How two major travel brands tell their stories through podcasting

Marriott International and Southwest Airlines both created podcasts to communicate with customers during the pandemic.
article cover

Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photos: About the Journey, Is This Seat Open?

5 min read

Summer trips are back on the docket, and some travel brands are hoping to spend a minute or two in the ears of those they know are interested in vacationing by sponsoring or running ads in travel podcasts.

For others, a handful of seconds or minutes isn’t enough. Instead, they’re making branded podcasts of their own.

Brands across the travel space have started creating podcasts in recent years and show no signs of slowing down:

  • Southwest Airlines created a limited-series podcast for its 50th anniversary that it’s still promoting more than a year after it originally dropped.
  • Marriott International has a few podcasts, including About the Journey, which regularly maintains a spot in the top 50 of Chartable’s Apple Podcasts “Places & Travel” chart.
  • Cambria Hotels published 10 episodes of a travel podcast in 2020 and 2021.
  • Mimi Lichtenstein, the owner of Truvay Travel, a luxury travel company, has a podcast called Adventures in Luxury Travel that also regularly ranks highly. It’s mostly a passion project, but it has driven new business for her, she told Marketing Brew in an email.

Some of these brands have found success, hitting their goals and even investing in additional podcast content after trying out initial seasons. While their strategies and KPIs may differ, a couple of travel companies told us they’ve found that audio lets them tell in-depth stories in ways they haven’t been able to do on other mediums.

On the road again

Marriott International was “dabbling” in podcasting pre-pandemic, editorial director of Marriott creative and content marketing Robin Bennefield said, starting with its hotel-design podcast, Behind the Design, which published its first episode in 2017.

“But I think where it really crystallized for us was during the pandemic, because people couldn’t travel, they couldn’t get out,” Bennefield said.

Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, the brand’s online travel magazine, teamed up with podcast production studio At Will Media to create About the Journey, a branded podcast hosted by travel journalist Oneika Raymond about road trips.

The goal was to position the magazine as a destination for “storytelling on the level of Travel and Leisure or Condé Nast,” Bennefield said.

About the Journey debuted in December 2020 at No. 11 on the Apple Podcasts “Places & Travel” chart, according to Bennefield. The second season is set to come out in late August with six new episodes, and Marriott hopes to eventually build out an entire network of podcasts, Bennefield said.

“We do want to be speaking to new audiences, and the podcast space represents that,” Bennefield said. “It represents a younger audience, it represents a more diverse audience, and I think if we are really trying to reach new people and introduce them to the Marriott Bonvoy program and experience, then we have to be in the space.”

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.

Marriott declined to share specific metrics associated with the pod, but Bennefield said KPIs mostly have to do with audience growth and raising awareness that Marriott has podcasts at all.

Marriott Bonvoy Traveler promoted the show in its newsletter, which reaches 12 million members and guests, according to Bennefield, and was able to drive conversions that way. It also cross-promoted the pod with major networks like iHeartMedia and Spotify, as well as indie podcasters, to reach relevant audiences. And just this week, the show was featured by Apple Podcasts in a playlist of popular travel podcasts called “Manifesting a Getaway.”

Audio, airline style

Southwest celebrated its 50th anniversary in June of 2021, but started prepping a campaign to commemorate the milestone in 2020, said Derek Hubbard, Southwest’s PR manager.

At that point, the airline was operating an internal podcast, but had never done any public-facing pods, Hubbard told us. The team planning the anniversary campaign got to talking about different ways to tell stories about the brand, and eventually decided to try a podcast.

Southwest worked with LA Times Studios on a video project in 2018, so the company tapped them as a production partner again for the podcast, as well as At Will Media. The show, Is This Seat Open?, is hosted by two Southwest employees and consists of 20 episodes, each focused on a different story from the airline’s history.

“Our employees and our customers are on the go,” said Southwest PR consultant Alyssa Foster. “We’re a travel brand, so people are going from point A to point B. The podcast format worked really well for that. You can binge the entire season on a Southwest flight.”

The format also proved to be cost-effective, Hubbard added.

Southwest was most interested in tracking downloads, listen-through rates, engagement with social posts about the pod, and employee feedback. The team left specific KPIs fairly “open-ended,” Hubbard said, since Is This Seat Open? was Southwest’s first external podcast.

The first handful of full episodes dropped on June 1 last year, and from then until the following October, the podcast was downloaded more than 41,000 times, according to Hubbard, who said posts about the podcast also saw above-average reach on Twitter and engagement on LinkedIn. To date, Is This Seat Open? has been downloaded 53,836 times, per Foster.

Southwest currently has no plans for a second season, but the company is still “very interested in the podcast space,” Hubbard said, and continues to promote Is This Seat Open? For its 51st anniversary last month, Southwest re-promoted the podcast with paid, targeted ads through the LA Times on Facebook, hoping to encourage some of those who didn’t listen last year to check it out.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.