While every industry has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, maybe none has suffered as much as tourism. Destinations and PR practitioners in the U.S. have scrambled since restrictions were implemented in the spring to balance maintaining brand position and reputation with the ethics of promoting travel amid a global health crisis. For an industry built around encouraging people to experience destinations in person, 2020 was a challenging year to say the least.
For agencies like ours, with significant tourism portfolios, the past year has required a nimble and open-minded approach. And with predictions of a full tourism industry recovery still unclear, we expect to operate in crisis mode for quite some time. To help our peers make it through a time period that is sure to make it into the history books, a few tips:
1. Drive forward in new directions.
When lockdowns were implemented and many destinations were essentially closed overnight, our role as tourism PR pros was halted. Our clients couldn’t welcome visitors, and we couldn’t encourage them to travel. Instead of stopping work and potentially losing income, our teams shifted to direct efforts where we could make a difference, assisting with things like crisis communication and content development. We also had to get creative with storytelling, really leveraging the “dreaming” phase of travel planning and inspiring people to think about (and interact with) destinations from afar. This included coaching partners on and spreading the news about everything from virtual experiences to place-specific gifts and more.
2. Follow the industry (like a hawk).
Destinations engage PR agencies not just for quick-hit publicity, but also for strategic counsel that can make or break a program. During a time when travel restrictions are changing by the minute and vary from location to location, and also when public perception is just as important, our clients look to us for help in digesting it all and recommending the right path. In order to do this effectively, it was vital to diligently follow the news—at both the consumer and industry levels—and to keep a close eye on consumer sentiment surveys that give a valuable glimpse into what real people are thinking and feeling.
Our teams also leveraged strong media relationships to get an insiders’ view on how the landscape was evolving, and what was of most interest to those covering travel in some capacity. These are tools that helped us relay to destination clients if it was appropriate to move forward with things like road trips and outdoor attraction promotion when travel restrictions started to loosen.
3. Plan for inevitable recovery.
Like many other agencies, we ended 2019 on a high note and with a strong tourism client roster and an active pipeline of new business opportunities. Leisure and business travel was stronger than ever, and that was reflected in the tourism PR business, with many destinations pursuing new domestic and international visitor markets, unlocking additional budgets, and becoming more and more open to creative tactics and activations to push the envelope in the industry. Obviously the pandemic slowed down a lot of that momentum, but we have found ways to remain resilient despite uncertainty.
At all times, but especially when new tourism RFPs are in a holding pattern, focus on cultivating existing relationships and maintaining excellence. These relationships matter now, more than ever.
The unfortunate downside of pandemic was felt in many ways including countless agency relationships being severed due to budget realities. We’re bracing for an intense wave of new opportunities as the industry moves closer to recovery and pent-up demand for travel begins to release.
Marty McDonald is an executive vice president and leads the tourism practice group at Fahlgren Mortine.