Dazed and Confused

Alright, alright, alright.

We get it. There are all kinds of people who want to flaunt their scorn of social distancing, masks, and other coronavirus-related restrictions.  Their videos and photos make for good social media fodder that spreads virally (pun intended).  They spark outrage and distrust of our fellow humans.

But I still believe most Americans want to do the right thing.  Yes, as a nation we’ve done a poor job of educating the citizenry about what that right thing is and why it’s important, hampered by a fragmented media, a complex message, and a lack of cohesive leadership.  Now America’s visitor economy begins its slow return and our destinations, restaurants, retailers, attractions, and accommodations start to welcome travelers again.  Those same Americans who want to do the right thing will leave their homes and travel to places that in some cases look very different from their own cities.

America is currently a patchwork quilt of different stages of reopening, rules, and regulations. It’s one thing for a traveler to know the limits of what they can and can’t do in their hometown.  It’s another thing for them to know what the current law of the land is two states away. Confusion will be the order of the day unless we take steps to help potential visitors understand what’s open and what’s expected of them as guests in our communities.

My home city of Asheville, North Carolina is just one example of Covid-19 confusion. The State of North Carolina has mandated one set of regulations in its reopening phases.  Buncombe County (where Asheville sits) has regulations that are slightly different and much tougher regarding masks (it’s generally mandatory to wear them in most indoor public places). To add to the befuddlement, a suburban neighbor of Asheville–the charming town of Weaverville–has opted out of Buncombe County’s mask requirements.  How’s a visitor from, say, Illinois supposed to keep up with all of that?

I’m not blaming local officials for the differences in restrictions.  That’s a different, complex issue.  And following local health guidelines is essential. But this is where destination marketing organizations and their partners must fill the information gap.  That gap includes everything from hours of operation to the status of dining options to mask requirements. It’s bewildering enough for residents, but at least they generally know their local sources of news and where to find information.  Tourism organizations and hospitality businesses have to step up their flow of easy-to-find, updated, reliable information and assume that, no, not everyone knows. Otherwise the confusion becomes just one more barrier for the industry to overcome.



The Hospitality Sector’s Next Big Challenge: Everyone Else’s Hospitality

One of the more insightful pieces of coronavirus-related tourism research I’ve read in the last few weeks comes courtesy of the folks at Destination Analysts,  as part of their ongoing surveys of American travelers about their intent to travel.  These findings are a couple of weeks old and while I’m sure the indicators continue to improve modestly, they should be a caution flag to anyone in the travel and tourism sector.

When travelers were asked April 24-26 about their level of agreement with the statement, “I do not want travelers coming to visit my community right now,” 64% of respondents said they agree or strongly agree.  This finding is an improvement from mid-April, but it’s still concerning that only about a third of Americans want visitors in their cities and towns, even while many of those same people increasingly want to travel themselves.  It’s a legitimate concern, of course.  And while the result may differ by region, demographic, a destination’s anticipated source of visitors, population density of the community, etc., it’s still something every destination marketing organization and their partners should be thinking about how to address.  You can have the best recovery marketing plan possible and still be met with community opposition.

Destination Analysts also asked the question, “How would you feel if you saw an advertisement today promoting your community as a place to come visit when it is safe?”  The results are better here–only 36% said they would be unhappy or very unhappy to see such an ad which, if we’re honest, may not be much different from many communities’ pre-pandemic sentiments.  But combined with the first result above, it’s another indication that not everyone in town is going to be happy about seeing visitors, even if they want the benefits they bring with them.

Time–and a continuing decline in deaths and hospitalizations–will help, but likely won’t be enough given expectations for a second wave of coronavirus at some point.

So what can you do?

  • Demonstrate empathy, for starters.  You’re as much a resident of your community as everyone else. You’re just as concerned about your own health and that of your neighbors, children, grandchildren, and parents.  Your progress in rebuilding your community’s visitor economy is dependent upon a successful reopening, even if achieved in phases over a long period of time.  You’re not going to jeopardize that deliberately.
  • Regularly communicate what you and your partners are doing to keep the community safe, via pre-visit communications, enhanced hotel room cleaning processes, the maintenance of social distancing at attractions, restaurants, and retailers, and other stringent procedures intended to protect both residents and visitors. It’s also important to dispel myths and stay on top of misperceptions.
  • Build trust with local officials.  Chances are, some of them think inviting visitors to your community is the worst possible thing right now. Be completely respectful of their decisions, but reach out to be a resource and provide accurate information.
  • Collaborate with other local organizations.  Tourism needs to make the tent as big as possible right now.  More than ever, this is no time to be an island.  James Meacham and his team at Visit Rowan County, NC are doing a nice job of preparing both the community and industry partners for a gradual reopening of Salisbury and other communities through activities like creating best practices for reopening and operations with the local chamber of commerce and economic development commission and then sharing them with partners and the public.
  • Be flexible and adapt accordingly. Every American community is regrettably still one mass outbreak away from returning to a complete lockdown.

Six Steps for Planning a Post-COVID Marketing Recovery

As a planning consultant who’s hired to offer counsel to my valued clients, it pains me to say this, but…

I don’t know any more than you or anyone else does about what the future looks like.  My crystal ball is hopelessly broken. As I said in my last blog post, we all need to be comfortable with ambiguity for a while.  Anyone who says otherwise is either pushing an agenda or is just naive.

But I think my advice below works for any significant shift in the external environment.  While we’ve never had to deal with a global pandemic like this one in our lifetimes (and hopefully never will again), this is a time-tested approach to adapting to marketplace shocks big or small.

I need to make one thing clear, however. Only you know when the time is right to begin the return to normal business in your community. Do nothing to endanger yourself, your employees, or your destination, and please abide by the most current guidelines offered by public health officials.

  1. Review pre-pandemic drivers of demand.  What audiences were delivering revenue before the pandemic?  What segments were the most profitable? What markets are dependent upon an attraction or a particular business being open and at full operation? And what markets are likely to be the most loyal to you?  Those consumers are probably the lowest-hanging fruit in assessing demand for a recovery period.
  2. Determine the likelihood of each driver to return and in what proportion.  What markets are still likely to be in lockdown even after a lockdown is relaxed?  For example, older consumers are likely to be among the last to venture out for anything beyond the purchase of basic supplies, healthcare, and other essential products and services.  What audiences will have the discretionary time and income available in a recessionary (at best) environment?  And what segments may be unprofitable (e.g. requiring deep discounts or incentives to lure back) for you to pursue at the start of a recovery period?
  3. Assess potential motivators for each driver. We don’t yet know what’s going to release any pent-up demand or stimulate new spending by consumers on dormant categories such as travel.  Some of the elements that need to be present to generate market demand may include the return and general acceptance of frequent air passenger travel; the reopening of a large corporate entity in your community to stimulate business travel spending; the availability of a critical mass of dine-in restaurants; or  a full lifting of all lockdown restrictions in the destination.  Every community and every market will be driven by different factors.
  4. Identify potential new markets.  Are there markets that weren’t significant contributors of revenue prior to the pandemic, but which may now be more attractive or feasible due to the seismic changes in the external environment?  One example is family reunions.  Once it’s safe to do so, many families may want to reconnect in places that are easy to reach and offer value and convenience.
  5. Audit messaging and media.  Imagery that may have been appealing before–large events, a party atmosphere, etc.–won’t resonate for many destinations in the new environment. Images of families enjoying time together, romantic getaways, or outdoor activities performed at appropriate distances are more likely to appeal to consumers.  What’s open and what’s still closed? Avoid the temptation to talk about how safe your community is or how few COVID-19 cases you’ve experienced. It could all change tomorrow. Carefully consider the best ways to reach your best audiences–old and new–in a media marketplace where consumer behavior and patterns of consumption have changed.
  6. Monitor, adapt, and proceed with caution.  Be prepared to adjust on the fly. There’s a lot we don’t know right now and the unexpected will become the expected. Plan to be flexible and build in escape ramps wherever possible for messaging, media, and target audience. Remember, too, that your mileage may vary.  Every community’s experience in the recovery period will be different, and what works for one destination won’t necessarily be appropriate for another.