Pop culture is a driving force behind location vacation.

And destinations can benefit from closer focus on international entertainment trends. From books hitting the bestseller lists to the latest movies and chart-topping music, events, fashion, art, social media, and trendsetting personalities – pop culture has a firm grip on the collective psyche of the #FOMO driven audience that is the modern consumer-cum-traveller. If your destination slays and offers lit experiences, it pays to tune into what’s popular and align your brand to meet that demand.

The essence of pop culture

It starts with a book, a song, an art form or film. Someone spreads the word, cleverly using social sharing techniques to attract the attention and pique the curiosity of a trend-thirsty global audience. Maybe a celebrity with international pulling power is involved or a new household name is born. Suddenly everyone has seen or heard of it and wants to experience it, even immerse themselves in it.

What’s the fuss about? Where’s the fire? And just like that, curiosity becomes buzz becomes fandom. Where it sits at the lower to mid levels of the culture spectrum, propped up by online connectivity and mass media, sensational fads tickling the fancy of a broad audience, it develops enough momentum to make people think they must and want to engage with it.

It’s not long before fandom becomes the impetus behind pop culture tourism as fans are committed and moved enough to make pilgrimages to locations that birthed the phenomenon they love.

Like the bench in Amsterdam where The Fault in our Stars characters Hazel and Augustus contemplate their mortality – it’s an iconic, tearjerking moment in pop cinema that has millennials familiar with the bestselling John Green book wanting to travel to the city to experience that moment for themselves.

Fandom is at the extreme end of the spectrum, but we don’t all need to be hardcore fans to get sucked into the buzz.

How travellers respond to pop culture

We can broadly identify 3 travel responses to pop culture based on the desire to experience what’s been seen, heard or perceived, whether it represents something real or fantastical.

Some travelling fans expect to find exactly what’s been depicted and want to replicate the experience. Others are happy to just be in the location and imagine themselves inside the fantasy. Another response is to observe at first hand something the traveller connected with from a distance, as a matter of curiosity, and they’re equally happy to learn something new or different about the destination.

As travel professionals promoting our destinations and experiences, we can tap into these responses and play on the fact that all of these travellers have been prompted by pop culture to visit locations they might otherwise not have considered.

In fact, it’s been done in such inviting, stimulating ways that boost awareness and learning, it gives travellers an attractive basis upon which to make their travel choices.

And it does half the job of destination marketing for us! Our job is to tweak our travel products and content marketing to win our share of the spoils.

It’s about providing opportunities for potential clients to experience what they’re drawn to our destinations to enjoy and show them a lot more besides.

From vicarious travel to actual travel

There are countless stories told of locations and many more filmed on-location. The movie Australia, as an example of the former, starred 2 big name Australian actors and blatantly punted the wonders of Oz. The Lord of the Rings franchise (LOTR) may have been based in literary Middle Earth but provided a wonderful showcase for New Zealand. The LOTR trilogy was by far the bigger box office success but both brands did well to boost the respective countries’ profiles.

We find novelty in experiencing a place and re-tracing the ‘footsteps’ of a celebrated actor or hero in a book, especially when the memory of plot and characters produces a certain amount of nostalgia for the emotions intended to evoke.

We want to see for ourselves the truth behind the beauty juxtaposed with grim scenes of poverty, depicted in Slumdog Millionaire (book and movie) versus the typical Bollywood dance scene at the happy ending.

Senior travellers want to imagine themselves in the quirky romance of the India set in The Best Exotic Marigold HotelEat Pray Love turned Italy, India and Bali into seductive travel destinations for lovers of food, culture, renewal and romance, especially appealing to a growing segment of female solo travellers.

Whether it’s the story or characters that resonate, the appetising peek into the culture and people of a place, or the cinematography (think The Revenant for its gory plot set in the brutal, beautiful Canadian wilderness) that inspires the audience, cinema will continue to contribute significantly to the brand value of a destination. Got a hit movie coming your way in 2018? Check its potential for excursions and activities that can be incorporated into your existing travel products; then jump on that dream marketing machine.

Popularity turns a profit

There are TV series taking the world by storm with sequels promising healthy brand continuity. Game of Thrones has been around almost 7 years and still going strong, increasing its fan base as it goes.

The latest series was shot in locations as varied as Northern Ireland, Croatia, Morocco and Iceland.

Fans even want to visit the ‘homes’ and ‘work places’ of characters, like in Breaking Bad, shot in New Mexico, where tours based on the show are on offer.

It’s been years since Leonardo DiCaprio made us drool over the exotic charm of a hidden island paradise in The Beach but Alex Garland’s novel still inspires readers, and Thailand quickly responded by building on its appeal to backpackers and wannabe escapists by cementing the reputation of Koh Phi Phi Leh as the island in the movie. That spells longevity of marketability.

The movie Mission Impossible 2 brought a 200% increase of visits in the national parks of Sidney during the year 2000.


And Croatia can safely brace itself for the same droves of Mama Mia! fans that brought so much tourism activity to the Aegean island of Skopelos, once the sequel to the hit movie (with more of its ever popular, world-famous ABBA music) is released in 2018. Both box office and travel destinations score as the popularity of these brands keep them on trend. The year ahead will also see another installment of Jumanji and more Jurassic World (aloha Hawaii). The Caribbean will continue to draw interest from Pirates of the Caribbean fans, lovers of rum and all things tropical.

Communicating pop culture

Books become movies. Movies become theatre productions. Events become festivals. Pop culture tentacles reach into food and clothing too. Merchandising becomes integral to the pop money machine. Why not tourism? Influencers and bloggers are out there, on social media, showing and telling the connected world what everyone should aspire to doing, seeing and having. Those pilgrims want to see and experience locations, yes, but they also want to take some memorabilia home with them. Then they want to post pics and videos on social media – become influencers themselves – to show the world how lit their travels were.

Time to shake up and customise your content to present pop culture imagery relevant to your destination and experiences. Virtual Reality is increasingly prevalent and easily accessible. There’s a range of affordable, easy-to-use devices on the market. In the buyer’s market that is travel, your consumers want content available in these shareable formats – the new digital version of window shopping.

Pop tunes inspiring travel

Have you noticed how much latin pop currently features on music billboard charts? To mainstream music lovers, it might appear that Justin Bieber invented reggaeton when he released his version of Despacito, but the genre has been around for decades. The trend among English-speaking musicians to remix Spanish songs to bring this super popular music/dance craze out of latino clubs onto international dance floors, has been endorsed by the likes of Queen Bey herself with her collaboration on Mi Gente, and ex-Fifth Harmony singer, Camila Cabello, with her taste of salsa, Havana. From MTV and YouTube to everyone’s ears and gyrating booties.. to your latin destinations. 

Travellers don’t expect to see their idols losing their hearts in Havana, Cuba, but the music moves them sufficiently to want the sultry experiences promised in the music video for themselves. Then drive an enormous Cadillac through sugar cane plantations, learn some español, maybe roll some fat cigars.. Once those travel pics make it onto social media, that’s not just to create Instagram envy; it’s also a way of sharing information with a community of similarly aspiring individuals. More free destination marketing for you. All that’s left for you to do is align your brand correctly, visibly, and engage with those online communities.

Serious fun and games

It sounds like niche but the popularity of gaming culture is nibbling delectably at the heels of mainstream pop culture. If your destinations include the Far East, especially Japan and Hong Kong, then there’s some serious mileage to be gained from anime tourism. Animation, manga and Taiga drama as art forms are major draw cards for serious gamers and collectors. It’s like a permanent Star Trek convention but in an earth-bound location with ancient traditions, sumptuous oriental architecture, unique food, and natural beauty.

Other pop culture trends, especially among millennials, include vampire and horror movie fandom.

They love a good scare and want to share the experience with other aficionados and lovers of the supernatural and sci-fi, thanks largely to the Twilight series and the upcoming new X-Files movie (hello Vancouver). Long-running series like Supernatural and Legion have also both been filmed in Canadian locations and boast huge followings.

Fans have emotional ties to these brands and will travel to the filming locations and/or whatever destinations are perceived to be represented by the phenomena they follow.

As we live our lives on social and entertainment media, where reality and fantasy are separated by blurred lines, we should give the influence of pop culture its due. For many travellers it puts your brand high up on their radar or drops you down their search ranking. You are either with or against the trend. Even if you feel your destination and experiences fall in the higher culture category, that portion of the travelling public looking for specific experiences glamorised by pop culture will only continue to grow. Trust me: you don’t want to underestimate the significance of being LIT🔥.

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