the fact that within Australia there have been varying periods of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ between the country’s different States, and you have a recipe for a disastrous year.

And that it is how it started. 

Beginning in late March, as Australia moved into lockdown, business fell precipitously and Alice was forced to shut down — a whole job unto itself — followed by canceling forward bookings, figuring out how (or if) to keep staff on, keeping up with bills while having no cash flow. It was not the year that Alice envisioned. 

Coming back from lockdown: May 2020

Things shifted at the end of May when Australia’s success in battling the initial outbreak led to a new set of decisions for Alice: How and when could she safely re-open? And if she did reopen, where would her customers come from considering Australia still had a 2-week quarantine in place for any international arrivals? 

With these questions in mind, she reached out to a trusted friend who had helped her in the past, Michelle Bassil, who had recently taken on a new role as Business Development Director at TourismSolved. 

Alice and Michelle worked together to identify new opportunities that could keep Cape Byron Kayaks afloat through the pandemic. This included identifying the importance that domestic travelers would play in Cape Byron’s recovery. They then engaged the rest of the TourismSolved team to help craft a new growth strategy for the reopened business. 

Building profitable, direct business as the priority

Right out of the gate, we realized that driving direct bookings, which are much more profitable than bookings driven through third-party sites, would be a critical component to a successful reopening. This would allow Alice to bring back staff and keep the bills paid, even if booking volumes didn’t match those of previous years. 

As Alice worked through the final approvals for reopening, we swung into action. And in just a week we were able to implement site improvements (including COVID-safe messaging), optimize Cape Byron’s Google presence, launch low-cost paid marketing tests, and start to populate Cape Byron’s social channels. On June 6, Cape Byron Kayaks’ 25th anniversary season was finally underway! 

Almost immediately, the number of site inquiries and phone calls began to exceed anything Alice and her team had seen in previous years. And this time, it was Australians reaching out to book directly. 

Seeing these early results, we targeted the upcoming winter school holidays in Australia, which this year fell at the end of June, as the biggest opportunity of the winter for Alice and her team and set our sites on optimizing our campaigns for those two weeks. 

Success by the numbers 

The results? In the middle of a pandemic, and less than a month after relaunching, the results started to speak for themselves.

  • Alice and her team were able to treat 312 adventurers to a fantastic day on Byron Bay over the winter holiday period — only 8 fewer people than the team had served over the winter school holiday in 2019.
  • Even better? 70% of Cape Byron Kayaks’ bookings over the holiday period were direct. A complete reversal from last year, when 70% of the team’s bookings came through third parties. As a result, this winter school holiday period — in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic — was more profitable for Cape Byron Kayaks than the 2019 holiday period. 

And now, even as uncertainty remains, the shift to direct bookings has the team set up to continue their success as the Humpbacks make their way through Byron Bay. 

The increased profit driven by our initial efforts has created a financial buffer that is helping Cape Byron cope as new lockdowns come and go. And the flexible nature of the campaigns TourismSolved is running for Alice and her team allows us to reduce, or ramp up, our marketing based on the conditions on the ground.

If you’d like to discuss how TourismSolved can help you develop new marketing capabilities to drive direct, profitable growth for your business, please reach out today at growdirect@tourismsolved.com

We look forward to hearing from you and helping you!