Used effectively, customer research can be a hugely valuable support to you as you develop and grow your tourism business. It has a number of key advantages:

  • It can help you land on a price point for your services. You can use surveys to test the willingness of likely customers to pay different sums for specific types of offerings. 
  • It can help you understand your target customers and their priorities. What sort of experiences are your customers looking for in their vacations? You can use it to segment and profile different groups of potential customers to be able to tailor your marketing more effectively.
  • It can help you identify the most appropriate channels to use in your marketing. If you know what social media outlets use, which travel blogs they follow, which YouTube channels they subscribe to and which offline media such as travel magazines they consume, you can focus your marketing spend on those channels.
  • It can help you identify potential barriers to visiting your destination. Are your potential customers being put off by worries about poor weather, high costs, lack of transport, public health concerns or a lack of nearby attractions? If you know what obstacles are stopping people booking, you can address them directly.
  • It can help you test specific marketing messages. What language, what themes and which images will resonate most with your target market? Research can be used to test different options and identify which is most likely to convert those who are considering whether to book. 
  • It can help you gather feedback on your current offering. Used systematically, customer feedback surveys can generate invaluable insights into what elements of your services people particularly appreciated, what they think needs to be improved, and what new offerings they would like to see you introduce.

Research can now be conducted more cost-effectively than in the past, with a range of digital tools making it accessible to even small operators. But you will still need to ground your research in clearly-defined objectives, and understand what you will do with the results. The graphic below may help you think about the different stages of the process:

Before commissioning your own research, be sure to investigate the many Canada-specific public and free resources that exist. These include:

Destination Canada – Destination Canada’s resources for tourism operators include monthly or quarterly reports on the current state of tourism in Canada, tourism spend across 20 regions and 6 categories and insights and marketing recommendations by the major target markets for Canada.

Destination Ontario – including several links to consumer sentiment research studies that are structured to better understand when and where to re-engage visitors thinking about travelling, and with what messaging.

Destination British Columbia – including research reports focused on BC’s six tourism regions, and its key target markets. It also includes useful resources including research methodologies, tools and how-to guides, including the Research Guide for Tourism Operators

Travel Alberta – the Alberta resource includes at-a-glance indicators produced by respected research organizations and government agencies aimed at helping the tourism industry in Alberta understand how they are performing, where opportunities lie and how to adjust based on the most recent data regarding travellers, expenditures, habits and trends. 

Strategic planning for times of crisis 

If you think of various scenarios that might play out in the back half of 2020 and beyond and build “what if” statements around those, a number of questions arise.

  • What will your business look like going forward? 
  • Have the needs of your customers changed? 
  • What can you do to fulfill these changes? 

Answering these questions to the best of your ability now can help inform your long-term plans and position you to quickly adapt.

This crisis has highlighted the importance of strategic planning. In a lucrative but volatile space like travel and tourism, contingency plans are a non-negotiable, and circumstances can change rapidly. Think about how you would adapt your campaigns, messaging, product or audience to meet shifts in the market. Implement regular reassessments of these “what if” statements and check if they are still accurate or if any are becoming a reality. By thinking ahead, your business will have the plans in place to begin taking action quickly when the time comes to react.

None of us can predict what will happen next, but we can plan for different scenarios. The following provide some strategic planning models that you can use to help your business build robustness and resilience in the face of crisis vulnerability.

Strategic planning models – PESTLE Analysis  

The PESTLE analysis framework is another strategic planning tool you can use to bolster your risk management and scenario analysis. With its holistic approach, accounting for a range of influential factors, it can be invaluable in both planning for and navigating your business during a crisis. It stands for:

  • P: Political
  • E: Economic
  • S: Social
  • T: Technological
  • L: Legal
  • E: Environmental

Each of these elements allows an organization to take stock of the business environment they’re operating in, which helps develop a strategy for success. Use a PESTLE Analysis template to help you get started. This video provides a guide to the model.

Strategic planning models – Porter’s Five Forces

Additionally, you can use Porter’s Five Forces as a strategic planning tool to identify the economic forces that impact travel and tourism and determine your business’s competitive position. The five forces include:

  1. Competition in the industry
  2. Potential of new entrants into the industry
  3. Power of suppliers
  4. Power of customers
  5. Threat of substitute products

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Strategic planning models – Visioning 

Visioning is another strategic planning model and goal-setting strategy. It helps your organization develop a vision for the future and the outcomes you’d like to achieve.

Once you reflect on the goals you’d like to reach within the next five years or more, your business can identify the necessary steps to achieve your goals. This can be used to both bolster business resilience and inform your strategic planning. Visioning also provides a useful framework to merge your strategic plan with your innovation strategy so that it remains core to your overall strategy and not a “bolt-on” feature.

Strategic planning models – VRIO

The VRIO (Value, Rarity, Imitability, Organization) framework is another strategic planning tool that’s used to identify the competitive advantages of your product or service. Specifically, the VRIO framework provides a means of assessing product/service viability. Given the importance of adapting to new market realities, particularly for travel and tourism products, this can provide a consistent means of assessing your business model in a comparable way. Many models have become unworkable or undesirable almost overnight with the onset of COVID-19, but how can you assess this within your own business?

VRIO is composed of four different elements:

  1. Value: Does it provide value to customers?
  2. Rarity: Do you have control over a rare resource or piece of technology?
  3. Imitability: Can it easily be copied by competitors?
  4. Organization: Does your business have the operations and systems in place to capitalize on its resources?

Strategic planning models – Theory of Change 

Theory of change (TOC) is a strategic planning method that requires you to think backward and identify the conditions that are necessary for you to achieve your goals. This model is useful because it empowers you to forecast a desired outcome and reverse-engineer it to your current situation. A popular model in the Impact and ESG (Environmental Social Governance) space, TOC has adaptability for changing conditions embedded in its methodology, and thus is a particularly impactful model for travel and tourism SMEs that need to develop a vision and plan to adapt.

The method consists of the following steps:

  1. Identify long-term goals.
  2. Backward map the preconditions necessary to achieve your goal. Explain why they’re necessary.
  3. Identify your basic assumptions about the situation.
  4. Determine the interventions your initiative will fulfil to achieve your goals.
  5. Come up with indicators to evaluate the performance of your initiative.
  6. Write an explanation of the logic behind your initiative.

Strategic planning and responding to the COVID-19 crisis  

The global pandemic is forcing the travel and tourism industry to adapt rapidly to provide continuity for businesses, employees, stakeholders, and customers. This is a temporary situation but its effects will be long-term and the travel and tourism industry in particular will have to adopt long-standing strategic adaptations. How you manage your business now can make all the difference as you adapt to “the new normal” and build resilience into your business. 

A number of strategic considerations should be top-of-mind:

  1. Put people first: You may find there are multiple competing priorities as you attempt to adapt your business model in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Employees and customers should be at the centre of all initial decision-making.
  2. Manage concerns: Your employees and customers are feeling a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Be open to their questions and concerns and ensure that you are open to engagement, provide reassurance where possible.
  3. Make rational decisions: During a crisis, businesses can be tempted to make knee-jerk decisions motivated by a “fight-or-flight” response. This can hinder good decision-making. Try to contextualize the COVID-19 crisis as a temporary situation but one that will require a degree of well-thought long-term systemic change. What can you do to calmly and logically carry your business during the disruption so you can recover and adapt when the crisis subsides and operations resume?
  4. Keep your employees safe: The safety of your employees is a must. Government regulations vary within the provinces/territories but there are clear safety concerns for the travel and tourism industry. Here are some ways to keep your employees safe:
    1. Allow and accommodate work-from-home options, when possible.
    2. Mandate and communicate good hygiene, including hand-washing.
    3. Create workspaces that allow for physical distancing, as per guidelines.
    4. Employees who must work in close proximity to one another, or in essential services, that require interactions with customers should have access to industry-recommended personal protection equipment (PPE), where applicable.
    5. Encourage sick employees or those who have risked exposure to COVID-19 to remain at home.
  5. Nurture your brand: How your business communicates the management of people—employees and customers—during a crisis is critical to your brand and reputation. Consider the case of airlines that were quick to adapt cancellation policies or companies that were leaders in installing Plexiglas shields at checkouts. People are looking to companies like yours to show common sense and compassion during this crisis and a people-first mindset will help you and your team make decisions that nurture a positive brand image.

Scenario Analysis – Exploring different futures

The future is impossible to predict reliably. Even with good instincts, the outcomes that you predict could be disrupted by a range of different factors. Challenging your assumptions and guarding against making unfounded assumptions about the continuity of the status quo, means that your decisions will more likely be sound, even if circumstances change.

But what are the most likely outcomes in response to changing circumstances? Author and corporate strategist Peter Schwartz, one of the pioneers of scenario thinking, identified the following common scenarios:

  1. Evolution: All trends continue as expected. Things gently move towards a predictable end point.
  2. Revolution: A new, disruptive, factor fundamentally changes the situation.
  3. Cycles: What goes around comes around. Boom follows bust follows boom follows bust.
  4. Infinite Expansion: Exciting trends continue. Think of the computer industry in the 1950s.
  5. Lone Ranger: The triumph of the lone hero against the forces of inertia.
  6. My Generation: Changes in culture and demographics affect the situation.

Scenario Analysis is often used for crisis planning. By imagining a range of negative situations, your business can face worst case scenarios and best prepare for them. That said, this can also be used in a positive context. You can use scenario analysis to forecast a range of possible futures to encourage innovation within a framework that enables you to assess and minimize potential risks.

1. Define the Issue: A first step is to define what your goal is, or the decision that you need to make. Then assess the timeline in which this will need to happen which will be driven by the scale of the plan.

2. Gather Data: Identify the trends, variables, and uncertainties that may affect the plan. For more large-scale plans, you may find it useful to do a PESTLE Analysis  of the Political, Economic, Socio-Cultural, and Technological, Legal, and Environmental context in which it will be implemented.

3. Separate Certainties From Uncertainties: As predictable as many ongoing trends may appear, remember that in volatile economic conditions, certainties are far more scarce – you should try to avoid unconscious bias in favor of certain assumptions, by identifying and analyzing potential blind spots in your thinking. List uncertainties in priority order, with the largest, most significant uncertainties at the top of the list.

4. Develop Scenarios: Starting with your primary uncertainty, take a moderately good outcome and a moderately bad outcome, and develop a scenario around each that combines your certainties with the outcome you’ve chosen. Follow this process in order of the uncertainties you have listed.

Risk management to prepare for a crisis

Effectively preparing for a crisis is contingent on the risk management measures you are able to put in place in advance, and the lessons you learn from previous crises. There are a number of methods you can employ to ensure you are as prepared as you can be:

Brainstorming: To begin the brainstorming process, start with the possible risks that could impact your business. Gather information from whatever credible sources are available and ensure you are well-informed. Anything that can provide insight into issues that might occur during the execution of the project should be considered. Once you’ve done your research, start brainstorming within your team or stakeholder/ partner network. Examples might be severe weather during outdoor activities, contamination at a restaurant or poor product quality in a retail shop. 

Root Cause Analysis: Root cause analysis is a systematic process used to identify the risks that are embedded in a business or project. It enshrines the notion that good business is not just responsive but preventative. Often root cause analysis is used after a problem has already come up. It seeks to address causes rather than symptoms. But it can be applied to assessing risk by going through the goals of any root cause analysis: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? What can be done to better prepare if it were to re-occur? Once those questions are addressed, develop a plan of action to prevent it from happening again.

SWOT: SWOT (or strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) is another tool to help with identifying risks. To apply this tool, go through the acronym. Begin with strengths and determine what those are as related to your business. List the weaknesses or things that could be improved or are missing from the project. This is where the likelihood of negative risk will raise its head, while positive risk comes from the identification of strengths. Opportunities are opened up by strengths and positive risks, while threats are negative risks.

Risk impact/probability

Once you have identified potential risks you will need to understand how pertinent they are to your business. Ask the questions: What would the impact of this risk be to my business? How likely is this risk to occur? Once answered you can map the materiality of this risk accordingly.

  • Low impact/low probability: Low level, and you can often ignore them but be aware of how they may shift.
  • Low impact/high probability: If this happens, you can absorb the problem and move on. However, you should try to reduce its likelihood.
  • High impact/low probability: This is an unlikely event but one that would be consequential if it were to occur. You should do what you can to reduce the impact it will have if it does occur, and you should have contingency plans  in place just in case of an incident.
  • High impact/high probability: This is of critical importance and among your top priorities. Any risks in this quadrant are ones you must pay close attention to.

Project management in the midst of Crisis

In order to lead during a crisis, you have to be able to spot a crisis before it impacts the project. Learn what the red flags are for schedule, budget, performance, scope, quality and governance risk are. Sometimes it’s impossible to predict when a crisis will strike. This is why it is critical to have a business continuity plan

Learn how to keep your business or project running in the event of a disaster.

Having appropriate and robust organizational systems in place before a crisis will inevitably improve your ability to weather one. During a crisis, your organizational goals will be highly disrupted, but having internal systems in place can help you get back on track during the recovery phase.

Gantt Chart

Think of a Gantt chart as an enhanced timeline tracker. It illustrates the start and finish dates of the many tasks and milestones of your project. The Gantt chart shows task dependencies between activities, and it is an ideal way to display your current schedule status. It is a useful tool when planning and executing a phase of your project, but it will also help you track how your projects or targets are disrupted by a crisis. It also provides a means to view project baselines and critical paths, as well as defining core project milestones.

Making a Gantt Chart:

Project management techniques for crisis preparation – Work Breakdown Structure 

The process of tourism recovery will be, in and of itself, an overwhelming project for most travel and tourism businesses. In order to be successful and allocate resources effectively, your business will need a means of breaking tasks down and assigning them appropriately.

Work Breakdown Structure

When projects seem overwhelming in size and scope, leaders often employ a work breakdown structure (WBS) to literally break down the larger phases of the project into smaller and smaller tasks, which can then be scheduled and assigned. 

Developing a work breakdown structure:

Ensuring innovation in the midst of crisis  

No matter how bad the economy, there are always companies that thrive during tough times. These are primarily the companies that offer more value for less investment/less friction. Disruptive innovation usually starts from the low-end of the of markets, so SMEs, while lacking the resources of large multinationals, are well-positioned for tough times and have more built-in flexibility. It is much easier for SMEs to gain business, since both consumers and businesses are actively looking for ways to meet their needs with new, more affordable solutions.

Innovation does not have to involve costly technological innovations. Quite the opposite, in fact as it can very often mean simply achieving more with less. Keep in mind that flexibility is a powerful asset in a crisis!

Offering more for less

Innovation can take many forms but at the most basic level it involves offering more for less. There are many ways to cut down on costs that make sense both in the short and long term. This matrix can help you define what kinds of cost-cutting are best suited or most practical to your business.

Quick wins can serve as the first response or bandaid for your business. These are areas where you can see results immediately. These are usually the obvious things everyone knows are costly and not really delivering results, but that have been kept around as a status quo.

Frivolities are costs that are simply unnecessary, or “nice-to-have” expenses that are not a priority to dispense with during times of abundance. Individually these are not obvious costs, but cumulatively, they can have a major financial impact. Frivolities can be anything from unnecessary executive travel to an extravagant assortment of snacks, or overly expensive company events.

While restructuring is always painful, the sooner you do it, the better off your business will usually be. Even if it is not the best time to sell assets, divesting or dispensing with less profitable products or services in your value chain could be beneficial since this would both save capital going forward and provide an immediate increase in cash reserves.

Productivity improvements help you do more with less, which means that they obviously should be at the heart of every cost-cutting program. Productivity improvements can take time, which means in times of crisis, you might need to take other measures to increase cash reserves in the short term. However, the benefits of productivity improvements are not limited to short-term impact on the bottom line. Their impacts are longer term can even become a clear competitive advantage for the business going forward. In the current crisis, the travel and tourism industry will have to think long-term while tackling the short-term crisis imperatives.

Emergent innovation during the Covid-19 crisis

The economic impact of the pandemic has forced travel and tourism businesses to transform their business models overnight in an attempt to stay afloat amid economic collapse, whether refocusing on domestic tourism or delivering their hallmark experiences while allowing their users to socially distance. Necessity forces companies to innovate. However, waiting to simply react to a crisis is not a workable innovation strategy in itself. Crisis innovation can be triggered in a number of ways:

  1. Challenge orthodoxies: Orthodoxies are assumptions that held true at a certain point in time but are not revisited or challenged as realities change – this can be fatal in a crisis situation but challenging orthodoxies can yield paradigm-shifting innovation even under normal circumstances. Conversely, being blind to orthodoxies puts companies at risk for disruption. Regularly ask yourself: “What orthodoxies might be limiting growth opportunities or putting my business at risk?” 
  2. Embrace constraints: Constraints are beneficial, and can accelerate rather than inhibit innovation. Many businesses are now confronting extreme constraints, which are necessitating significant changes in their operations. Under normal circumstances, businesses should force themselves to consider scenarios that might at first appear extreme or unlikely. Consider how your business would need to operate under different means or circumstances to generate innovations that may not have thought of before.
  3. Move quickly, perfect later: Necessity-driven cases have unique circumstances, of course. A crisis changes the next-best-alternative option. 
  4. Delight customers with costovation: Costovation is innovation that cuts costs while exceeding customer expectations. Some quick wins such as virtual tours have already been pioneered within the travel and tourism industry.
  5. Expand stakeholder collaboration: Collaboration is a vital competitive advantage, particularly in the travel and tourism industry. As value-chains are disrupted, talent more in flux, and the rate of technological innovation accelerating, collaboration with stakeholders is increasingly essential. Personnel shifts are happening on two extremes: companies like Domino’s that provide lockdown-appropriate services are looking to hire 10,000 additional staff to keep up with demand, while airlines and large hotel chains are laying off large segments of their workforce. In China, a group of more than 40 hotels, restaurants, and cinema chains that had all taken a significant economic hit shared a large proportion of their staff with Hema, a supermarket chain owned by Alibaba, that was in need of help to meet demand for deliveries. Connect with tourism operators in your own community to see if there are opportunities to create a strategic alliance; it could be to share staff or purchase supplies together.
  6. Foster consumer loyalty: Keeping customers close is always critical, but it is especially so when competitors are offering convenience, job security is low, and consumers sensitive to costs. Fostering loyalty among your local community is a vital first step while keeping travellers interested via online platforms and innovative and evocative marketing. 
  7. Adjust to new consumer habits: It is hard to stay six feet away from other people in a crowded supermarket, but major chains and SMEs alike are offering curb-side delivery and online shopping options, and countless other companies are investing in or just beginning delivery. These will be major considerations for travel and tourism businesses with traditionally high people traffic such as food & beverage, hospitality, transport, and certain tour operators.
  8. Rethink the traveller experience: The entire concept of the customer experience is changing dramatically. It is not a small undertaking for restaurants, hotels, and other experience-driven businesses to completely rethink service delivery. Creative solutions will differentiate resilient businesses in these turbulent times. Some examples include: restaurants providing cooking classes based on their menus, lodges providing virtual safaris, and Indigenous businesses offering spiritually calming experiences for locals. Even the almost defunct concept of the drive-in movie theatre is making a come-back amid requirements for physical distancing.

Ethical leadership to prepare for a crisis 

Leading ethically can be a particular challenge in times of crisis when fear is high. However, crises are also opportunities to support your community and double down on your ethical values. In order to achieve this, some self-reflection is a must.

  1. Define your brand’s values: Your team, and your tourism community, look to you to set an example in ethical leadership. You first need to know your organization’s values have clear rules about employee behaviour. These rules usually flow from the organization’s mission and vision statements. To navigate this, ask yourself the following key questions:
    • What standards of behaviour are really important to my company?
    • What specific values do I admire in certain leaders? Do I identify with those values?
    • Would I still live by those values, even if they put me at a competitive disadvantage?
  2. Set the tone: Model this behaviour to set an example for others to follow. This “ripple effect” can be far-reaching. For example, if everyone is required to wear a mask or face covering on your small group tours make sure you set the example and wear one too. Ensure that consequences are clear if behaviour that doesn’t live up to your corporate values, or which breaks ethical rules. Positive consequences are important, too. Consider rewarding team members who consistently act according to the company values. 
  3. Recognize ethical dilemmas: Businesses are often faced with tough choices in the workplace, but most ethical dilemmas aren’t obvious. How do you recognize them? Identify “trigger” situations. Certain situations, such as purchasing, hiring, firing, promoting, and calculating bonuses, seem to attract ethical dilemmas. By recognizing when ethical dilemmas are most likely to occur, you can be more attuned to them and more sensitive.
  4. Respond to ethical dilemmas: 
    1. Prepare in advance: Working through scenarios can help you to work through your feelings and to decide what to do in reality. In a crisis, you may only have seconds to reach a decision, so rehearsing can be a great help.
    2. Investigate before making a decision: Wherever possible, take the time to investigate and assess whether someone has behaved unethically before taking action.
    3. Re-evaluate your decision before you act: If you are in a difficult situation and unsure what to do, ask yourself how you would feel if your actions were made public. Would you stand by that course of action? If not, reconsider your decision. In times of crisis, a spotlight is often shone and consequences can be intensified. 
    4. Seek advice: Get input from others to assess a situation more rationally, and come up with a better decision. Collaboration across your value chain is critical in a time of crisis. Seek advice and be open.

Leadership in responding to a crisis  

Leaders can prepare for a crisis but in the midst of an unforeseen or catastrophic one it can be extremely challenging to make clear-headed decisions. The following list provides a leadership decision-making process in the midst of a crisis situation.

  1. Seek credible information: As a leader, it is your responsibility to determine the most reliable, up-to-date information from trustworthy news sources. In the current case of the coronavirus, consult local public health officials, the World Health Organization — which provides rolling updates — and the Public Health Agency of Canada, where you can find advice on how to prepare and take action.
  2. Use appropriate communication channels: Once essential information is gathered, it should be shared across your organization by the most effective means available. Transparency is key. Information is powerful because it:
    • Reduces emotional distress caused by the unknown,
    • Diminishes fear,
    • Provides tactical guidance, and
    • Demonstrates to employees that their leaders are concerned, involved, knowledgeable, and on top of the situation.
  3. Explain what your organization is doing about the crisis: During a crisis, time seems to accelerate. The initial onset of a crisis generates immense pressure to act. Sometimes you have to begin tackling a problem before you have a solid grasp of what’s happening. If you are in charge, take charge. As you make decisions and take action, communicate those actions truthfully and honestly. 
  4. Be present, visible, and available: During a crisis, be accessible to employees and partners. It will not always possible to walk around and talk to colleagues in person, particularly in the context of physical distancing requirements, so let employees know how they can best reach you with status updates and questions. 

Change Management Approach   

Anticipation and responsiveness are key principles for businesses responding to this crisis in the travel and tourism industry. The future is unpredictable but you can reduce uncertainty by tracking the most reliable indicators available to you during the period of change and recovery. Remember that recovery does not mean a return to the status quo so a change management approach is essential. 

A helpful model for understanding and managing change has been devised by John P Kotter. Each stage acknowledges a key change management principle identified by Kotter. People see, feel and then change.

Kotter’s eight step change model can be summarized as:

  1. Increase urgency: inspire people to move, make objectives real and relevant.
  2. Build the guiding team: get the right people in place with the right emotional commitment, and the right mix of skills and levels.
  3. Get the vision right: Get the team to establish a simple vision and strategy, focus on emotional and creative aspects necessary to drive service and efficiency.
  4. Communicate for buy-in: Involve as many people as possible, communicate the essentials, simply, and to appeal and respond to people’s needs. De-clutter communications – make technology work for you rather than against.
  5. Empower action: Remove obstacles, enable constructive feedback and lots of support from leaders – reward and recognize progress and achievements.
  6. Create short-term wins: Set aims that are easy to achieve – in bite-size chunks. Ensure a manageable number of initiatives. Finish current stages before starting new ones.
  7. Don’t let up: Foster and encourage determination and persistence – ongoing change – encourage ongoing progress reporting – highlight achieved and future milestones.
  8. Make change stick: Reinforce the value of successful change via recruitment, promotion, and new change leaders. Weave change into culture.