The recent well-publicized flap about George Zimmer — founder and longtime TV pitchman for the Men’s Wearhouse — being fired by the company he started got me thinking about the power of personality in travel product branding.
Zimmer and other celebrated pitchmen — notably KFC’s Colonel Sanders, Frank Perdue of Perdue Farms chicken fame, Wendy’s hamburgers Dave Thomas and popcorn king Orville Redenbacher — all became the public face of the companies they founded.
And when they died or became too old or too controversial and were no longer able or considered suitable to serve in that role, their companies all suffered to one degree or another. (This New York Times piece offers good background on the topic.)
I had to think a bit before coming up with an equivalent personality in the travel field, who is so identified with his enterprise that if something happened to him, it’s hard to imagine that company being able to continue.
The name I came up with is Rick Steves — who has become the new Arthur Frommer, the current-day guru of European travel.
Steves has put together a mini-empire of best-selling guidebooks and popular tours that get their main exposure not from the kind of George Zimmer “You’re going to like the way you look” TV commercials, but from his longtime appearances on public TV and radio, guiding prospective travelers through the skills they need to get the utmost enjoyment out of their European trips.
Steves’ folksy manner and low-key presentations, filled with practical tips and advice, inspire trust in his viewers, and have led to his being able to offer Rick Steves’ branded European tours — 40 of them in 2013 — that now attract some 12,000 passengers per year, many of them baby boomers.
I first became aware of Steves’ personal branding power when a friend told me he was taking a Steves’ tour to France and Italy because “I trust him to know the kinds of places I want to see and places I want to stay.”
Keep in mind that Steves doesn’t lead these tours himself — he hires “enthusiastic Rick Steves guides” to handle that chore — but the Steves brand alone is enough to convince his fans to sign up.
Nor, despite Steves’ budget-conscious approach on his TV shows, are his tours cheap. Escorted two-week tours cost around $4,000 to $5,000, not including airfare; while unguided “My Way” tours range from around $2,500 to $3,000 without air.
The latter appeal to many independent-minded boomers because they allow for tour members to do their own sightseeing and have lunch and dinner on their own as well. But all they really include for the money are lodgings (“centrally located” but not particularly luxurious hotels) and “comfy” bus transport between destinations, in the company of a maximum 28 passengers. An escort makes sure everything runs smoothly and provides sightseeing advice, and Steves tosses in some of his guidebooks and a few other perks, but that’s it.
An aside: bus tours are not generally favored by baby boomers, but the word “comfy” is a brilliant piece of copywriting — a word that connotes enjoyment, relaxation, and above all reassurance. Exactly what the Steves’ persona itself provides.
It’s hard to imagine the Steves’ tours surviving without Steves himself — but as long as he maintains a vigorous public presence and inspires the level of trust that he does, his tour business will no doubt continue to thrive.
Building this kind of personal brand can take years, and few people can pull it off. But for those who can, it can pay off in a big way.
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