Welcome to the latest in a new series of columns brought to you in association with experiential marketing, brand activation and consumer engagement specialist CircleSquare. This monthly column aims to inform, surprise and provoke, and to offer a fresh perspective about the role of design in the channel. This time we look at how to extend the traveller journey and to be ‘channel agnostic’ in doing so.

I said in this very column back in April that once we emerge from the shadow of COVID-19, it will be a race to get back, writes CircleSquare Executive Creative Director Philip Handley. It is obvious from the strategic conversations, design briefs and creative workshops that we have been having with brands and retailers alike, that the race has already begun.

Admittedly the crisis is far from over but it feels like we have finally wriggled free from its gruesome grip and this is our chance to escape.

We have all come to accept that things will not be the same as they were before, but as we strive to build a new travel retail together, it is crucial we look back at our pre-COVID days to analyse what we did right (and what we did wrong) so we can ensure our future is as bright as possible and we don’t simply run back into the arms of the waiting monster.

We must seize the omnichannel opportunity in travel retail, says CircleSquare

So how successful was travel retail pre-crisis? Well, thanks to The Moodie Davitt Report’s excellent website, we can all look back over the big news stories of 2019 and see the reports of record sales, growing passenger numbers, beautiful new store openings and brands revealing never-seen-before experiences; clearly a thriving industry.

However, sometimes the loud roar of success drowns out the faint whisper of failings and when this happens, these tiny, hardly noticeable cracks can slowly become fault lines. So, am I saying the travel retail industry became complacent? The straight answer is ‘yes’.

Now, before you send me a nasty email about how I am denigrating a wonderful industry, let me make my case. Did you know that a staggering 59% of international travellers do not even enter a travel retail store during their journey? Why couldn’t we entice more people into the store? When asked, a mere 14% of travellers said they shop at the airport because they enjoy the experience. Does that mean most people do not enjoy the travel retail shopping experience because that it what it sounds like?

Consider as well that 51% of the people who didn’t visit the travel retail store, said that they would have done, had they known there was an experience happening in store. But that doesn’t make sense because the stores always have HPPs running all year round; unless that’s not what international travellers are actually interested in.

The problem doesn’t appear to be the passengers either. Let’s be honest, domestic retail would kill for the demographic of our passengers walking past their stores.

I’m not saying we didn’t do well before COVID-19; the record sales numbers attest to that. I’m just saying that we could have done better. Much better in fact. Given that now more than ever we need to be at our cutting-edge best, it is essential we get it right as we rebuild our industry.

An Oakley activation from 2019 (above and below) that exemplifies how digital, social and physical elements can combine to powerful effect

While the team at CircleSquare could never have predicted the pandemic, we did predict that travel retail had to change. Moreover, we started implementing these changes long before the current crisis, so right now, we are well ahead of the curve.

Philip Handley: We need the power of digital to enhance the offer and bring back sales

The key has been to move away from the rigid perspective that online and offline engagement are separate concepts and instead to embrace channel agnosticism.

Our shoppers not only want, but expect to be engaged with a consistent and relevant message delivered seamlessly across all touch-points of their journey.

This allows us to extend the shopper journey from before they even begin their travel, through their arrival at the airport, their experience in the concourse, their retail engagement, their product purchase, their in-flight experience and even post-travel when they arrive in their destination.

This is a genuine game-changer. We know change can be difficult but if we cannot change after COVID-19, then when? It requires collaboration between all stakeholders, the airports, the retailers and the brands. For maximum effect it will require the brands to work with their counterparts in local markets to extend the seamless communication right into the shopper’s destination.

The best news of all, is that it is tried, tested and ready to go. Last summer we ran a campaign for Luxottica, the luxury sunglasses giant, targeting shoppers on social media with personalised messages before their trip.

This not only generated awareness of the campaign but we were able to recognise their arrival at the airport and drive them to our physical retail space for them to have the full 360° experience. This culminated with them being sent personalised offers and even a chance to win a brand experience in the end market. The result is one single campaign across digital, social and physical, working together to optimise the message and increase sales.

Since then we have refined the system and created a plug-and-play template which is customisable by a brand or retailer and uses a data-driven approach to media investment, dynamically redistributed across channels to maximise ROI. Naturally our digital media planning encompasses both Western and Chinese ecosystems for maximum effect.

In addition, we have created a bespoke system (in this case created for one of the cosmetic giants) which delivers a total brand world look and feel, bringing together social media, brand content and physical retail in a powerful, brand-building tool.

As we restructure our stores for social distancing and plan for our brands not to be handled or for samples not to be given out to passing shoppers, we need the power of digital to enhance our retail offering and bring back our sales.

*This article first appeared in The Moodie Davitt eZine on 16 July. Click here for access.

**CircleSquare has announced the acquisition of a “significant stake” in Swiss digital marketing agency comtogether. Click here for the full story.