As tourism businesses across Canada slowly reopen after multiple waves of the COVID-19 epidemic, effective communication with customers about how to stay safe while the virus is still among us is vital. Effective signage is a key part of this, and is critical both to allow for the safe opening of tourism across Canada, and to start to build back resident and tourist trust within our tourism communities. 

Signage (supported by digital messaging – for instance, in emails or SMS messages after booking) will help your customers to remember the need to adhere to the practices that will go a long way to keep us all safe from infection in the months to come – maintaining social distancing, regular use of hand sanitizer, frequent washing of hands and the use of face coverings. 

A number of organizations have made posters and signs freely available for download. 

Federation of Small Businesses

PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association)

Tone and approach

Of course, social media is essential for organizations in the global travel and tourism industry to survive this crisis. It will allow you to stay connected to future travellers regardless of physical distance and is invaluable in ensuring ongoing interest and in planting the seeds of future travel plans.

  1. Offer calming but evidence-based messages and continuous engagement. Prospecting opportunities will come, but you may want to put some paid media behind your posts to ensure ongoing visibility.
  2. Memories of previous trips can provide comfort to shaken consumers. They will want to recreate memories and your social media channels can provide this opportunity.
  3. Engage in advocacy campaigns and re-engage with past comments from visitors on your platforms.
  4. Make your marketing unique by steering clear of echoing similar messages to other businesses. How can you differentiate?
  5. Strike a different tone. Can you be funny, memorable, empathetic or thoughtful?
  6. Engage in lead generation by building out email contacts. Promote visitor guides, or access to a special passport to your offering build anticipation and curiosity about your destination and/or offering.
  7. Do your best to keep consumers dreaming about what they want to do; through continuous engagement you can build their commitment to make their dreams a reality.
  8. Be responsive to shifting travel planning trends, capture consumers who are shifting plans from cruise and international travel to road trips, domestic travel, and staycations.

Website strategies

While a slew of cancellations might be overwhelming, consider the long-term strategy of showing consumers why they should visit your destination. Such a strategy could include:

  1. Ongoing Search Engine Optimization (SEO) efforts to preserve website rankings.
  2. Adjustments to homepage to focus less on current events and more on general destination information.
  3. Temporary pause on media campaigns around specific annual/seasonal events or time periods.
  4. Inspirational storytelling to encourage website visitors to dream of future travel.
  5. Only showing any activities that are still scheduled.
  6. Additionally, this can also be a time for internal ‘housekeeping’, working with your website development team to address backlogged tasks or long-standing issues that have not been prioritized.

Although it is essential to take this very seriously, this crisis will pass, and when that time comes, your primary marketing efforts will need to be ready for the return of visitors and operations. All of these steps can help you prepare and make that recovery period healthier.

Tailor your contextual messaging: As a general framework for key messaging, encourage your audience to plan for recovery but recognize that destinations go back to status quo messaging. You should tailor messaging to what travellers are most excited about in future e.g. the resumption of freedom, open spaces, outdoor activity etc.

Communicate on the specifics of the crisis and your response: Reports have shown that consumers have positive attitudes toward brand communications around COVID-19. According to data released by Visit Florida, 43% say that it is reassuring to receive messages from brands they are familiar with and have an established relationship with. Additionally, 40% say they would appreciate hearing how brands are responding to the pandemic. 

Use secondary footage and images: Within reason, repurpose your image catalogue to tell a story of the future. Enhance this by identifying distribution channels that have increased viewership (YouTube, social media etc.).

Tailor messaging to stakeholder map: Ensure that you have tailored messages easily accessible and specific to your stakeholders. Visit California provides an instructive example of this tailored messaging.

The importance of stakeholder mapping in a crisis 

Stakeholder mapping is a crucial element to any crisis communications plan. Unity and collaboration is central to recovery, so understanding your stakeholder universe cannot be underestimated. This stakeholder map will likely include employees, customers, suppliers, other tourism organizations, community partners, the media, government, and the general public. Atour operator’s stakeholders, for instance, could include: travel agents, past consumers, potential consumers, travel agents, OTAs and a local DMO. You should also add all necessary contact information for each of these groups in your map.

Stakeholder mapping steps

  1. Identify all audience groups in your value chain that are affected by or have a stake in the crisis.
  2. Categorize audiences in at least three groups: allies, neutral, and opposition.
  3. Define each audience’s issue profile around the situation – is this group is likely to take action? Can your organization influence this group? In general, focus on audiences  that are open to influence.
  4. Define your desired outcome and your communications strategy for reaching it. Remember, this is a continuous process that you need to review as the situation develops and the stakeholder landscape shifts.
  5. Advise, but also empathize with your strategic partners. You have an opportunity to engage with them and work together toward recovery. For example, many DMOs are staying connected with local partners, such as restaurants, via social media, promoting take-out options and supporting businesses in their communities. This is an opportunity to help your partners stay versatile and resilient.

A crisis communication plan is a set of guidelines used to prepare a business for an emergency or unexpected event. These plans include steps to take when a crisis first emerges, how to communicate with your stakeholders, and how you might address or prevent such occurrences in future.

Crisis communication plans focus on your response and how you will communicate it to your stakeholders. These steps ensure information reaches your broad stakeholder network (reinforcing the need for effective stakeholder mapping). Most importantly, these plans guarantee a quick release of information, as well as a consistent message across all platforms.

Crisis Communication Strategies

1. Spokesperson Response: If your organization commits an error or violation (such as contravention of COVID-19 restrictions in the current context), the best thing you can do is to apologize and humanize the error. The most effective way to do that is to assign a spokesperson to speak on your brand’s behalf.

It will be important to choose a good communicator as their actions will influence how your stakeholders will react to the situation. If they can make your company look human and your mistakes appear manageable, that will play a major role in maintaining loyalty and support. And remember, in the case of the travel and tourism industry, in times of crisis the most dangerous mistake for your business is to commit errors that make your destination seem unsafe or your reassurances of safety appear unreliable or untrustworthy – honesty and integrity are essential.

2. Proactive Damage Control: Even if things may appear to be going well for the time being, you should always prepare for a crisis to occur. Proactive damage control is what you do to reduce or prevent the effects of a crisis before it occurs. For example, having systems in place for physical distancing efforts and home-working when necessary and a boilerplate crisis communication plan that can be adapted to multiple circumstances.

3. Case Escalation: Resolve emerging issues in a crisis situation between the affected parties before they reach a wider audience. Remember that virality is heightened in times of fear and anxiety. Create a customer service escalation system to diffuse the issue before it gets out of hand. Remember, consumer loyalty and confidence is even more critical for a travel and tourism business where international travellers can very quickly be put off by external perceptions or perceived danger.

Engage specialists to work on complex or time-sensitive cases. When customers have needs that require additional attention, these experts can intervene.

4. Social Media Response: Social media is an indispensable tool for travel and tourism businesses to keep lines of communication open in times of crisis, specifically in the context of widespread travel restrictions and physical distancing measures.

But remember, it is a two-way street allowing consumers to share stories, post pictures, and upload videos visible to the whole world. One viral video painting your business or destination in a negative or unsafe light can lead to irreparable damage.

Your business needs a social media plan that can manage the digital chatter around your business and/or destination. This may include assigning additional employees to monitor your channels or updating your network with new information. However you use it, social media cannot be underestimated as either an asset or a liability.

5. Customer Feedback Collection and Analysis: Some crises are less newsworthy or globally far-reaching than others. Or in some cases, a global crisis could have a particular manifestation or context in your locality. It could be silently affecting your business, but you are unaware of it because you are not gathering enough feedback from your customers.

Gathering feedback is an essential way to weather a crisis and prevent them in future. It provides insight into how customers are feeling about your business. This allows you to forecast and navigate around red flags before they escalate into a crisis. It also gives customers an opportunity to share criticism that you can use to improve traveller experiences on an ongoing basis in the context of normal operations.

The 5 C’s of crisis communication 

Whatever practical approaches you take to crisis communications, you will also need to consider the style and tone of this communication. The most important thing is for your business to remain in stable control of communication and how it comes across. The “Five Cs” of communication can help when communicating bad news:

  • Concerns: Focus attention on the needs and concerns of the audience rather than of your business or on damage control. Where appropriate, acknowledge the concerns of your stakeholder and address them directly.
  • Clarity: Communicate the facts clearly and honestly. If your message is clear, your stakeholders will believe you are disclosing everything they need to know. When communication is vague or open to interpretation, you could comes across as if you are hiding something or only revealing partial truths.
  • Control: Keep control of your message. When you lose control, inaccurate information and misinterpretation will follow.
  • Confidence: Speak with confidence and assurance that you are acting in the best interests of your stakeholders. You may have to communicate bad news but you can also convey that you are doing everything you can to minimize harm. 
  • Competence: You will need to convey that you are handling the situation competently. The first step is to ensure that the situation is genuinely in hand so you are not downplaying the severity of the situation to merely appear competent. 

When you use the Five Cs you assure your network and consumers that you are handling the situation and that you are not being deceitful. 

This integrity will reinforce their confidence in your ability to manage the situation and keep them safe and their needs addressed.

All businesses face a crisis at some point and few industries are more affected by the current pandemic than the global travel and tourism industry. Throughout this period, effective crisis PR will be essential in ensuring continued reassurance and confidence, and to secure the confidence of your stakeholders. Here are 5 important crisis response strategies.

  1. Put forecasting and monitoring in place: You cannot effectively respond to a crisis if you are not properly informed about it or are taken by surprise. You must be as proactive as possible in forecasting crises on the horizon. Identify who is commenting on the situation and who the main voices are in the public square. Ensure you have the capacity to effectively analyze the impact so you can respond with the appropriate measures and minimal assumptions.
  2. Understand the issues before you respond: We have all witnessed a great deal of misinformation being spread about the COVID-19 crisis. This is largely because, for both individuals and organizations, pressure to address their personnel and/or stakeholders on this dominant issue, ends up taking precedence over the need to be fully informed on it, which itself takes time and effort.

    Engage in dialogue with as many informed stakeholders as you can, consult experts, be aware of the conflicting points of view, and do your research on how it affects your business and local context so that you are clear about what you should and should not say, and what the unknowns of the situation are. If you are still getting up to speed it may be advisable to put out a “holding statement” that simply says you are aware of the situation and will offer more information as quickly as possible.
  3. Focus on the essential: It can be tempting to share every detail during a crisis – while this may convey openness and honesty, information overload can be unhelpful or even frightening for your stakeholders – and the last thing you want is panic. It is best to provide the right amount of directly relevant information to the broad audience that your response to the crisis makes sense to them, triaging the level of detail provided by those who are most impacted.
  4. Be honest: While misinformation can be rife, the facts tend to emerge eventually and you should work from this assumption. Taking a dishonest stance is always extremely risky. Your stakeholders will forgive errors but may not forgive dishonesty. Communicating that you do not know the answer is valid and conveys trustworthiness – state that you don’t know and that you are making your best effort to find answers.
  5. Learn from every crisis: Remember it is not just about weathering the current crisis but improving your response to the next one and building organizational resilience. Questions like, “How could we have prevented this?” and, “What can we do better next time?” need to be asked and answered. 

It is also important to monitor how the situation impacted your brand long after it has subsided. How have perceptions of your destination changed if at all? How has traveller demand been impacted? Did you gain or lose followers in social media? Did engagement return to normal? What actions can you take to counter the negative sentiment with positive? Can you enlist the help of influencers to rebuild your good reputation?

Accept and confront reluctance: As a new normal gradually returns, there will still be large numbers of travellers that are reluctant to travel—whether due to financial instability or lingering health and hygiene worries. For those willing to travel, highlight affordability and value for money in your destination or product offering. 

Create advocates among first adopters: Early adopters of return travel are probably going to be looking for budget-conscious short stays, day trips, and potentially weekends. Rather than lowering base prices (which can create complications around raising them in the future), increase value for these travelers with special packages and incentives – and thus create a network of advocates to build word-of-mouth support as travel patterns resume.

Implement constant reassurance: Returning travellers are likely to pay particular attention to what your destination is implementing to ensure their safety. Collaborate with your partners to create and communicate plans that address health and safety and ensure that this messaging runs through both your launch campaign and is visible across travel experiences as your visitors return (through signage, guidelines, hygiene measures etc.).

Shift focus along with shifting sentiments: This is a time to “read the room” – ensure you are adequately acknowledging the crisis and taking necessary measures, while gradually shifting towards general destination information rather than crisis communication.

Integrate inspiring messaging with physical distancing: Consumers will want to be inspired and encouraged by their opportunity to travel again and will be receptive to imagery and videos. However, be conscious of how this is portrayed and avoid imagery of numerous people or crowds. Inspire, while also reassuring travellers around physical distancing.

Be a storyteller: Support your network while also inspiring your visitors – tell the stories of your partners and share lists of companies offering pandemic-appropriate services such as take-out and delivery services.

Differentiate among the clamour for recovery: Create unique, shareable, or “instagrammable” experiences with partners that can even be picked up by the media. Where possible, bring these efforts to visual media like YouTube or 360 videos.

Support public health: Reinforce the messages from your public health officials and continue to share the best measures to protect individuals, along with links to official sources.

While social media may be an obvious priority in crisis marketing efforts, you must ensure that every useful channel is being pursued. 

Database marketing has several advantages including:

  • Leveraging existing loyalties to a greater degree
  • The ability to measure marketing effectiveness
  • The ability to test new creative ideas and products
  • Access to more information about the customer
  • The opportunity to create barriers against competitors

Travel and tourism organizations at the more advanced stage of database marketing are at an advantage. As competition for market share intensifies, consumer loyalty will be a priceless resource. In times of crisis, travel and tourism businesses must include database marketing as a means of cementing customer relationships through personalized service.

Perhaps more so than database marketing, in an environment of physical distancing, traditional media such as radio and television are easy to overlook in favour of social media channels. Do not be so hasty, however. You may want to consider the following:

  • Screen time: With consumers confined largely to their homes, they are clocking more screen time than usual overall, therefore television advertising is a crucial component in nurturing their dreams of freedom and escape. 
  • A break from the sedentary: Television viewing is by definition a sedentary activity and, for many travellers, may be a last resort boredom-alleviator, therefore television advertising focusing on physical, outdoor, adventurous activity in open spaces could be highly motivating for frustrated would-be travellers. Such imagery is likely to stay in their minds as restrictions are lifted and travel opportunities arise.
  • Your vehicle audience: In many cases, driving to and from essential activities may be the most freedom consumers are able to enjoy in markets with hard lockdown measures, therefore radio provides a means of connection to the outside world during this time and is a potentially powerful tool for tactical messages.
  • Selling adventure and freedom: Radio advertising to evoke the spirit of adventure during this potentially valuable moment of partial freedom in a consumer’s day could be highly impactful.