Crisis Preparedness: Your Roadmap to Response

July 10, 2019

When a crisis strikes, no one should be scrambling because your action plan should already be mapped out and ready to deploy.

As history has shown us time and again, the most common crises to impact tourism include: natural disasters; manmade disasters; crime; accidents; acts of terrorism; and public health issues. As we’re seeing now in the Dominican Republic, a spate of tourist deaths and emerging reports of illness are continuing to unfold and dominate the news cycle. While the circumstances around many of these deaths are now being investigated, a lot of damage has already been done in a nation where a fifth of the economy depends on tourism.

To understand the steps needed to manage a crisis from a public relations perspective, it helps to look back to similar situations.

In 2017, tourism in Los Cabos, Mexico, took a major hit when the region saw a reported 200 percent increase in violent crimes, including a rash of homicides. While much of the crime involved local residents, events took another alarming turn when armed men opened fire on the popular Palmilla beach – killing three people and scattering tourists and locals in a panic.

In a swift response our public relations practice NJF created strategic recommendations to take control of the narrative among media and trade, and to position Los Cabos and its tourist offerings in a positive light. While officials in Los Cabos implemented a $50 million five-point plan to overhaul its security and training protocols, NJF secured an impressive amount of travel, lifestyle and luxury travel coverage, landing Los Cabos in The New York Times 52 Places to Go in 2018 to help continue to change the narrative. By 2018, crime had been reduced by 90 percent and tourism numbers increased by 8.6 percent. As the agency of record for Los Cabos, MMGY continues to engage with key stakeholders and members of the travel trade to promote the destination’s unique offerings and to guide its steady growth.

While managing the narrative is an important long-term goal, the immediate response to a crisis can make or break a destination’s ability to rebound in a sustainable way.

Establish a unified message.

The first step is to identify a high-level point person who can answer the who, what, when, where, why and how in response to a crisis. However, every stakeholder – including hotels and tour operators – must be armed with facts and know where to direct queries. That includes updating both consumer- and industry-facing websites with the latest details and contacts – and placing it front and center. Additional information resources should include a phone hotline, social media hashtag and an app to centralize queries.

Reposition any deviating messages.

In the face of a crisis, social media posts and press releases about unrelated topics appear tone deaf. Every stakeholder that touches the destination, down to the person who schedules your social media posts, needs to be informed and up to date. Depending on the nature and length of the crisis, the tone of the social media posts and other marketing communications should provide the facts and be sensitive to the situation, rather than relaying promotional messages.

Transparency, transparency, transparency.

Even if the answer is, “We don’t know the answers yet,” or “nothing has changed since our last update,” that’s better than staying quiet (or invoking the fake news approach). If you start the conversation by acknowledging that you’re pursuing a solution, it’s that much easier to deliver the solution in a trusted, effective way.

Embrace sympathy.

Displaying a lack of compassion and rejecting the issue will only stoke more questions and fuel misinformation. Protecting the safety and security of your guests should be the number-one priority of every destination, and in a crisis it’s essential to establish and reiterate that message, as well as to demonstrate compassion for all those affected and their loved ones.

Take immediate ownership of the situation.

There’s no point in isolating blame, even if an event happens in a single attraction, hotel or with a transportation provider. If it comes to light that this was, in fact, an isolated case, that can become part of your larger narrative, but it shouldn’t be the immediate response.

Face time means more than press conferences.

Depending on the situation, and especially for situations that may continue to unfold over time, as soon as possible, deploy your highest-level officials (minister of tourism, hotel GMs, etc.) to key markets for deskside meetings and events. Additional support through webinars, phone calls and email updates are also important, but the most reassuring and effective messages are delivered in person.

Don’t overlook the trade.

While it’s tempting to try to manage the narrative through journalists, bloggers and influencers, the travel trade can be your best short- and long-term advocates. According to MMGY Global’s research, one of the top reasons for engaging an advisor is their ability to provide an extra level of service when things go wrong (85%), tied with their knowledge of a destination. Arming the travel trade with the latest information and hosting FAM trips to give them a firsthand look at the progress can tip the scales between them recommending a destination or diverting business to a different location altogether.

Consider the entire purchasing funnel.

In the wake of a crisis, you need to capture the attention of your audience throughout all stages of the purchase funnel, and consider the most relevant message to share at each. The channels you choose depend on your target audiences. For example, social media advertising is far more likely to influence Millennials and Gen Xers (each 23%) than Boomers (16%) at the top of the funnel, the inspiration stage of vacation planning. By the booking stage, that influence drops dramatically to 7% for Millennials, and to 3% for both Gen Xers and Boomers.

Not all crises are built the same.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, it’s common practice to provide deep discounts or a “weather guarantee” to entice travelers to return. But when fear is driving decisions – be it after a health crisis, a spate of crime or a terrorist event – people won’t be swayed by the promise of saving money.

In this context, it’s worth looking at another instance of deep discounting: when the world “went on sale” during the economic crisis. Heavy discounting and promotional offers made travel appealing again, but it came at a steep cost and diminished pricing power considerably. Only in recent years have suppliers truly recovered from the economic impact of 2008, indicating that perceived “recovery” doesn’t imply it was necessarily good for the travel business.

Remember that American travelers are resilient.

As we’ve analyzed from terror attacks in Europe to SARS in Asia, a crisis will trigger short-term book-around behavior – meaning people are still willing to travel, but they’ll choose another destination. If history is any guide, with exceptions, most destinations rebound quickly. (For what it’s worth, spending on transportation, accommodations and dining tend to rise faster than discretionary spending such as entertainment and shopping.) But the crisis situation itself is less likely to impact travel than a lingering perception that the problems have not been addressed.

Who do you hire?

If your crisis management plan isn’t already in place and ready to activate, it’s critical to engage experts who already understand your space. As experts in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries, we have managed crises ranging from crime in Mexico, hurricanes in the Caribbean and red tide in Florida to plane crashes, health epidemics and suicides at hotel properties. Having a deep understanding of the travel landscape, a Rolodex of journalist and trade contacts, and boots on the ground around the globe, we are at the ready to provide expert advice, strategic planning and 24/7 support to assist in a crisis situation and the recovery efforts.