Travel catalogs: romance vs. bargain

It’s unlikely that Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck could have envisioned a catalog category that’s now “state of the art” — the travel catalog. For paper stock, production, flowery rhetoric, and emphasis on the exotic, few “product” catalogs even consider competing with this fast-growing group. Nor should they. The “product” of travel catalogs takes one of two forms — enhanced image based on a combination of the romantic and the unusual, or competitive travel based on comparative economy. For either type, the savvy copywriter knows his/her target’s reaction: It’s either “Ho-hum, been there, done that” or “I can go where the Joneses went.” So list selection and copywriting prowess are Siamese twins, sharing a single brainstem.

Wilder and wilder What do Cuzco, Easter Island, Samoa, the Great Barrier Reef, Angkor Wat, Dubai, and Marrakech have in common? Not much — unless you eliminate Dubai and Marrakech from the mix, which then places adventure ahead of cosmopolitan luxuries. The TCS Catalog offering this mix, which also includes the Taj Mahal, carefully includes the two latter-day sophisticated metropolises. One look and the recipient concludes, “This ain’t cheap.”

Of course it isn’t cheap. The price, for the 25-day trip by private jet, is $55,950. Just beyond a surprisingly pedestrian president’s letter on page two, romance bursts forth in full flower. The heading: “A world without boundaries.” The subhead: “Let the flights of your imagination become reality.” Copy begins, “Here, in a single journey, you’ll discover a world that is much wider yet far smaller than you’ve dreamed.”

Okay, opinion: Does that opening fill you with wonder and a sense of the extraordinary? Or have 21st century leavening agents such as the Web and TV dulled your anticipation of any product or event that doesn’t instantly paint a vivid picture?

Unsurpassed “value” and “Expeditions” More proletarian in thrust is the VBT catalog, which offers “Bicycling and Discovery Vacations at Unsurpassed Value.” An insert between the cover and the first bound page adds explanatory emphasis. At the top is a coupon offering a discount on any trip in the catalog. Below the coupon is copy headed “Three Ways to Save” — in my opinion a classic overdescription-mistake, because it both repeats and partially negates copy in the coupon. The catalog has 17 pages of generalized benefit descriptions; the first actual offer begins on page 18.

As is standard for travel catalogs, this one lays out day-by-day activities. Carefully, copy uses “we” rather than “you” — “Our home for the next two nights…”; “Our short warm-up ride…”; “After breakfast, we follow the coast along quiet roads…” The intention and the effect is to assure the cyclist that he/she won’t be left to make uneasy decisions in foreign countries.

National Geographic offers “Expeditions” to locations on every continent. Given the multiple options in a 100-page catalog, some descriptions become Spartan. An example, from a two-page spread describing a Trans-Siberian Rail Journey, priced from $8,995 to $15,995 per person:

“Days 6 and 7, On the Train — The train passes through Siberian villages of log houses set among rolling hills and waterways. Read, attend an informal talk by our expert, or simply watch the wild and remote countryside passing by.”

Anything wrong with that? In my opinion, yes. For that amount of money, a prospective traveler may conclude, “I can read at home. And I’d rather have an informative talk than an informal talk.” Little words mean a lot, and that lot intensifies as costs become more than casual.

Acompetitive industry Travel catalogs are more intramurally competitive than catalogs featuring garments or sporting goods or comestibles. Most prospects plan a single trip each year, which means promises of rewards, glamour, uniqueness, and value each have considerable weight.

Viking River Cruises includes an incentive on the cover of its 2008 Europe, Russia & China catalog: “Book early and save $1,000 per couple.” Mountain Travel Sobek, known for offbeat adventure, exploits that theme: Under the heading “We’ll Take You Anywhere … and Everywhere!” copy begins with a positioning approach: “Step away from your everyday routine and experience something truly extraordinary!” (The characterless “something” is out of key with its generally exhilarating copy.)

Vantage’s 2008 catalog has inside its cover a postage-free “Your Vantage Personal Travel Planner,” which asks the prospect to specify which destinations he or she might consider. As an incentive, “Added bonus: Help us and we’ll automatically enroll you in a contest to win a FREE European River Cruise for two* — An $8,000 value.” The deadly asterisk referral is “See our Website for details,” a questionable ploy not only because the concept shifts the catalog to a two-step conversion but also because in the begining of a 226-page catalog, it’s an unnecessary standoff.

Grand European Tours, which situates itself as “Europe’s Most Leisurely Tours” on its Europe & Beyond catalog, has a sunburst proclaiming “Save up to $716 per couple — see page 11 for details.” Details on page 11 validate the discounts with clarity and simplicity.

Clarity and simplicity are key factors in catalogs whose offers parallel the offers in other catalogs. A more controlling force is uniqueness without potential negatives. That’s where the standard striking photos have to share impact with arresting copy.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and the author of 30 books.

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