While Disney is well-known for its timeless characters and storytelling on-screen, they’re perhaps equally renowned for the experiences they curate for fans off-screen. Parks like Disney World and Disneyland have long been some of the world’s most visited theme parks. Aside from their popular theme parks, Disney creates other unique ways for fans to engage with the brand with elevated, authentic, real-world travel experiences.
Lilly Yeatman has spent the last 16 years leading brand and growth marketing efforts for these real-world Disney experiences, most recently as Director of Marketing and Commercial Strategy for Disney Signature Experiences. Lilly has launched a Hawaiin resort, built a successful river cruising business, and revitalized a guided tours business during her time at Disney.
Read on to discover what we learned from Lilly about creating authentic, elevated travel experiences for Disney and how to engage fans or watch the full interview below.
Elevating Disney travel beyond Mickey Mouse and rollercoasters
While the Disney name has become synonymous with its thrilling theme parks, iconic characters, and billion-dollar entertainment franchises that embrace Disney IP, Disney’s high-end travel experiences approach the brand quite differently.
“Aulani, which is our resort in Hawaii, and Adventures by Disney, which are high-end vacations around the world — they are very much the opposite of leveraging Disney’s IP and creating the ultimate entertainment fandom experiences in real life,” Yeatman explains, “They’re about the stories of the real world, and they’re brought to life through Disney storytelling.”
These elevated experiences still provide something uniquely Disney through the same illustrious storytelling you can find throughout their other park properties or on-screen. Just this time, this storytelling is applied to the real world instead of the fantastical one.
“We have costumed characters that show up on these trips, but they’re not Mickey Mouse,” Yeatman says, “It’s Marco Polo in Venice, and he tells the story of his life in a way that’s engaging.”
Through these authentic stories, Disney aims to connect their consumers with the real world around them. Consumer engagement, the key to success for several of Disney’s theme parks, is also key to growing fandom for these higher-end trips and properties.
“Authentic engagement, that deeper connection to a property, that creates a deeper fandom. It delivers business results. And that’s a win-win for the consumer and the business,” Yeatman explains, “You think about what experience means to a consumer and how that fandom is created. So now you’re not creating a fan because of IP, you’re creating a fan because of an experience. And that fan then becomes a fan of the brand or that business for life.”
When it comes to the higher-end, real-world experiences, preserving the authenticity of an area is equally as important as building engagement. Lilly mentions, “People thought that Disney was going to ruin the beautiful, authentic, pristine landscape of Hawaii with something that resembled a theme park. And what Disney did is actually the opposite. Aulani is the most authentic Hawaiin property that I’ve ever been to.” Instead of imposing on a place, Disney aims to emphasize its existing features.
Forming superfans at any age
The high-end experiences Lilly Yeatman curates carefully consider both adults and children. While children often want to be entertained on vacation, parents are more likely to seek a cultural experience.
Luckily, the characters adventurers meet along their travels make the experience more fun and culturally relevant for everyone. Yeatman says about the location-specific guides used on Adventures by Disney tours, “It’s not just the kids who love it, the parents love it, too, because it’s so much more fun than having a boring guide do it.”
She notes, “Disney’s going to create that motivator for your kids to say, ‘I actually want to go on this trip to Paris or on this river cruise because I believe that Disney is going to make it fun for me.’”
Though it may seem that the Disney name would be a deterrent to those seeking a higher-end, authentic travel experience — even if the reality couldn’t be further from the assumptions — Lilly is often surprised by the level of adult fandom and engagement these experiences attract.
“Adults have become much [bigger] entertainment fans than I think they ever have been. And so what we see with our properties is that, in fact, those who are the biggest fans often tend to be adults, not just the kids,” she says, “The kids are a little bit more diverse in what they like, what they’re watching. They may shift from one [brand] to another whereas adults, they’ve sort of grown with some of these franchises.”
Marketing a travel experience to remember
Lilly Yeatman is confident that those who stay at one of Disney’s authentic, high-end resorts or take an inspiring trip with Adventures by Disney will be fans for life. But how do you reach these fans to begin with?
Yeatman explains, “You have to understand your consumer, first and foremost. You have to understand who you’re talking to, what that consumer is looking for, what that consumer wants, what their barriers are, their motivators, and their other considerations for your product, whether it’s a consumer product or a vacation. And then you have to build your message and your story and your positioning around that.”
Doing the best you can for your consumers while keeping business needs in mind help to build an effective marketing strategy and drive results. Using market research to dive deeper into consumer insights and behavior can help ensure that needs are being met.
Yeatman emphasizes the need to probe consumer behavior, “I can’t underscore enough how important consumer research and consumer insight is to anything that’s done for a business from a marketing perspective, in my opinion, and beyond marketing.”
Consumer insights is about knowing what the consumers’ needs are, but it’s also about understanding and recognizing trends in the industry. Yeatman outlines the kinds of questions marketers should ask themselves when it comes to trends: “What’s happening in travel? What are the types of things that consumers are going to be interested in based on what the trends and travel publications are showing? What are the trendsetters doing? What are people sharing on Instagram that everyone wants to copy? And how do we create those experiences in a way that’s relevant and uniquely Disney?”
Examining trends in these ways and asking the right questions helps Lilly and her team to determine their next moves and how best to position their experience when the time comes.
Ultimately, Yeatman has found her job with these Disney experiences highly rewarding. As she puts it, “I am marketing and selling a product that I truly believe makes people’s lives better, expands their minds, and opens the world for them. There’s nothing more valuable than that.”
Catch the full interview between Lilly Yeatman, former Director of Marketing and Commercial Strategy for Disney Signature Experiences and Sheri Conn, Invoke Advisor, below.