Q&A: Jennie Johnson on Southeast Asia Travel Trends and Effective Brand Engagement

Johnson is the Head of Marketing at GrabAds.

Earlier this year GrabAds, the advertising arm of Southeast Asia’s super app, Grab, released its latest travel insights report showing that the intent to travel in the region remains strong with 72% of people surveyed saying they planned to travel abroad at least once in the next 12 months. That’s a sizable jump from just 39% who shared the same intent in 2022.

One of the drives behind the research by GrabAds is to encourage brands to target the growing travel demographic in the region, particularly by initiating marketing activities to influence travelers early during the discovery phase, when they’re still exploring and comparing their options.

To get more insight into the report and travel trends that marketers should keep on their radar, we recently spoke with Jennie Johnson, Head of Marketing, at GrabAds. Over the course of our conversation, she talks about some of the differences in this year’s report, compared with last year, what strategies brands can use to capture the attention of travelers, and more.


What are some of the key differences that stood out to you in this year’s and last year’s report?

One of the key differences observed in this year’s GrabAds SEA 2023 Travel Insights Report compared to last year’s, is the significant increase in Southeast Asian consumers’ appetite for travel. This year, 72% of Grab users surveyed said that they are planning trips abroad, a 1.84x jump from last year’s figure of 39%. In addition to the surge in leisure travel, this year’s report revealed the emergence of a new trend – business travel. According to the report, 40% of Grab users are traveling for work this year, marking a significant 1.14x increase compared to 2022.

Be it leisure or business travel, these trends signal a steady acceleration in travel demand. 73% of consumers shared that they are planning three leisure trips in the next 12 months. The interest in travel presents an opportunity for brands to now switch gears from short-term “revenge travel” campaigns to planning long-term repeat-customer strategies and look at engaging travelers all year round.

“It is important for brands to engage travelers during the trip-planning stage, for their products and services to stand a chance in being factored into the plans of travelers.”

Another trend that stood out from the data is the uptick in interest to purchase travel insurance when one travels abroad. In the 2023 report, the percentage of Grab users who are likely to purchase insurance has increased over the past year – 62% of Grab users have indicated they are likely to buy insurance in 2023, a 14% rise from 48% of Grab users in 2022. Given how today’s consumers are increasingly looking to reduce risks while traveling, travel insurance brands should proactively address safety concerns as part of their marketing campaigns, leveraging travelers’ desire for added travel protection.


The report highlights that travelers are planning their trips well in advance. What strategies can brands use to capture the attention of travelers before their itineraries are finalized?

Our 2023 Southeast Asia Travel Insights report revealed that 64% of respondents will start planning their itineraries at least one month in advance for long-haul journeys (6 to 16 hours). This figure hovers at 55% for destinations 3 to 6 hours away and 51% for short-haul flights (less than 3 hours). With this in mind, we highly recommended brands to start their campaigns early to have the chance to influence travelers during their trip-planning stages, especially long-haul travelers.

Another option that brands could consider would be to draw attention to their loyalty programs as a value-added component in their campaigns. The report shared that the awareness around loyalty programs generally remains low – for one, 78% of Grab users do not subscribe to any hotel loyalty programs. To spur greater awareness among a ready-to-travel Southeast Asian audience, hotels can consider implementing marketing strategies like gamified or rewarded campaigns featuring user-friendly redemption mechanisms to increase enrollment in their loyalty programs.

What advice do you have for brands to transition from short-term “revenge travel campaigns” to long-term repeat-customer strategies?

We advise brands to consistently engage and communicate with travelers all year round and especially around peak holiday seasons. According to GrabAds 2023 Travel Insights report, many Grab users intend to make multiple trips a year, with 72% of Grab users planning three leisure trips over the next 12 months. Hence, brands should constantly engage and connect with travelers so as to be able to influence them at all stages of the consumer funnel – from brand discovery to awareness and ultimately conversion. Having campaigns that effectively leverage both offline and online touchpoints would also be key to ensure brands are maximizing their reach to consumers who are leading omnichannel lifestyles.

Image by Yousef Alfuhigi

Where advertising is concerned, brands could utilize a range of ad formats such as online search ads, native ads, car wraps, and in-car hangers to interact with their audience. For example, GrabAds worked with Tourism Western Australia in 2022 to deliver a gamified campaign that sought to reignite Singaporeans’ love for Australia.

The campaign featured a stamp-card-style challenge where Grab users could increase their chances of winning attractive prizes, such as a fully paid 3 Day 4 Night trip to Western Australia and flight vouchers worth S$88, whenever they complete a ride or order with Grab. The challenge was promoted through ads within the Grab app and Grab car fleets wrapped in Tourism Western Australia imagery that were equipped with in-vehicle displays as well. This made it easy for offline riders to effortlessly snap a picture of the QR code on the displays to participate in the challenge.

Brands can also tap into hyperlocal insights, to improve their understanding of travellers’ preferences and maintain relevance when engaging with them.

Based on the GrabAds data, what are some important traveler personas brands should be targeting and what are some of their unique needs and preferences?

Family travelers are a significant audience segment that brands can’t miss out on – 86% of Grab users intend to travel with their families. Group travel is not always easy, especially for those with children. While leisure travel is all about having fun, these family holidaymakers generally prioritize safety and convenience above all.

For example, when selecting their accommodation, these travelers prefer to have family suites and connecting rooms (65%), equipped with child-friendly amenities (58%) and safety features such as child-proofing or secured balconies (48%). To resonate with family travelers who desire a ‘stress-free’ trip, brands should consider emphasizing in their campaigns how their services can guarantee safety or provide amenities suitable for children.

“I personally find campaigns that bridge the online and offline worlds exciting, especially with the rise of hybrid shoppers who seek out seamless experiences across physical stores and online platforms.”

Another key audience group would be the early planners. Our report shows that 64% of Grab users typically start planning at least 1 month before their travel dates. Alongside their itineraries, Grab users are also planning their spending in advance, as seen from how 47% of Grab users have a fixed budget that they adhere to during their trips. To capture the attention of these early planners, brands should launch their marketing campaigns well in advance, even before the peak travel seasons. It is important for brands to engage travelers during the trip-planning stage, for their products and services to stand a chance in being factored into the plans of travelers.

Image by Danijela Prijovic

The report showed that business travel is back with 40% of business travellers surveyed planning to take 4 business trips on average over the next 12 months. Can you talk more about that and how brands can reach that segment?

As travel demand accelerates, business travelers have also emerged as a key traveler persona for brands to target. For this group of travelers, safety and convenience are paramount. According to our GrabAds 2023 SEA travel insights report, 57% of Grab business travelers prioritize proximity to public transport and restaurants, while 46% consider a safe neighborhood a top factor when booking accommodations. Ultimately, what these travelers want are stress-free work trips. To capture their attention and address the primary concerns of these busy business travelers, hotels and other travel brands should play up the safety of the neighborhood and convenient access to amenities.

As a marketer, and a traveller yourself, can you share any travel campaigns over the years that you particularly admire?

I personally find campaigns that bridge the online and offline worlds exciting, especially with the rise of hybrid shoppers who seek out seamless experiences across physical stores and online platforms. An example of such a campaign is our recent partnership with Media Bank Inc., a Japanese digital marketing solution provider, for a campaign designed for the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA).

This campaign made use of various touchpoints within the Grab app and across the Grab fleet. It included in-app ads, branded challenges, and fleet activations to increase awareness and encourage travelers in Southeast Asia to discover the lesser-known sites of Japan beyond the traditional tourist hotspots.

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Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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