Catalog Copy: Will Travel Catalogs Survive?

There’s no question: Travel and leisure are hurting █ And no question: Short of all-out mobilization, some — but not all — the travel catalogs will survive. Which ones? Copy now plays a major role, because pretty pictures are secondary to what used to be inconsequential matters such as safety and accessibility. No longer inconsequential, many regard safety and accessibility as potential problems the catalog’s selling copy has to overcome.

Catalogs to the fore

I’m looking through some cycling catalogs that were mailed before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Why? Because I just had a call from a friend who signed up for a bicycle tour through the California wine country. “The catalog description is what sold me,” he said.

Good for our team!

Travel catalogs face a difficulty product catalogs don’t: They’re selling an experience, an intangible. Image has to be one of the mind, not the eye. That means copy has to hypnotize, glamorize, glorify the experience…which in turn means descriptions have to sell, not just depict.

Specifics + romance

The mixture of specifics and romance isn’t extraordinary in catalog copy. We expect it in catalogs selling fashion and luxury items. The difference in effective intangibles copy is the difference between visualizing one’s self in a garment, illustrated, and visualizing one’s self in a situation, suggested. That usually means greater dependence on copy, which in turn means longer copy.

Catalogs of tours, whether bicycling, hiking, cruising, or yak-back — and there are quite a few — follow a standard pattern: Heading names the location, bestowing an exotic, challenging, or adventurous patina to the trip. Why “challenging”? Because those trips involving physical activity, such as cycling, hiking, or climbing, cater to an attitude: “I’m physically capable.” Some of the titles from various catalogs:

  • Italy’s Other Riviera
  • Canadian Rockies Sampler
  • The Grand Tour
  • Untamed Scotland
  • Hiking Hidden Spain

Each trip warrants at least a full page; some catalogs allocate a two-page spread, or even more pages, so they can specify day-by-day activities.

Typically, an inspirational paragraph or bullet copy glorifying “highlights” follows the subhead. Without that intermediate step, heavy text isn’t competitive because references to benefits such as accommodations and meals would necessarily be textual, where they’d have less impact.

What’s so special?

Travel catalogers know very well the competitive nature not only of trips but of locations. So effective copy emphasizes the “why” as much as it emphasizes the “what.” Theme writes itself. Why would someone want to cycle through the California wine country? Wines. So the first sub-subhead under the subhead “Highlights” is “Taste.”

The first descriptive sentence for an eight-day trip (noncycling) through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks: “A bull elk bugling at the side of a pristine lake.”

The opening of a description of a “photography expedition” through the Grand Canyon: “A hawk screeches overhead. A vast red canyon looms below. A spire of stone rises improbably from the canyon floor toward the sky.”

What’s wrong with that? This

Some travel catalogs don’t follow this inspirational pattern, and I wonder what response they get. A 14-day cruise to Hawaii and The South Pacific starts its text this way: “If you’ve ever dreamed of going to Hawaii, here’s an offer that can finally make your travel dreams come true!”

Now, what’s wrong with that lead? Consider three points:

First, consider the demographics. Hawaii is a tame location for cruises. Assuming the list selection for this catalog is at all sane, recipients aren’t as likely to salivate over “If you’ve ever dreamed of going to Hawaii” as they would over a line such as “You may have been to Hawaii before, but you’ve never been able to see and visit every island under such luxurious circumstances.”

Second, the copy is one we call “The poor little match-girl” approach: “You’re underprivileged.” Danger lurks whenever a catalog questions the reader’s capability to buy what’s being sold. Even replacing “going to” with “really exploring” would rescue this opening.

And third, the sentence draws no word-image at all. That’s the most grievous sin, because the copywriter can’t shift responsibility to anyone else.

Ready, aim, fire

Travel catalogs face uncertainty for a good while to come. Some of theses marketers may perish, victims of circumstances that peculiarly affect the leisure travel segment. That’s externally-caused misfortune, and we can’t fault them for having the wrong product at the wrong time.

Other travel mailers may perish because they’re victims of their own inability to match the personal psychology of their prospects. They don’t recognize the difference between describing garments, where nondescript copy may not kill the buying impulse because the photograph covers copy dereliction — and describing leisure travel. In a catalog selling vacations, a nondescript copy can produce a shrug and this buying impulse: “Maybe I’ll just go to see a movie instead.”

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, a consultancy based in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 25 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and Marketing Mayhem, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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