El Al changes marketing strategy for the US

Despite no longer being a state owned company, El Al Israel Airlines still enjoys the benefits that come with being a flag carrying airline.

Despite no longer being a state owned company, El Al Israel Airlines still enjoys the benefits that come with being a flag carrying airline. As its association for being "the Israeli airline" lingers in the mind-set of the consumer, the newly privatized El Al is able to capitalize on these emotions, as it directs its focus according the particular affiliation of each market. These differences in approach are evident in its marketing campaign in Israel and the United States. While in Israel the company headlines its campaign with the slogan "Fly El Al, feel at home," in the US the slogan changes to "It's not just an airline, it's Israel". "The link between Israel and El Al is one of the reasons why most Americans don't care that El Al is privately owned," said Yoav Levi, El Al vice president of Trade and Aviation Relations. "The blue-and-white colors, the flag on the tail, make it Israel in their eyes." Levi estimated that El Al brings over 60% of Israel's tourists and that it constantly sells the country in its advertising campaigns to both religious and non-affiliated tourists. Michael Mayer, general manager of El Al for North and Central America, explained that the company has identified three major differences in the marketing strategies of the two locales. "The first thing to consider is the target population," Mayer explained. "In Israel we have the whole population to work with, while in the US it tends to be the religious communities, both Jewish and Christian." He added that for this reason, El Al has a large focus on developing close ties with these communities - mostly from Middle America, the "Bible Belt" - especially with the pastors and religious leaders and when necessary it adds flights in order to accommodate large Church groups. "As a result we have more 'empty-leg' flights than other airlines, flights in which the planes are full in one direction only," Mayer said. Company figures show that the Christian community forms a significant segment of its US market, comprising about half of the approximate 450,000 passengers it carries each year. While through the four years of the Intifada, its Christian traffic came to a standstill, the total passenger count dropped to around 300,000, which El Al said indicates a significant rise in the number of Jews coming to Israel in the period. "A draw for the Jewish population is the wide range of kosher meals available, including several options of glatt-kosher meals," he said. The airline reported that in 2005, approximately 20 percent of its passengers were Christian Pilgrims, showing a gradual recovery of tourists from that sector, while the total number of passengers is almost back up to pre-Intifada levels. The second consideration when marketing El Al in the US is the level of competition which exists there. "El Al has to keep its prices competitive, including factors such as agent fees," said Mayer. "The fact that El Al has very few internal flights in North America is a handicap compared to other airlines." To compensate, he added, "we've signed deals with Delta and American Airlines to give passengers more opportunity to get frequent flier miles on internal US routes." Outlining issues associated with competing in such a large market, Mayer explained that advertising costs have forced the airline to concentrate on direct advertising - through large organizations such as Hadassah, Bnei Brit, Church groups, Birthright as well as other similar groups. "A lot of the advertising is done through the internet," he said, "especially as booking on-line and by phone is a lot more prevalent in North America than it is in Israel, where people still prefer to book while meeting an agent." Another challenge that El Al faces is the market share that it loses by not flying on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. "Non-religious passengers often prefer to fly with the competition because it suits them to travel on those days," said Mayer." "As a result El Al is trying to target other groups - such as non-affiliated Jews - by strengthening their bond to Israel, or regular tourists by promoting Israel as a great tourist spot." The third difference on Mayer's list is simply the focus of the route. While for the North American office the flight to Israel is of top priority, the Israel operation has all its routes to consider in its marketing. "The North American line is makes up 38% of El Al's fares and 20% of its profit, so obviously it is of major importance to us," Mayer concluded. El Al operated 34 weekly flights to Israel during the summer, from Toronto, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, JFK and Newark. Flights from Newark and JFK are direct non-stop flights, the rest being direct-service flights to Chicago, Miami and LA. Its deal with Delta airlines allows them to offer connecting flights to other cities such as San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Washington. (The writer was a guest of El Al in New York.)