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 take care of their employees and customers. As the COVID-19 outbreak affects dozens of countries, it’s an appropriate time to offer advice on how to handle an industry crisis.
1. Protect Your Employees, Guests and Brand
Brands have a responsibility to ensure life 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 COVID-19 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 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 obviously not an expectation, but it would be gross error to describe what was done from a life safety perspective without honoring them.
2. 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 identifying the team or individual who will be the central communicator.
Additionally, a clear process for internal communication is key. Facebook groups are good for check-ins, and it’s important to have access to cell phone numbers and email addresses for all associates and 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 media due to lack of information.
Most importantly, do not hide from the media. They have a job to do and are providing news to their readers and viewers. Best practice is to prepare a statement and answer questions — even if just in writing. Being proactive with employees, consumers and the media gives businesses a chance to tell the story from their perspective.
3. Listen to Customers
It’s important to provide information and 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 important information as next moves are considered to recover lost business momentum.
4. 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 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.
5. 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 George W. Bush, telling them it was OK.
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 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 COVID-19, history tells us that the impact on the travel industry will extend for many months. 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 important 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. C&IT
Deborah S. Fell is a Chief Outsiders CMO and results-generating, strategic marketing and growth executive based in Washington, D.C. She helps large and small B2B and B2C organizations clarify positioning, turn around mature brands and create critical foundations for new brands to drive revenue and share. With a passion for listening to the customer and leveraging insights, market analysis, experience and instincts, she helps clients sharpen strategies and gain traction on a new roadmap for growth. Visit chiefoutsiders.com.