As I write this, the travel industry is beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. The recovery will be likely tentative at first, and focus on staycations, drives, and short-haul trips. But there are so many dependencies—transmission rates, social-distancing regulations, border closures—that it’s impossible to make meaningful predictions. I’m curious to hear when you anticipate business returning, where your forward bookings are concentrated, and when you may start to bring employees back.
Meanwhile, in the here and now, things remain confusing. For every story about reopening there is another about the virus resurfacing. That makes it particularly challenging to communicate, both externally to consumers and internally to nurture company culture. These topics were on the agenda of a series of roundtable discussion with industry leaders that I’ve organized with Jack Ezon, Founder & Managing Partner of Embark Beyond, a New York–based travel advisory firm. I thought it would be helpful to share some of the insights I’ve learned from those sessions.
As I’ve said before, this is not the time to be silent. It is paramount for brands to continue communicating right now—to maintain awareness, establish trust and loyalty, and foster a sense of community. When travelers are ready to book again, you want your brand to be top-of-mind.
I’ve seen several studies indicating that consumers welcome brand communications right now. According to a Global Web Index study, consumers show strong approval for brands that are providing practical information and tips on dealing with the situation (85%); pledging money, aid, and supplies (83%); and running advertising that shows how they are responding to coronavirus or helping customers (79%).
Indeed, much of the best brand communications I’ve come across is content tailored to the lockdown era: wellness and cooking tips, virtual experiences, inspiration for future planning. I commend the brands that have done incredible work in this space, like Indagare’s Global Classroom series; Six Senses’ Facebook Live sessions with wellness experts; and Belmond’s “Care Packages” featuring everything from cocktail recipes to poetry readings and flower arranging lessons. There are many other examples: Travel + Leisure put together a terrific list of more than 100. Please send me some of your own favorites, as well as the work your brand has done.
(On a side note: We’ve gotten quite good, as an industry, at creating this type of content, and I suspect we’ll continue to do it long after the pandemic is over. Virtual experiences will never replace the real thing, of course, but the quality of these IGTV videos and live Q&A sessions is improving and consumers are growing accustomed to them. I predict that they will remain an effective way to establish brand authority and inspire real-world experiences.)
In addition to top-of-funnel, editorial-style content, it’s important to talk about what you are doing as a brand in real time: What are operations like now, and what should travelers expect when they come back? Transparency, immediacy, and grounded optimism are the key terms here. “It’s difficult for many clients to dream right now,” said Bobby Zur, Founder & Owner of Travel Artistry, a New Jersey–based Africa travel consultancy. “So it’s more about cultivating trust than calling to action. Focus on gathering knowledge and disseminating information.”
“How the operation of our industry is going to change is a huge subject, so we’re making sure we have very clear messaging about that,” said Ben Trodd, Senior Vice President of Sales & Hotel Marketing at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. “How are we establishing trust with all of our consumers? Trust means everything from all the changes we’ve made to cancellation and refund policies, but also trust in our sanitation and hygiene practices.”
The more specific you are about how operations will change, the better you’ll set expectations and earn customer confidence. For example, Vermejo, one of Ted Turner’s ranches in New Mexico, is sending out a detailed letter to both travel advisors and former guests, spelling out the adjustments they’ve made. Check-in will be touchless and handled in the room. Guests can text the front desk to reduce time in public areas. Each room will have a “rest period” of three days between stays, followed by a thorough cleaning and sterilization. They’ve added self-guided activities and private dining options.
AccorHotels found that 65% of its audience wanted to hear positive perspectives from their Brands, given the fact they stayed true to their values, according to Senior Vice-President Global Brand Management, Rick Harvey LAM. So it began with messaging about sanitary practices, followed by how their hotels have been contributing to their respective communities: opening up rooms to frontline medical staff, for example, and setting up an ALL HEARTIST €70 million fund to aid furloughed employees, amongst others affected by COVID-19.
And what about promotional messaging? It all depends on your particular audience and when they indicate their readiness for offers. At Seabourn, an internal survey revealed only a handful of those surveyed was bothered by receiving promotional emails, said Chris Austin, SVP Global Sales and Marketing, so it has continued to send appropriate communications and promotions albeit on a reduced cadence. But it’s critical to know what your audience wants and beware of one-size-fits-all solutions. “Everyone is in a different headspace right now,” said Misty Belles, Managing Director of Global Public Relations for Virtuoso. “People have different anxiety levels and risk tolerances.” The consortium has mostly pulled back on promotional marketing, but it has had success in markets where the coronavirus threat is receding. “In Australia, we’re seeing some cruise messaging work that we wouldn’t want to put into other markets yet.”
Consumers are not the only ones who need messaging right now. This is a critical time to communicate with employees and stakeholders to reinforce company culture. How are you keeping your salespeople engaged and optimistic? I know it’s not easy to keep a sunny outlook right now, but it’s important to keep team members motivated—even if they’ve been furloughed. After all, when you do reopen, you’ll need them operating at full speed.
“Leadership needs to offer a positive outlook for the future—no lies or misconceptions—but something positive,” said Cindy Novotny, Managing Partner of Master Connections, who trains many salespeople in the travel industry. “What is the plan? Even if it’s fluid and you don’t know, say so. Give your salespeople the tools to reach out to clients—clients want to hear from them but they don’t know what to say. Younger ones in particular have never been through anything like this in their life. If they don’t have faith in their company, the good ones are not going to stick around with an employer that didn’t support them—emotionally if not financially.
I found The Luxury Institute’s white paper on how business models will change post-COVID to be very insightful, particularly on the question of company culture: “Any brand, to execute its purpose, must first build a shared high moral purpose and values as guiding posts for all associates, internal and external, and live them daily. Human beings, even in a digital environment, must feel cared for and valued.”
“Social responsibility has to be a core business strategy,” agrees Radha Arora, President of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, which has raised $3 million, mostly from leadership, for a fund benefiting employees and communities. “We talk about relationship hospitality as a brand, but this is where the rubber hits the road. We talk about all these things in the good times, now we must uphold them in the bad times. When employees do come back, there will be so much more pride and trust—and the desire to extend your service will be so much stronger. And associates will need to be even more anticipatory of the needs of our clients and respectful of their fears during these trying times.”
How can a smaller organization reinforce culture? Encourage new ideas from across the team. Keep idled employees busy with all those projects you’ve been meaning to get done. Celebrate the small wins. And keep things human and genuine. Deborah Yager Fleming, CEO and Partner of Acqualina Resort in Miami, makes sure that employees know she’s accessible. “Even if I don’t know all the answers, I tell them what I do know. Transparency is our cornerstone.” She’s continued to acknowledge team members’ celebratory moments, like new babies and work anniversaries. And she is providing support to employees—wellness checks, educational resources, volunteer opportunities—even to those on furlough. “People want to see us in a more humanistic role,” she says.
We know from other crises that recovery does come. How are you positioning your brand and marketing campaigns to prepare for it? I would love to hear how you are planning to engage your customers and retain their loyalty, as well as how you are keeping your employees engaged and motivated right now. Let’s keep the conversation going!