Much like the rest of the travel industry, hotel managers recognize that a new calendar year will not magically bring about a full recovery from the rigors of the pandemic. To survive until that recovery hits, they’ve gotten creative with their offerings, choosing drive-to destinations, day passes for workspaces, and even selling their own branded pillows and robes to travelers dreaming of their next vacation.

While the pandemic hasn’t changed the basic business model for travel brands, it has changed their relationships with creative agencies, which will continue to look different through 2021. For one thing, budgets have tightened and advertising spending has shrunk, as the industry saw. At the beginning of the pandemic, occupancy reached lows in the time of the Great Depression. Occupancy in the US is still down more than 37% compared to 2019, but at least the rooms are open. This is in stark contrast to April, when the occupancy rate was around 10%. A vaccine will be essential to breathe life back into the hospitality industry, but it can take years before business travel and conferences are back in full swing.

With so much uncertainty, Marriott and Hilton are both trying to bolster their own in-house creative agencies to get the companies – and their 50 brands in total – nimble into the new year.

Following a reorganization in October, Marriott is hiring two senior roles to lead an in-house creative agency and content team that will help the brand “elevate” the role of content creation and leverage the brand’s own channels. Previously, the brand had one person overseeing both departments.

“We believe we need to find a core story instead of following things month-to-month,” said Brian Povinelli, SVP, Brand, Loyalty and Portfolio Marketing for Marriott International. “In the future, we’ll split this into two different teams and double each one with the aim of bringing everything together with a unified go-to-message strategy.”

At execution, Marriott’s own channels, which include loyalty communications and social platforms, are driven by the brand’s internal resources, while paid advertising is managed by a combination of in-house teams and creative agencies. Currently, of the Marriott brands, only the Bonvoy loyalty program has an “active relationship” with 72andSunny, who led Bonvoy’s global vacation campaign.

The other brands “are currently evaluating the agencies and upcoming work for the new year,” said a Marriott spokesman.

Benefits of a Marketing Team That Already Knows You

The move towards in-housing is a trend that does not only affect the travel sector. In 2018, 78% of the Association of National Advertisers members reported having an in-house agency, and that number is expected to increase as brands navigate a post-pandemic advertising industry.

But does it actually save brands money? Povinelli said yes in some cases.

“It’s about how well you are equipped for certain skills,” said Povinelli. “What we’ve tried over the past 12 to 18 months is that it’s a lot more of a collaboration.”

Hilton went through a similar transition that started in 2019 but accelerated this year. (The company also left its CMO, Kellyn Smith Kenny, this summer, a position it has not yet filled.)

“Business is moving too fast and business is so complex that we need our own in-house skills,” said Mark Weinstein, SVP of Hilton and global director of marketing and loyalty. “That moment reminded us that having agencies in store for everything is probably less important than stable, specialized skills that are ready to know us and we know them.”

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