Its one of those meetings that will live with me forever. I can picture it now.

It was Sydney, early in 2009. I had been working for a luxury cruise business over there, managing the sales and marketing team for a little over a year. It was a dream job. The business was young and dynamic, founded a couple of years before I had joined. Just a single ship at the time, but planning for a second. We’d just been purchased by a US based Private Equity business and we were in expansion mode!

My boss was Sarina Bratton, the Australian Entrepreneur of the Year and widely seen as the founder of the Australian Cruise Industry through the 1990’s. High profile, charismatic, enigmatic, commercially savvy, a great leader – she was a brilliant boss. Hard work, but incredibly inspiring. The sort of boss who challenged you to be better every day. I loved it there.

It was the Financial Crisis. They called it the GFC in Australia. Everything was about the GFC. The banks had collapsed in the US and UK and the ill winds of that were beginning to hit the Aussie economy. It was beginning to get tough.

The product we had was luxurious. Our customers were affluent and the GFC was hitting share portfolios and pension funds. The entry level cost for a couple to go on the ship was $20,000 and the feedback we were getting from customers – as they cancelled their cruise – was their pots were being hit by that amount every day. The ship was in danger of sailing empty.

One of the things about working in the travel industry is you can’t protect your stock. Your stock has a very clear sell by date – the date of departure – and if you haven’t sold your stock by then, you’ve lost it and the revenue that goes with it. You can never a sell a cabin once the ship has sailed!

It was a difficult time, everything penny going out of the door went into sharp focus – most notably my marketing budget. If it hadn’t been spent, it wasn’t going to get spent, I had to give it back. The weekly trading meeting was a shit fight, how many people had cancelled, how were we going to fill the ship. Discount, discount, discount. Drop your prices, as much as it took.

For a luxury product, this was suicide. When every piece of marketing communication is geared towards the desirability of the product and if you have to ask the price you probably can’t afford it, then to be dropping our price in this way, it was going to be damaging – very damaging to the brand. In the weekly meeting I would stick to my brand guns in the face of the rest of them. We can’t drop price in this way, it’ll destroy the brand, we’ll never come back from it. Although I was responsible for both the sales and marketing, it really was the marketing – and the long term health of the brand I was focussed on.

It was after one of these meetings, Sarina asked me to come in for quiet word. I’ll never forget it. She sat me down in the office and fixed me with her steely blue eyes. I thought she was going to sack me. She didn’t but she gave me the biggest talking to I’ve ever had!

“Chris, we’re in trouble here. Real trouble. I need you to drop the marketing and focus on sales. You’re good at marketing but the reason I brought you here was for your sales. You’re a sales person and I need you to prove that to me”

“But the brand…the damage to the brand…” I said.

“I know all about the brand, believe me. But if we don’t start selling and filling the ship, there will be no brand. We are a week away from having to let people go – your team. That is the last thing I want to do, but that is where we are at. You have to prove to me you can get sales and get them quickly”

“OK”. Shell shocked, dumbstruck.

“And then, when we have got the short-term sales plan sorted out, we need to make sure we have the best brand, the best plan and we need to come out of this stronger than ever”.

I’m paraphrasing a bit (it was a long time ago) but I feel emotional now as I remember that meeting. That feeling that this wasn’t just some game – selling holidays, some intellectual exercise around brand building, clever campaigns and communication channels. This was really going to affect all the people who worked for and relied on that business. It all became very real.

It was a massive challenge but to be fair, we did it. We didn’t set any records but we got through it without losing any people – our priority. We found new ways to sell, found closed user groups and new audiences who we could target, inventive ways to contra (such an Aussie word and concept) cabins, increased our conversion of options. We experimented, some things worked, some didn’t. It wasn’t pretty, but I actually found out I’m fucking good at sales!! It took a while but we got through – and we learnt so much too.

While we were doing that, we also took the opportunity to change our marketing and make ourselves better – review and analyse and change. We changed so much.  We spent so much time understanding our customers, who they were, where they lived, what they did with their lives, why they booked, when they booked. We increased our understanding generally. From an entrepreneurial business that relied on gut instinct, we used data to make decisions.

From a brand perspective, we reviewed, researched and ultimately, we rebranded. We understood what we were selling – and more importantly what customers were buying. We identified and explored what we were about – our personality and values. We targeted the people who could afford the product – and avoided the people who only aspired to afford it. (that sounds awful I know, but it made an enormous difference to our spend and our conversion). We looked at our sales funnel and every step within it.  (see previous blog for more detail on this)

We looked at the money we were spending and more importantly the return we were getting. We actually reduced our marketing spend and number of enquiries but offset that with higher conversion and repeat purchase. We dropped the agency we were using and created a new internal creative process, bringing freelancers inhouse. We embraced social media. We got the best upcoming digital agency and reduced our traditional advertising (this was 10 years ago – that balance was still a thing!!)

We set clear objectives and goals for each part of the business and the marketing mix. We developed strategies and identified the proper measures to monitor our progress. Everyone had their own strategies and tasks but there was a real feeling of togetherness and teamwork.

It was great. A great time to be part of a great team. Important to note, we did almost all of this internally. We were a tight knit team, self sufficient and geared toward the same objective. With little (no) money to spend on external expertise, we managed the process ourselves.

We came out of the recession in such a stronger position. A new brand and communication strategy, a new internal low cost ‘agency’ to produce a consistent message in a responsive way geared to the needs of our travel agency partners, a new pricing strategy that understood the needs of our guests and what was important to them, a sales funnel that was more responsive, with higher conversion levels right the way through, a CRM process that was actually paid for by Hewlett Packard as a case study, because it demonstrated their print and digital capability. In summary, we came out stronger.

Why am I talking about this? One guess! I first started thinking about this about three weeks ago. When the world was still a relatively normal place and this Coronavirus looked like another blip coming down the line. Another GFC that would affect demand in the short to medium term. I thought about writing this blog then – how it would be a good opportunity for small business to review their marketing output and communications, but more importantly their positioning, branding and planning. To be honest, my biggest concern at the time was whether it would affect Liverpool winning the league!!

Little did I know we would see the escalation and virtual global shutdown. Little did I know either that I would be locked in the house teaching my seven-year-old maths, shopping for the elderly neighbours and only allowed out once a day to walk the dog!

This is on a different scale, far beyond a minor blip in demand. But as much as its difficult to believe, the demand will come back. At the moment, people are scrapping to sell, scrapping to adapt and survive. We are well beyond where we were in the GFC. Redundancies are not around the corner, they’ve been bypassed by shutdown and furlough.

I don’t think people want to hear it with so many immediate problems on their plate, but this is the time when they need to look forward. They need to be analysing their business and planning how they are going to get out of the current pickle. The question I am being asked at the moment are ‘should I still be marketing’? The short answer is yes, you should be marketing – more specifically, you should be communicating. But marketing goes well beyond the communicating. Marketing is understanding your market, your customer, your product. Now is the time to understand those things as they will get you through.

I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help. I’ve felt very frustrated over the last week or two. I’m used to managing tings, stepping up to a challenge and taking the lead, but in my current role as a micro business in start up, I feel really peripheral to peoples problems. I’m frustrated because I feel I can do so much more. Yes, I’d like paying clients, but even more I want to contribute.

I am currently putting together a series of tutorials that I hope will help small business with that understanding and planning. This is not something to generate leads – it will be free to access and designed to get people talking about the way forward. I am really hopeful that I can simplify the process and help. Help others to get through the next three months, six months, year.

Please keep your eye out for them on my website, on LinkedIn and through Youtube. Please get behind it…feedback, get in touch, comment on social media, let me know if they are useful, share them with your networks. It’s really tough right now, but there is a chance to think our way out of all of this – lets do it.  

Keep well. Keep washing your hands. X