Floods, Tourism and Search in Queensland

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I work for Greyhound Australia as their Online Marketing Coordinator. My job covers a lot of responsibilities, and you can find a summary on my CV. Greyhound Australia is obviously involved in the tourism industry, especially with backpackers. This blog post is to outline some of what I saw during the December – February period in Queensland, and discuss a few of the things we did in response.

The period between December and February is usually the peak tourist season in Queensland. Typically backpackers start to head north along the east coast of Australia as it gets closer to New Year. They usually stop in Byron Bay, the Gold Coast, Brisbane, and travel up through the Sunshine Coast and on to the Whitsundays, the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns. However, the period between December 2010 and February 2011 was a bit different.

Google Insights for Flood, in Australia

Tourism in Queensland’s Wild Weather

The Queensland floods (including parts of North Queensland, and the area around and including Toowoomba and Brisbane) and Tropical Cyclone Yasi affected the travel and tourism industry in Queensland. While the floods began in North Queensland in late December, affecting Rockhampton and the surrounding area, it was not until after the Brisbane River broke its banks on the 11th of January and started to hit Brisbane that the impact had a noticeable effect on sales and traffic.

With the state capital hit, media coverage and interest in the floods peaked. Google’s reported search volume for ‘flood’ and other related searches only really surged in that period too, and the same was seen on Greyhound.com.au, with organic traffic featuring ‘flood’ starting to be seen in volume.

Organic search including flood terms

Most flood-related queries were structured around destination, specific product and timetable or schedule terms. They were not a result of additional optimisation, as there was no targeted content or link development at the time targeting those searches. The flood related search traffic was the result of users adding flood terms to searches that the site would already appear for.

Site activity also changed during this period, with increased information gathering activity around travel times and availability for affected regions. With international media coverage and some countries issuing negative travel advice to their citizens, traffic volumes from overseas were also greatly reduced.

Skipping South East Queensland

With Brisbane affected by the floods, we found that a reasonable number of backpackers and tourists were avoiding South East Queensland, and rearranging their travel. Some flew straight to North Queensland destinations, like Cairns, while others headed south again. Destinations like Byron Bay started to receive unseasonal attention both in sales and in search.

Comparing 'Brisbane Byron Bay' searches

The above single phrase example compares the 2010-2011 period to 2009-2010 for terms including ‘Brisbane Byron Bay’, in that order. This was not the only abnormality observed in search referral during this period. In the aftermath of the floods, Tourism Queensland, along with a lot of other tourism reliant companies, started their ‘back in business’ campaigns as well, to combat the negative press. Whilst talk of floods, destruction and the political recriminations that followed might sell impressions, ratings and ultimately ad space, it does not do much for tours and travel.

Cyclone Yasi

Google Insights for Cyclone Yasi, in Australia

Threatening the parts of Queensland that largely avoided the floods, Category 5 Cyclone Yasi appeared off the coast of Far North Queensland – just in time for the backpackers and tourists who decided to skip South East Queensland in favour of the relative dry up there. Obviously the effect that  Yasi had on search, demand and sales in the north of Queensland was similar to the floods in the south a few weeks earlier.

Greyhound Australia and other transport companies responded to help with evacuations in the north, running services out of the path of the cyclone, including backpacker favourites Airlie Beach and Mission Beach. Regular services were also suspended in a number of places in advance of the cyclone.

After Cyclone Yasi the peak tourism season in Queensland was more or less over. There were still a lot of travellers in Queensland, but a lot of them were also coming to the end of their stay. This was a shame, because Cyclone Yasi did not cause too much damage to infrastructure and a lot of the local tour operators were ready for business soon after. Those that stayed almost certainly got to take advantage of some great deals.

Promoting Travel Against the Weather

The disasters in Queensland had a huge impact on the tourism industry, and it is an uphill battle to promote unaffected products when you are competing with non-stop coverage of floods and cyclones. Breaking through that kind of noise is hard, and would be prohibitively expensive to do through traditional media.

The Internet was no haven either. A lot of what made it ideal for coordinating and responding to the disasters for the people who were there also made it harder to talk about and promote tourism in those areas. The Internet does make it easy to provide deeper, more sophisticated content in a shareable form however.

Greyhound Australia’s response to the floods and cyclone in Queensland was done for two different purposes: informational and promotional. The Internet, both on the company’s main site, email and search engine marketing and through our social media touch points, was used to keep existing customers aware of changes to service availability, and in the case of Cyclone Yasi, evacuations. The same touch points were also used to promote travel deals and tour partners in Queensland.

Keeping Customers Updated

Service information is useless if it is out of date, so it is vital to ensure that only the most up-to-date information is findable, thus reducing the risk of customers finding and making decisions on incorrect information.

To achieve this, the majority of on-site and social media activity on Facebook and Twitter aimed to keep our customers informed was focused on directing them to the service update page on the main site. This ensured that the information they saw was current, something that is harder to do fast by repeating the information across multiple sites.

Additional links to the service update page were added to the main site on the front page and across a few product pages to ensure that customers could find the information easily, and to take the pressure off the call centre. An AdWords campaign was also run just before Cyclone Yasi cut services to various North Queensland towns to maximise bookings and make it easier for people to find a way to head south should they want to. PR also played a role in keeping customers informed through articles posted to a number of news and online travel news sites.

Debunking Queensland Armageddon

Queensland Back in Business

Promoting travel and tourism in Queensland between December 2010 and February 2011 was challenging. The biggest challenge was the perception that most of Queensland, an ‘area as large as France and Germany’ was a desolate wasteland of water, debris and disease. While a lot of the state was declared a disaster zone, not all of it was completely out of business.

Tourism Queensland took a lead on this issue, proactively engaging with tour operators and backpacker organisations to demonstrate that Queensland still looked nice. Greyhound Australia and a few of the tour partners also provided a number of specials to encourage travellers to start to move again.

Online the promotional effort was focused on using the main website and social media, in conjunction with existing search engine marketing. Greyhound Australia got a number of tour operators to  send in current imagery of customers using their products. These were both hosted on the main site and promoted through Facebook.

Tour Operators

Content generated by other organisations was also retweeted and promoted, and more was generated using Flickr’s search tools, to show recent crowdsourced content, proving the location (eg, Airlie Beach) was still ready for business.

Email marketing was used to promote tours with specials, as well as any travel specials Greyhound Australia had available at the time. Other material promoting Queensland was also disseminated in this way too.

In addition to Queensland, Byron Bay and other southern tour products were also promoted during this period. All locations were advertised in parallel, though the Bryon Bay and southern tour campaign was promoted mostly through social media.

Going Forward

In the wake of the earthquakes in both New Zealand and now in Japan (donate here) Queensland’s problems from the start of the year now look trivial. The floods and cyclone have affected thousands of people’s lives as well as the livelihoods of businesses and the tourism industry in Queensland, but at least the loss of life was minimal compared with the two earthquakes. From here the biggest challenge for the tourism industry is how Queensland is seen.

People make their travel decisions based on the experiences of others. Most of this information is not found through Twitter or Facebook. Travel blogs, travel forums and photo sharing sites account for the majority of this ongoing online travel conversation.

As long as the tourists in Australia right now have interesting and compelling stories to tell and engage with other travellers planing their trips, there is no reason that the backpackers and the travellers won’t be back next year.

8 responses to “Floods, Tourism and Search in Queensland”

  1. Jeff says:

    A very interesting piece.

  2. Susan says:

    Hi Anthony
    This is a well thought-out and thoroughly researched piece. I could actually see it being used as a case study for marketing-communication students. As a business communicator, there are a few points you touched on here that I’d love to hear some more detail on – though you may not be in a position to discuss the finer points of your employer’s strategy and execution.
    Thanks for an interesting read.

    • Anthony says:

      Thanks Susan, I am glad tht it was actually interesting. I was worried that I might have gone on a little too long, with too little detail.

  3. Excellent analysis Anthony. It’s fascinating to see how real world events affect search volumes on Google. Let’s hope QLD and their tourism industry recovers quickly from the floods.

  4. […] Floods, Tourism and Search in Queensland […]

  5. […] customer service in general, it was during extraordinary events where it created the most value. During the Queensland floods Greyhound’s online spaces, including Facebook, were important for keeping customers informed, […]

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