How is Business Shaping Up for 2016?......Snapshot 3
Snapshot 3: Finding a Way Out of Trouble - What Can you Do?
“The best way to predict your future is to create it ”.
- Abraham Lincoln
In ‘How is Business Shaping Up for 2016?’ Snapshots 1 and 2, I reported on what I had picked up at recent trade fairs from a variety of sources about prospects for travel in 2016. This was dominated by issues depressing travel to certain destinations, primarily as a result of fears about personal safety, mostly related to terrorism.
In this final Snapshot, I want to shine a more positive light on the future, by demonstrating there is light at the end of the tunnel and suggest a way forward, particularly for destinations experiencing fear-induced decline.
There may be no silver bullet, but there are steps destinations can take to minimise the damage and accelerate recovery.
Acknowledge the Problem
Firstly, acknowledging a problem is widely recognised as an essential first step towards solving it. This might seem obvious. But it is surprising how often destinations, in an understandable effort to stem further decline, appear to go into denial about the problem they face. It is important to understand that acknowledging you have a problem need not result in exacerbating it. In the 24/7 digital world there is no hiding place; the truth will always out. But the risk is that rumour will travel even faster if there is no effective plan to address the problem. And rumour is almost always the enemy of truth, and all the harder to dispel once it has got legs.
Make a Plan
So, what can destinations do that are suffering from a drop in visitors as a result of safety fears? The following 10-step plan outlines the main actions destinations should consider, in order to minimise damage to their tourism economy and begin the path to recovery.
1. Define the Problem
Acknowledge the nature and size of the problem and develop a plan to address it. Be sure you have properly analysed the problem and considered the right solutions.
For instance, there is no point in continuing to run a high profile ‘visit us’ marketing campaign if what people want to hear is whether any hotels have reopened after a tsunami. Equally, official pronouncements (usually from the tourism minister or NTO) that a destination is safe, when foreign embassies are still issuing travel advisories, is not credible. Timing is everything.
2. Recognise Reality
Travellers’ perceptions of risk are often far greater than the reality. They also usually linger in the minds of potential visitors long after the problem has been solved – the crisis-reality perception lag.
Identify the gap between potential visitors’ perceptions of your destination and the reality on the ground; then decide what messages you need to convey to your key markets to bridge this gap.
This will give you a solid platform from which to develop solutions. Usually they will be communications solutions; but sometimes you may have to address product deficiencies before embarking on a communications campaign.
There’s no time like a crisis to inspire collaboration. Most significantly, crises can bring organisations together who might never normally talk to each other or think they had anything in common – from well beyond the tourism sector (e.g. food, drink, sports entertainment, industry, inward investment et al.)
But the most likely bedfellows are likely to be the key players in the inbound tourism industry: NTOs, DMOs, airlines and inbound tourism operators.
A priority should be to seek cooperation in terms of conveying consistent messages about the destination, hosting journalists, bloggers et al, joint PR and marketing campaigns, and co-creation of imaginative initiatives in response to the crisis.
4. Develop a Plan
Develop a plan together with the NTO, DMOs, and the tourism industry to map out the way forward.
Most essential is to allocate roles and be clear about who does what (and particularly what the ministry, NTO or DMO doesn’t do).
5. Focus on Resilient Markets
Resilient markets are likely to lie in neighbouring countries and countries closer to home, whose perspective on risk in your destination is more balanced than in more distant markets. Also, people who have visited in the past and adventurous/active travellers are likely to react less dramatically to crises and therefore be amongst the quickest to return.
6. PR/Media Relations
PR is one of the most valuable, effective, and affordable tools to update potential travellers on what’s happening, what’s hot, and why to travel. And, because the views expressed are those of independent writers and bloggers, PR is also generally far more credible than NTO-funded marketing messages.
Keywords reflecting important principles in a crisis are ‘normal’, ‘fast’, and ‘honest’:
Focus on stories that show how normal things are in your destination: how normal life goes on; how tourist attractions and sites are open and receiving visitors; how normal service continues for visitors etc.
React swiftly to any further incidents or rumours that threaten to undermine recovery, especially in terms of clear messages about the facts of the situation.
Remember, if you don’t provide the facts, others will fill the gap with rumour; and that is almost invariably destructive. In a24/7 digital world, you can’t operate on a 9-5 basis; you need to be vigilant 24/7. You can’t wait until the boss gets back from holiday or Joe finishes his meeting.
This requires a protocol-busting ‘access-all-areas’ ‘backstage pass’, whereby key people are authorised to interrupt any meeting or contact anyone anywhere at any time of day or night, when new developments in a crisis warrant it in the interest of stemming further damage. Slavishly following the normal protocol of a hierarchical structure will not only waste time, but it will also allow rumour to breed.
All too often NTOs and ministries of tourism, in their desire to accelerate recovery, pump out promotional rather than factual messages aimed at reassuring potential visitors. But, in the early stages of recovery, people generally need reassurance on facts, rather than promotional messages.
Honesty is paramount. Digital commentators will soon see through any partial truth or promotional gloss.
Credibility can be destroyed for months by one well-meaning but ill-timed “we’re all safe now” statement, if it’s not entirely true and demonstrably credible (viz. recent statements by foreign ministers of a couple of troubled countries, when travel advisories by the US, UK and other governments were still stressing a heightened risk of terrorism.) How can they expect their future statements to be treated with anything other than a healthy dose of scepticism or, more likely, sheer disbelief and disdain?
7. Align Messages
Make sure everyone in the inbound tourism industry is singing the same song. They need to be communicating the same factual story about the situation and, ideally, projecting the same brand image and messages about the country.
This means establishing a wide and deep communications network with the entire inbound tourism industry. It also means establishing a recognised leader (e.g. NTO, tourism minister), to whom the industry looks in times of crisis for communications leadership.
The converse of this is a patchwork of mixed messages from the industry about the situation in the destination, which will delay recovery by sowing confusion in the marketplace.
8. Use Social Media to Recruit Digital Advocates
Generate and disseminate useful, frequent, positive stories and inspiring content on a regular basis.
Use your social media networks and provide platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, Flickr et al) for people to repost, share and comment on your destination. Most comments and reports will be positive. But, more importantly, allowing people to ‘inter-communicate’ will create an army of digital advocates you couldn’t hope to buy.
Obvious as this may be, it’s still surprising how many NTOs, particularly in developing destinations, shy away from exploiting the power of social media, because they are afraid of being unable to control the agenda: user-generated content is considered as acceptable as a whale steak in the Greenpeace canteen. Sometimes it’s hard culturally for a country with a less liberal, command-and-control regime to come to terms with the extent of empowerment digital permits. Nevertheless, they will ultimately be the only losers. In some countries, where this stems from an embedded cultural antipathy to unfettered freedom of comment, this may take a generation to change.
9. Run Trade Fam Trips
Bring tour operators and travel agents to your destination to see for themselves how normal everything is, so they can reassure their clients and, more crucially, ensure they retain your destination in their programme. (e.g. Greece has recently run fam trips to Lesbos to reassure the international travel trade that the island is still open and operating normally in spite of the volume of refugees the island is hosting.)
10. Host Journalists, Bloggers, Instagrammers et al.
Similarly, invite as many targeted journalists, bloggers, instagrammers et al, who will be able to write credibly about normal life and reassure potential travellers about the reality in your destination.
11. Plan for the Future
Ideally of course, this should all be second nature, as the NTO, DMO, ministry and others should all have a crisis plan, underpinned by good relationships with key players in the tourism sector.
This is about being business-fit. But we don’t live in an ideal world – many destinations have no up-to-date crisis plan. If there is no crisis plan, inventing a plan on the hoof is the hardest thing to do in the eye of the storm.
Finally, like any good athlete, don’t forget to ‘warm down’ after it’s over: update your crisis plan by incorporating lessons learnt from the last crisis.
In summary, keep calm, collaborate and communicate........quickly, clearly, honestly and often; and plan for the next crisis in the full knowledge it’s not ‘if it happens’, but ‘when it happens’.