With over one billion people traveling internationally each year and with one out of every 11 jobs supported by tourism, the industry is arguably one of the most complex and far-reaching economic and social ecosystems in the world. Therefore, national and international crises can have huge negative economic consequences, as tourism is especially vulnerable to disasters – both manmade and natural – and, being a fragmented industry, can be subject to miscommunication and misleading perceptions. Destinations being extremely vulnerable to public perceptions of health and safety puts DMOs in the center of the storm, collecting and disseminating knowledge and communicating swiftly though effective response, recovery, and resilience strategies.
The recent Ebola virus outbreak has reminded us how quickly external factors can affect the industry and the global economy. So far, travel demand in the U.S. has remained relatively unaffected. "We don't see this affecting the global or U.S. travel and tourism numbers," said Max Rayner, a partner at Hudson Crossing travel consultancy, “as long as the disease is contained.” However, as media coverage continues to escalate and preventative measures such as airport screening are put in place, adverse impacts to travel behavior in general may soon follow.
The scenario for fellow destinations in Africa is much more grim. “Many travelers see Africa as one big country,” Paz Casal, a Spain-based travel and tourism research analyst at Euromonitor said. “Ebola can damage Africa’s economic revival of recent years, resurfacing the continent’s negative stereotypes as a place of disease, famine and poverty.” That would put the brakes on a tourism industry the World Bank says grew at the fastest pace globally over the past three years.
Health concerns are not the only external factors that can damage public perception of destination. Political turmoil in Egypt resulted in a prolonged near-shutdown of Egypt’s tourism sector that is only now showing signs of revival. Last year Super Typhoon Haiyan had tremendously damaging effects on tourism in the Philippines.
Having a crisis management plan in place is crucial to minimizing the potential damages inflicted. Below are some best practices to keep in mind.
I. Crisis Communications
Good crisis communication planning may be one of the best investments you ever make. No other activity in the initial hours, days and weeks of a crisis has the potential to mitigate its effects so significantly. It helps limit the negative impact of a crisis by addressing the information needs of all industry stakeholders in an efficient, timely and responsible manner. The UNWTO has developed a Toolbox for Crisis Communications in Tourism which includes step-by-step protocols, checklists, sample templates configured by type of crisis and media categories, guidelines for measuring effectiveness, best practices and a special chapter fully dedicated to the use of social media in times of crisis.
II. Social Media
Social media have proven their value to many destinations, not only to promote some of the world’s most popular tourism campaigns, but also as a powerful tool in their toolbox when mobilizing relief efforts and corroborating stories from the ground during a crisis. Surprisingly few destinations, however, have included social media into their strategic communication frameworks – even those that have sophisticated crisis management protocols in place. In the digital world everything happens in a lightning speed, people demand hyper-transparency, and dialogue is as important as message delivery. Silence is not an option. DMOs will need to carefully incorporate social media into their crisis management plans and make sure that they have appropriate and sufficient resources for this purpose. For some examples of effective social media crisis communications, click here.
III. Stakeholder Relationships
Relationships with public and private stakeholders are particularly important during a crisis. Last week the U.S. Travel Association held a briefing call to update their membership on the implications for travel in the United States. This is a great example of gathering internal and external stakeholders to discuss solutions and ensure a cohesive message is put forth.
It’s also important for stakeholders to have a sound understanding of the tourism value chain, and for DMOs to have a seat at the table when discussing crisis management. For example, when airlines began cancelling flights to West Africa, it wasn’t just halting tourism. It also meant that multinational companies operating in these regions were losing access to staff and supplies, causing significant damaging effects to economies.
IV. Lean On Each Other
In principle, DMOs are competitors to one another. Yet even the most casual observer senses the spirit of camaraderie, openness, and cooperation whenever leaders in our industry get together. Following the damage from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the Tourism Promotions Board Philippines reached out to New Orleans tourism officials to learn from their experience in successfully rebuilding New Orleans tourism industry after Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. New Orleans CVB Executive Vice President Brad Weaber, CMP and Vice President of Communications and Public Relations Kelly Schulz traveled to the Philippines to meet with tourism stakeholders to share best practices and recommendations for bringing back tourism and conventions.
Many destinations have dealt with previous disasters or have gone through the process of creating a crisis communication plan. Every DMAP accredited DMO has developed a crisis communication plan in order to meet accreditation standards. These industry leaders are an invaluable resource to lean on.