The pandemic’s not over, so how should we talk about it? Why innovative messaging is so critical to engage your customer.

This must be what Purgatory feels like. One year after the first lockdowns, travel is still stuck in the in-between: much better than the catastrophe of 2020, but not quite ready to celebrate yet. For every reason to be hopeful — an uptick in bookings, progress with vaccinations, talks about global health passports — there is a reason for continued caution. As of this writing, about 18% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose and just shy of 10% have had both. With progress this gradual, many consumers are still hesitant to make plans.

Those sentiments were a theme at an industry roundtable I co-hosted last month with Jack Ezon, Founder and Managing Partner of Embark Beyond. Many of the travel executives in attendance shared a mix of positive and negative results, and a general sense of being in limbo.

It’s one thing to express those feelings in a closed Zoom call. But what’s the best way to speak to customers now, when you’re unsure about their own state of mind?

That subject came up at the roundtable, and we benefited from the sage advice of three of our industry’s most experienced communicators: Jacqui Gifford, Editor in Chief of Travel + Leisure; Laura Davidson, Founder & President of Laura Davidson Public Relations, and Misty Belles, Managing Director, Global Public Relations at Virtuoso. “It’s hard to go out with one clear message — people are in a different headspace depending on where they are in the world, and it varies by country, by state, by county,” said Belles. “The key is messaging that adapts to the news cycle, to the geographic region, to where cases are spiking. We have to be nimble and get used to the uncertainty.”

Here are a few other pointers to keep in mind about messaging in our current state.

Provide inspiration — with caveats. 

  • Now is the time to drive desire and nudge customers toward bookings. But keep in mind that not everyone is ready to make a deposit. Strike a balance to avoid sounding tone-deaf. “When it comes to messaging, sometimes less is more,” said Gifford. “Play up the emotion and deliver what your brand does best.”
  • At the same time, it is important to demonstrate to your customers (and staff) that your business is “ready when they are ready.” The decision to book is in the customer’s hands, and they will return to the fold gradually, at their own pace. Too aggressive a pitch risks alienating those who are still very anxious.
  • Keep things positive by focusing on future journeys that customers can start dreaming about now. “Bucket list trips, family reunions, celebration travel, new hotel openings, wellness tourism — these are all things we are talking about now,” said Davidson. Virtuoso is pushing its “Wanderlist,” where clients can research and record their most-dreamed-about experiences, which can be booked later.

Know your audience.

  • Communication goes both ways, so listen to what your customers are telling you. If you have the means, conduct a survey to better understand how they are feeling, and tailor the message to fit. For the roundtable, we commissioned a survey of U.S. travel advisors from Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group. Among his findings: A strong demand for last-minute trips reflects an eagerness and agility to travel. Uncrowded places like beaches, mountains, and spas are leading Spring/Summer 2021 bookings. And consumers are most interested in “Escape From It All” travel and family travel.
  • Identify the early adopters so you can message more aggressively to them. Davidson cited a recent New York Times article that pointed to Americans over 65 as more likely to have received a vaccine and therefore leading the way on bookings. An article in Bloomberg Pursuits identified African safaris, Antarctic cruises, and destinations with high vaccination rates (like Israel) as popular among early bookers.

Be a source of information.

  • Clients are asking more questions than ever and expecting detailed answers. So be prepared. Make sure you and your staff are up on the latest from public health authorities such as the CDC. But also turn to your boots on the ground (such as DMC partners and hotel concierges) to give customers a sense of what a visit would really be like. Gifford has dispatched Travel + Leisure’s correspondents to help paint a picture of what traveling looks like right now, from mask-wearing to restaurant openings and closings.
  • Take this opportunity to lead the conversation — as a way to build confidence. “We as an industry have been fairly muted on things like testing requirements,” said Bobby Zur, Founder of Travel Artistry. “No one wants to lead with that stuff, but it’s an opportunity to talk about things that are holding people back. Do it well and you’ll make them feel more confident and comfortable about traveling.”
  • If your hotel offers on-site testing, or you are testing all of your staff regularly, shout it from the rooftops. Davidson cited the COVID page of The Lodge at Woodloch, a resort in Pennsylvania, titled “A New Age of Precaution.” “I read it and knew that they would take care of me no matter what questions I have,” she said.
  • Don’t worry that things might change. “Our readers understand that the ground may shift, and that uncertainty is part of the new normal,” said Gifford. You don’t have to be definitive as long as you keep your clients informed.

Now is the time to innovate.

  • We may come out of this situation later in the year, but we will never go back to “the way it was.” We must move beyond thinking about commission, room rates, and planning fees and consider new models of engaging with customers. Innovation is about new ways of working, not just tweaks to business models. Take these next few months to think about how you can improve your relationship with clients. Innovation, however you interpret it, will be the key to success.
  • One example: Reframe how you speak about your own product. This is a time for destinations to shine in new ways. Davidson brought up that Abercrombie & Kent is now selling Egypt as the “world’s largest open-air museum.” Another LDPR client, Scotland, is unable to welcome foreign visitors, so it is promoting a new Starz series called Men in Kilts. “If I can’t go to Scotland right now, I’m happy to look at it on TV every week,” she said. “Just about every destination can find a movie or TV show that can help inspire travel.”
  • Think about creative ways to supply luxury services to your clients in the short term. Davidson’s client Ocean House in Rhode Island opened a “fondue village” for outdoor dining and marketed it as an alternative way to have an Alpine après-ski experience without flying to Switzerland.

Don’t forget your own people.

  • Employees, consultants, and partners need inspiration as well — they have been through a very difficult year, and it may not be over anytime soon. Those on the front lines can help gauge customer sentiment and shape the messaging to fit. Encourage them to help with innovation and communication. And they themselves must express enthusiasm and optimism that will rub off on both consumers and partners. Remember that a happy and inspired staff are your best ambassadors.

In the end, there is not a single, clear solution to the troubles the travel industry still faces. We must be agile and adaptable, thinking on our feet and drawing outside the lines. There is much we cannot control — vaccination rates, new variants — so instead let’s focus on what we can. Strong and empathetic communication that meets the moment can itself restore confidence and optimism. And that, in turn, can help move us closer to recovery.

How are you shaping your messaging to fit the current reality? Have you seen any great examples you admire? Please respond and let me know — let’s keep the conversation going!