Innovator Interviews: Internova’s CMO Brent Rivard

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Brent Rivard joined Internova Travel Group as chief marketing officer in April 2021, after working as a consultant for the brand beginning in September 2020. As a career agency guy, Rivard was interested in the challenge of taking on a brand-side role during a very tumultuous time for the travel business.

Brent Rivard joined Internova Travel Group as chief marketing officer in April 2021, after working as a consultant for the brand beginning in September 2020. As a career agency guy, Rivard was interested in the challenge of taking on a brand-side role during a very tumultuous time for the travel business. 

Internova represents more than 62,000 travel advisors in over 6,000 company-owned and affiliated locations globally. It is a site where consumers go to book travel through travel advisors. Rivard imagined a renewed importance in travel advisors in a post-pandemic world but wanted to tell a more interesting story than this sector of the travel business had been known for. 

“What I don't think the industry has done a particularly good job of is bringing new people into the fold,” says Rivard. “We are constantly talking to people at the bottom of the funnel but from a growth strategy standpoint. There were articles written years ago that travel advisors will go the way of the dinosaurs, and of course that could not be further from the truth, but perception sometimes becomes reality. I started talking to J.D. O’Hara [CEO of Internova] about it, let's start talking about the top of the funnel and converting people to the idea of using travel advisors.” 

After hearing the pandemic-induced travel horror stories of people being stranded with flight cancellations and challenges around getting refunds, the role of the travel advisor was returning to the forefront. “That was the tension and the insight and the business objective of what went into what we got into,” says Rivard. “The strategy became quite simple, which is to deposition technology in favor of a human advisor.” 

In June, the company kicked off a global advertising campaign that promoted Internova as a place to book travel through real life humans. The “Go Human. Book Human.” campaign highlights how relying on AI vacation planning can lead to disappointing outcomes, especially in uncertain times. “If machines can’t dream, how will they plan your vacation?” was the central tagline in the cross-channel effort which included digital out-of-home, video and social platforms aimed at consumers.

Brand Innovators caught up with Rivard from his home in Toronto to discuss the new campaign and the future of travel. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk about Internova’s latest global campaign? 

It is funny, advertising and communication is always the greatest when there is tension. We have lived our entire lives in a world where technology is the solution. It tells us when we should change lanes in our cars now and we have cars that drive themselves. I grew up in a small town in Ontario called Waterloo where Blackberry was founded and I often wonder if you could go back in time and ask Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis from Blackberry if you could do it all again, would you not have invented email on your phone? It is supposed to help us and make us more efficient but what it did was make us work longer hours and interrupt our evenings. I grew up where if the phone rang at 5:30pm my father was like, who has the audacity to call during the dinner hour? There is some really interesting tension there and we think that technology is the be all and end all. Of course when the Expedias and the OTAs came out, they were solving for something that was in their mind something old, the travel advisor. 

But I think what is interesting is we flipped that on its head and we said no. The lead line of the campaign is “If machines can’t dream, how can they book your dream vacation?” Zero percent of both know what it feels like to miss the last connecting flight out. Machines and algorithms are built to do one thing and one thing only and that is sell and optimize price. They are not built to care. That is where the strategy of repositioning the human being in favor of technology, caring for you and being able to book your vacation.

How does this effort support the brand’s foundation?

It has also done a very good job of rallying our advisors. You can imagine the amount of emails we have received from people saying they are so invigorated, and that they feel the level of support they have never had before. It is one thing to be speaking to an end consumer, but our customer is the advisor so to hear them getting excited is great. It is a big KPI. It is becoming the rallying cry inside of the entire company. I am working with all of the business units to see where and how we can continue this narrative and make it part of the staple of the company. We are human first. It is one of our values. 

2021 has been a big year for travel as consumers got vaccinated and took trips to support pent up demand. But the delta variant lingers. What will travel look like in the coming year? 

On the safety side, the role of the advisor is unbelievable. Their role is so much more important than it has ever been and ever will be. Being on top of how to travel safely and where to travel safely is so important to communicate and the process. I am Canadian, as I have been going back and started traveling again across borders, you need an X test to go to the US but then to go back to Canada, you need a PCR test and where you get one of those is confusing. There is no global consistency. And I am in this industry, and before this I ran a global business and I lived on an airplane. So if I am having a little anxiety when I am at the airport, I can only imagine what that person who looks forward to that one trip a year with their family feels like when they get to the airport and they see the new forms, the new lineups, the things they didn’t know. The role of the advisor hits another level. Being able to coach someone through. When you get to the airport this and then that. Please have this in your hand. You have never had to do this before. It is going to be pretty significant.

As for ramp up travel, delta variant aside now, because I don't want to be insensitive about someone who is nervous about travel. If you are nervous about travel, then don’t travel. We are not trying to push travel on people, that is unnecessary and irresponsible. What we are seeing from those that are getting into travel is this kind of “revenge travel.” It is everything from bucket list travel and the insight there is you are not going to let another year go by without justifying that trip now that we are coming out of the pandemic. We are seeing people booking more expensive trips, a little out of their comfort zone. I think we are going to see people try new excursions and adventures.

I can’t wait to see what people are going to come up with. The industry has changed. The way that we are going to motivate people is going to be different. The insights are going to be different. The world of advertising teaches the importance of insights. You can’t just say, ‘here is a new property and here is a discount.’ That is just lazy sales.

What will work travel look like over the next year?

I think the doom and gloom writers really wanted to send a shockwave down to say, 50% of business travel will never return. And I think they are 100% wrong. It will return to 100% over time. The very large organizations that have a company policy like the Googles, the Amazons, the Toyotas, they might have a company policy that there is no corporate travel until 2022. And yes that will slow things down. Anecdotally, the people that I speak to that travel regularly for business, most of them are back to most of that travel. I am looking forward to following the numbers but I am bullish on all travel returning. We are human beings. We bounce back. 

I went to the office a few weeks ago and to be standing in front of my peers and brainstorming with the white board, there was nothing like it. Video conferencing can’t replace that. We will bounce back. 

Before joining Internova, you spent decades in the agency holding senior level roles at BBDO, Anomaly and Doner Canada. What do you bring from your agency experience into your current role as CMO of Internova? 

I have been very fortunate in my career, because I worked for some of the great people at some of the great advertising agencies. The ad world really taught me to question everything from a strategic planning standpoint, look under every stone, be fearless and have the attitude of what is the next thing we can’t do. We spent a lot of time with people saying, you’ll never be able to do that. We spent time with people saying, you can’t get away with that. Crazy ideas that seemed impossible. The ad world loves impossible. It loves being told it can't do something. I think that it brings that in people. Those that gravitate towards that, it is going to be so difficult but wow, if we can pull this out, it is going to be epic. The status quo doesn't work. It is because of how the industry is built, you really are only as good as your last idea, your last campaign. 

I am so excited and fortunate to be in that situation and learn that and now apply it to the client side of the business in an industry that is so exciting for a company that wants to lead, for a CEO that is ambitious and that is not a naysayer. 

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