The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) is perhaps the biggest challenge the travel industry has faced in the last 50 years. Hotels, airlines, tour operators and event planners and venues are suffering the most, while all businesses that cater to travelers and tourists such as restaurants, attraction parks, shops and others are all feeling the strain.
Coronavirus is not the first global crisis to hit the travel industry. However, it presents a unique challenge. Firstly, because of its global nature – the disease is everywhere, so it’s simply not possible to redirect travelers to different destinations.
Secondly, because there is no understanding of when the epidemic will subside. It could be a long time until everything reopens. The number of infected people continues to rise, and more details of the virus emerge each day. The earliest we could expect a decline is at the start of summer, but that would only be if all nations around the world take the necessary measures.
Thirdly, global connectivity and population mobility reached a peak in 2019, when 1.5 billion trips were taken. This is 4% more than the year before. That is the most people to have travelled ever. Even global events like Euro 2020 (although now postponed) are being held in several countries, which helps spread the virus.
And finally, the way we consume content has had an impact as well: people nowadays get most of their news from social media, where information spreads virally and is not always 100% accurate. We also live in the age of fake news and clickbait, where headlines get more and more dramatic so as to grab reader attention.
In this environment, travel industry players need to remain calm and act correctly. Any crisis comes to ends sooner or later, and travel has already become an integral part of people’s lives. Any shock always serves as a great opportunity for development and expanding market share. Communications remains an important tool that travel businesses can use to calm worried staff, clients and partners and give them a real understanding of the actual travel-related risks.
We have drawn up a checklist of ten main points for the travel sector when it comes to communications:
Act now. It’s an obvious recommendation but everything else rests on what you do right now. Start strategic: create a plan of measures on the product level to reduce risk. Remember that all good PR depends on having real steps and measures in place.
Don’t be afraid to communicate with the world. It’s a natural human reaction in any crisis to work on damage and risk mitigation and leave the talk until later. But in 2020, that approach does not work: a company’s reputation and values are the key factor when choosing a service or product. And in the current information environment, brands need to speak loudly and clearly, otherwise their audience might not hear the message.
For example, last week tourism boards around the world were ignoring the pandemic and continuing to talk about the wonders of travel on their sites and social pages. The exceptions were Visit Britain, Visit Singapore and Visit Maldives, which launched special sections on their sites with vital information and hotline numbers to call.
The safety and comfort of clients is the top priority. The main topics of any communication should be the safety and comfort of clients, including attention to and respect of their desire to change or even cancel their trip. People should see that the company is worried about their welfare and not just trying to get money at any cost.
A great example is the email from KLM, which perfectly illustrated the airline’s desire to care for and protect customers, putting their needs first.
Internal communications are vital. Staff should be the starting point for all communications: explain the situation, what the company is doing to handle it and remind people of the main rules – how to protect their own health and that of customers. It would also be useful to remind people how to answer customers’ questions online and over the phone and also how to react to media enquiries, which are best left to the professionals.
Make a communications plan. Use the measures taken on the business level as the basis for a communications plan, which is the foundation for all interaction with the world. As an agency, we help businesses develop integrated communications plans, which include a whole host of elements: from channels and recommended formats and content (after all, the way we communicate on social media, in internal messages, comments for the media and so on is always very different) and tips on ongoing and planned campaigns through to FAQ, crisis statements, handbooks and training for staff. Ideally the outline of such a crisis plan should be ready in advance, which is also something we help clients with, so that it can be adapted later into a ready-made plan for the situation at hand. This helps save time, especially in today’s environment where it’s often a question of hours and there is often only a day or even just an evening to come up with a plan. Content also needs to be created quickly and with due attention paid to the specifics of each channel, be it an infographic on precautionary measures for Twitter or a video on measures taken by the company for Facebook and Instagram.
Openness and transparency. When the big decisions have been made, staff have been informed and the communications plan is drawn up, that’s when it’s time to take concrete steps. Make sure to communicate even the smallest steps taken to reduce risk and protect against the virus. A good example is the Italian Embassy in Moscow, which promised free one-year visas for everyone who cancels plans to visit the country. Qatar Airways adopted some of the most passenger-friendly ticket return policies and regularly communicates the measures it is taking on social media: for example, in an Instagram video, staff show how the onboard air filtration system works and how planes are disinfected after flights.
Clear and comprehensive phrasing. Make sure that everything you say is clear, transparent and understandable. Many major travel players repost long lists of rules from official bodies that often leave more questions than answers. People need to understand clearly how the situation affects them: what has been cancelled and what hasn’t, how they can get a refund and who they should contact with any questions. It’s always better to give more information, even if it isn’t directly related to the business. For example, airlines can communicate not just about flight cancellations but about changes to rules about entrance to certain countries to which they fly. Hotels could explain which events have been cancelled in the city, how quarantine rules work and which public services are open.
Review current activity plans. It’s also important to review any existing plans in light of the current situation. For example, it’s best to cancel any press tours and events, so as not to expose journalists to danger. Instead, take advantage of the latest tools (see the next point). It’s also good to check planned ad campaigns because often, particularly for digital, the process is automated. For example, even though France is under lockdown and there have been more than 500 new cases of coronavirus recorded in one day, some airlines are still offering flights to Paris and hotels are promoting romantic weekend breaks. This is not only a waste of money – it’s also bad for reputation.
One notable example is ITB Berlin, which the organizers decided to cancel just days before it was set to begin, given the huge number of participants and the fact the exhibition has been held regularly for more than half a century.
Remote forms of communication. Like any crisis, coronavirus is an opportunity to embrace new tools, particularly given that today’s technology allows us to stay in touch with journalists in every corner of the world. Online press conferences, VR presentations, mailouts of personalized boxes – in our experience, all of these tools help achieve the necessary effect without risking the health of journalists and bloggers.
Alternatives and looking to the future: Perhaps there are already alternatives that can bring in revenue. For example, hotels in remote locations, home delivery of meals or renting our conference rooms as remote offices and hotel rooms to those who wish to self-isolate. These could all help in a crisis. It’s also worth remembering that any epidemic will end sooner or later, so now is the time to start preparing potential clients for future travel: for example, by creating a list of 10 destinations to visit once the storm passes. One good example of this is “Visit Estonia… Later” on social media. The main idea of this fits nicely into one tweet: Please stay safe and stay home.