On a recent Saturday afternoon, hundreds of volunteers gathered in a park in the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport and held up giant signs that spelled out “welcome,” aiming to make arriving visitors feel at home before they even landed.
The greetings, written in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic, were part of the ongoing #everyoneiswelcome campaign from Discover Los Angeles, the area’s tourism board, that touts an open-arms policy to travelers from around the world.
And while it’s a heartfelt camera-ready gesture, it’s more than a stunt, said Damien Eley, executive creative director at ad agency Mistress, which created the event and collaborated with Discover LA on the new campaign.
“There’s an opportunity to reference some of the political messaging that’s happening right now,” Eley said, referring to U.S. travel bans and “American first” rhetoric. “It’s important to not just do a travel ad, but to be part of the bigger cultural conversation.”
Other major metro areas and brands—Orbitz, Hyatt, Airbnb, New York, San Francisco and more—are taking a similar approach, debuting a wave of travel-related campaigns that make a point of being diverse, hospitable and inclusive.
While the marketing isn’t overtly political, it’s clearly responding to the current environment in which the presidential administration talks tough on travel bans for majority-Muslim countries, trade protectionism, immigration raids and a border wall.
It’s also a survival strategy, trying to counteract the so-called Trump Slump, which travel analysts estimate will translate to 4.3 million fewer foreign visitors (from Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Mexico and elsewhere) and $7.4 billion in lost revenue in the U.S. this year alone, according to Tourism Economics.
Marketers may be walking a fine line and risking an epic fail (à la Pepsi), but they’re tackling the social and bottom-line issue head-on.
For instance, Hyatt recently debuted a spot called “For a World of Understanding,” featuring a woman in a hijab reaching out to a suspicious fellow commuter, and Royal Jordanian gave some insight into what it’s like to board a plane as an Arab, giving new meaning to the phrase “fear of flying.” A Turkish Airlines ad with Morgan Freeman encouraged people to find “delight in our differences,” and Airbnb debuted “Accept,” featuring an array of its ethnically diverse hosts and employees.
San Francisco has directed its marketing at Europeans to spark interest in the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and NYC & Company has premiered “Welcoming the World,” with execs saying they are “doubling down on our welcome message” on behalf of New York, the top destination of overseas travelers. (The city stands to lose $900 million this year, officials said, from a drop of 300,000 foreign travelers.)
Orbitz just launched a song-and-dance mini-movie with a message of expanding horizons and reinforcing unity. Dubbed “It’s a Great Big World,” it stars social media maven and Trump satirist Randy Rainbow, Margaret Cho, drag queens Bianca Del Rio and Miss Richfield 1981, and an all sizes, shapes and ethnicities cast. There’s even a Speedo-wearing acrobat. Set at a TSA checkpoint, the two-minute musical leans heavily into its Broadway-esque roots, using copious amounts of confetti, comedy and jazz hands.
“We came into this being hopeful, not partisan,” said Brian Tolleson, head of content and managing partner at advertainment firm Bark Bark, which created the spot with actor Sean Hayes’ Hazy Mills Productions, in its first brand work. “We think you can stand up for inclusion without being political. What we’re celebrating is the benefit of opening your eyes.”
The brand, admittedly nervous about the nontraditional approach, wanted the ad to showcase its loyalty program and its “long-standing commitment to a diverse set of travelers,” said Jeff Marsh, director of marketing at Orbitz. The concept felt “fresh and innovative,” he said, representing “common ground, regardless of individual politics.”
And the over-the-top Music Man-style format may have found just the right balance for tumultuous times, he said: “Humor is a powerful vehicle to deliver a message that might otherwise be perceived as controversial.”