As the coronavirus outbreak surpasses 100,000+ in dozens of countries, it’s an appropriate time to offer advice on how to handle the travel industry crisis.
“Silence is not golden when it comes to crisis management. Develop an internal and external communications plan to keep associates informed and stay in touch with loyal customers.”
– Deborah S. Fell
Travel isn’t always a bed of roses. There are natural disasters, tainted products, bad actors, data breaches, regional and global viruses, and events big and small that require industries to step up, speak up, and do whatever it takes to care for their employees and customers.
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Protect Your Employees, Guests, and Brand
Brands have a responsibility to ensure the safety for associates and guests. Government safety regulations vary around the world, but standards, processes, communications, and training can save lives and reputations. This is especially apparent with the impact of the coronavirus on international travel.
An aesthetically pleasing environment will never be able to substitute for a reinforced building structure, visible exits, immediate mitigation, transparent communications, or an effective emergency response plan.
For example, Marriott’s leadership puts safety and people first. They have rigorously committed to protecting associates and guests around the world. Most notably, during the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, hotel staff members worked alongside numerous firefighters to evacuate guests from the World Trade Center Marriott. Tragically, two lost their lives when the remaining portion of the building collapsed.
What they sacrificed was not an expectation, but it would be a gross error to describe what was done from a life safety perspective without honoring them.
Develop a Communications Plan
Silence is not golden when it comes to crisis management. Develop an internal and external communications plan to keep associates informed and stay in touch with loyal customers.
Global brands must have a response team identified, business continuity plans in place, and a crisis communications team and agency. Individual and small groups of hotels can also benefit from recognizing the organization or an individual who will be the central communicator.
Additionally, a transparent process for internal communication is vital. Facebook groups are good for check-ins, and it’s crucial to have access to cell phone numbers and email addresses for all associates, as well as family members.
Depending on the crisis, regular updates may be necessary to make sure company messages are getting out, as opposed to risking rumors or speculation by the press due to lack of information.
Most importantly, do not hide from the press. They have a job to do and are providing news to their readers and viewers. The best practice is to prepare a statement, answer questions (even if just in writing). Sometimes you are the story, and sometimes you become the story. Being proactive with employees, consumers, and the media gives businesses a chance to tell the story from their perspective.
Listen to Customers
It’s essential to provide information as well as listen to what customers think. Find information on social media and ask employees to share what they are hearing from customers. Depending on business impact, adding short surveys to communication updates can give a pulse on what people are thinking and provide valuable information as the next moves are considered to recover lost business momentum.
Collaborate with Competition
Pay attention to competitors who have also been impacted. Don’t be afraid to collaborate with them. It may take everyone’s effort to rebuild and restore reputation.
Sometimes the entire industry needs to work together to recover. For example, hurricanes are not generally selective when they hit a major tourist destination. Working together to get the island up and running again, sharing contractors, relocating guests or employees for a period of time, or just communicating with competitors can help.
The Chamber of Commerce and Ministry of Tourism often work to pull everyone together to develop action plans, and at times, provide funding to generate new business and restore momentum. Don’t wait to get involved with local tourism or economic organizations.
Rebuild Customer Confidence and Business Momentum
“When is it time to start marketing again?” was the question asked after September 11. Most advocated waiting; however, Marriott International took a different approach.
The company took on an industry-wide effort through the Travel Industry Association of America. Bill Marriott played the lead role in encouraging companies from across the travel industry to create an ad campaign encouraging business and leisure travelers to hit the road again. It was an industry-wide effort—cruise ships, airlines, hotels— along with President Bush, telling them it was okay.
Meanwhile, the internal Marriott team debated whether company advertising should resume. Consumer feedback indicated the company could market right away, provided the message was light, and had a valuable offering. “Come Out and Play” was launched portfolio-wide encouraging families to plan time away together over a weekend of fun. This helped to increase traffic and room night hotels, which also meant front-line team members could return to work at a time when rebuilding the business was crucial.
Process and training, resource identification, and tactical plans are the basic advance planning requirements to help minimize personal and brand risk in challenging times, which will inevitably occur.
Once a crisis emerges, such as the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, history tells us that the impact on the travel industry will extend many months beyond the peak. Identifying ways to continue to operate and provide a customer experience should be a key focus. For instance, if the hotel’s occupancy has tanked, close off several floors so that you can be both operationally efficient and provide an upgraded guest experience for those choosing to stay in your hotel.
If the airplane has more open seats than full, provide instant upgrades if load balancing allows. “This too will pass,” as the saying goes, so it’s essential always to maintain focus on the consumer experience.
Lastly, keep in mind employees are watching what management does as much as consumers are. Crisis times are when company values and CEO integrity and leadership are put to the test. Don’t fail.
Deborah Fell is Partner & CMO with Chief Outsiders, the nation’s fastest-growing fractional CMO firm. She works with companies to develop and implement strategies that accelerate growth and with Marriott International during the 9/11 tragedy and aftermath.
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