By Mark Tungate
If Booking.com didn’t exist, Diana Agudelo Hernandez may have had to invent it for herself. The Dutch travel platform’s senior marketing communications lead says she was “born in Colombia and raised by the world”. After studying economics at home, work and further studies took her to Washington DC, Paris, Edinburgh and finally Amsterdam.
“I grew up in a family of travellers, so it’s part of my DNA,” she says. “I think travel makes us who we are. That’s certainly my case.”
She’s been based in the Netherlands for a while now, having worked in senior marcomms roles at Philips and Heineken before arriving at Booking.com.
“After five years at Heineken I was looking for a new challenge. Initially Booking.com invited me in for a chat. After talking to a few different people there I realised it was a very interesting challenge: the company had grown quickly, but it didn’t have a clearly defined brand.”
In fact although Booking.com dates back to 1996 (it evolved from a business called Booking.nl), the brand only ran its first campaign in 2013.
“For me this is a great journey,” says Diana. “I’m trying to find the unique voice of the brand. What I also want to do is take creativity beyond advertising, by telling real and meaningful stories that touch people somehow, in a way that really reflects Booking.com.”
She adds that one of the elements that excited her about the job was the opportunity to blend data with creativity. “They’re often thought of as being completely different entities, but at Booking.com we use data to validate idea creation, and I really believe that’s a great way to stay relevant to consumers, as well as to create impact.”
This is almost a controversial statement in an era when the word “data” provokes fears of privacy invasion. Diana says: “Obviously we always respect privacy, but we are interested in aggregated behavioural data, which helps guide our decisions. When we have an idea, we look for different ways to validate that idea, to make sure it connects with people’s reality.”
THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE PLATFORM
The brand’s first campaign was situational, typified by a spot featuring a family who open the door to their hotel room, only to be blown away by how great it is. “It was rooted on the insight that everything hangs on that moment. Either you nailed it or you didn’t.”
The campaign got noticed, but it was both costly and traditional. “Big campaigns like that require a lot of investment and time. We began to wonder if it was really the Booking way. Perhaps we could do something smarter, more agile.”
The brand’s latest campaign, “Book Your Next Story”, turns the actual vacation footage of 15,000 Booking.com employees into a series of blockbuster adventures. Co-created with creative studio Cloudfactory and production company WeFilm (both based in Amsterdam) it edits together some 9000 videos. It follows on from last year’s “One Mission”.
“The films sprung out of both data and personal observation. Research told us that because our product works quite seamlessly, people don’t always remember with whom they booked. That’s a problem. At the same time, working at Booking.com I’ve met many people who are not just highly knowledgeable about travel, but also passionate about it. So I wanted to find a way of talking about the people of Booking.com in a way that connects the brand emotionally with our consumers.”
She sums up the result as “an honest invitation from the people of Booking.com to go out into the world, visit new places, have new experiences and meet new people along the way”.
It’s an attempt to shift the image of the digital reservations platform from a useful but rather cold entity into a human-driven organisation that “lives and breathes travel”. (Airbnb has used a similar strategy with its “don’t stay there, live there” positioning.)
THANKING THE HOTELIERS
But what about the hoteliers? Many of them have a love-hate relationship with Booking.com, because while it fills their rooms, it also charges commission and hampers them from having a direct relationship with their guests.
Diana responds: “Firstly I would say that we have more than 1.7 million properties of all shapes and sizes on the site, so we must be doing something right! We have a commitment to drive value for our partners. We create visibility to guests all around the world, and we give them tools to increase their revenue, the guest experience, and their operational efficiency.”
She admits that, from a communications point of view, the hoteliers have not been a major target up to now. “But we have just released a piece of content called Booking Heroes, which has been designed partly to thank our partners. We’re well aware that it’s thanks to our partners that people around the world can enjoy these amazing experiences.”
Beyond the day-to-day realities of her job, Diana is conscious of the fact that she’s a woman in a leadership role, and potentially an inspiration for others. “It’s something that’s close to my heart. I really want to encourage and enable women to take more senior positions.”
Needless to say, she remains a keen traveller, and is passing the bug onto her two children. “We always take the kids everywhere. They’ve been travelling since they were babies. Of course I love going back to Colombia. As you know, we’re overcoming a difficult history, and people are only now beginning to discover the country. There are still a few places that even I haven’t visited.”
She also cites South Africa, Namibia and Botswana as among her preferred destinations. In the United States, her favourite places are Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California.
Diana adds that among the values of the Booking.com brand are freedom and curiosity, two of the greatest drivers of travel. The site is among those that have made travel planning easier, arguably making travel itself more accessible.
“There are too many beautiful places to go,” she says. “and that’s why you need to keep on discovering.”