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Destination Marketing in Times of Crisis

Every destination would like to avoid needing a crisis plan, but let’s be realistic. A hurricane makes landfall, an earthquake hits, a political uprising takes over – we can’t all plan for the future. A destination marketing campaign is often disrupted by forces beyond your control, but how you respond is entirely your decision.

If you’re anything like most travel destinations in the U.S., you may find yourself putting off developing a crisis plan for as long as possible. Then, suddenly, you realize that a crisis plan is more important than you thought, generally at the most critical moment. Caught unprepared, you then must scramble to formalize a plan.

To avoid the chaos brought on by a crisis, it’s imperative that destination organizations already have a plan in place. It’s not a matter of if it will be used, but rather a matter of when you will need to put your crisis communication plan into action.

The public relations aspects of a crisis are some of the most essential when a crisis does hit. While the proper authorities will generally handle the situation itself, it’s important for destination marketing organizations to be prepared to shepherd your tourism industry partners, current visitors and prospects, and the meeting planners and travel trade who influence purchasing decisions, through turbulent times.

1. Plan a Crisis Communication Plan for Your Destination Marketing Campaign

When a crisis or disaster hits, you need a clear list of what organizations and individuals within your destination should be contacted – both as sources of information and as receivers of information.

Make sure you have an up-to-date database of:

  • Work emails
  • Personal emails
  • Cell numbers
  • Home addresses

Depending on the nature of a crisis, office lines may be out of service.

Have a communications manager appointed whose responsibility it is to connect with key sources of information, such as a city government, governor’s office or state tourism board. Also be prepared to reach out to key receivers of information such as your industry partners.

Once your communication plan is crafted, update the plan annually, including responses to a wide array of potential crisis scenarios.

It’s then wise to run a briefing session for your industry partners so that they are aware of the destination’s community leadership.

2. Monitor Traditional and Social Media Coverage

Before you respond to a crisis situation, you need to understand the level of crisis. In carefully evaluating public perception, you want to understand several key things:

  • How is the general public reacting? What are people saying about your organization or destination?
  • What information is out there? Ideally, you want to be sure that you are providing accurate information about the situation and guiding the narrative.
  • How widespread is the information? Following a crisis, you do not want to add fuel to an online fire. Instead, look for ways to mitigate the situation.

In the meantime, be sure you’re up to date with how you’re using social media with your audience.

3. Formulate a Single Cohesive Statement

Sit down with your communication team and create a single, cohesive statement that you will disseminate concerning the crisis for your destination marketing campaign. The statement should explain the situation, its impact on the destination and the actions being taken to resolve the situation. This statement should become the tool from which all your industry partners refer, allowing them to answer any questions they might have about the crisis or your community’s approach to managing the impact on visitors. Make sure that your statement is authoritative, clear and concise, with all the details relevant to your industry partners or visitors arranged in order of priority.

4. Delegate Communication to the Appropriate Lead

Once the statement is created, the communication manager should disseminate the message to the appropriate media spokesperson (often, but not always, a senior-level executive in your DMO) and marketing leads responsible for maintaining your social media, website and partner communications.

5. After the Crisis is Over And Your Destination is Safe: Reinstate and Restore Confidence

When it is safe to return to business as usual, you should create another statement that clearly states that it is once again safe and appropriate to travel to the destination. Now it’s time for a creative response that will change the negative narrative to a positive one and build demand among your target consumers.

The state of California is no stranger to managing crisis scenarios that impact visitors. Visit California’s innovative approaches to restoring consumer confidence has taken various forms over the years, capturing media attention in the process.

Case Study: Visit California Plots California Win Country Recovery

After devastating wildfires, businesses in California Wine Country faced consumer perceptions that the region had been destroyed. With tourism as the lifeblood of the economy, Visit California sought to encourage visitation and, ultimately, support Wine Country’s road to recovery.

To celebrate Wine Country’s resilience DCI worked with Visit California to create a Thanksgiving benefit dinner with a 500-foot-long table and Northern California’s world-famous chefs and winemakers.

The result? More than 140 million media impressions via 64 broadcast, print and online placements. An additional 19 million impressions were garnered through engagement with key digital influencers. More than 500 attendees joined The Grateful Table benefit, raising nearly $150,000 toward recovery efforts. They key metric however was the return of visitor arrivals in time for the holiday season.

At other times, it is imperative to ensure that the message is shared globally.

Case Study: Media Coverage Follows California’s Famed Highway 1 Reopening

In 2017, after an unusually heavy winter and heavy spring rains, a landslide at Mud Creek heaped 6 million tons of rock and dirt on about a quarter-mile section of the coastal highway in the Big Sur region.

When California’s iconic Highway 1 finally reopened after an 18-month closure, DCI joined forces with Visit California’s international offices to implement a Dream Drive press trip. We designed the event to show the world that the road had reopened.

We secured seven Canadian press members who had profiled the closure to join an 80-car road rally, representing eight decades of vehicles — classic vintage, sleek and modern, hydrogen-fueled and electric models — from Monterey County to San Luis Obispo County.

These media members represented a range of niches from lifestyle and outdoor photography influencers to an automotive editor, and even included a top spokesperson for Cityline, Canada’s top daytime show. The destination marketing campaign garnered more than 7 million impressions and sparked a 32% increase in web hits for road-trip information. (See more about our California work here).

You may have incentives available to encourage visitors to return to the location and your statement should include clear information about those incentives to help boost your visitor traffic and bookings. Your partners will be anxious for your leadership once the crisis itself concludes. Crisis situations can also lead to an increase in tourism after, as the trend of Dark Travel continues to infiltrate the industry.

Eventually, your destination will deal with a crisis–and you want to be sure that you’re prepared to handle it. Instead of scrambling to deal with the crisis when it arrives, make sure you have a clear crisis plan in place ahead of time. When you know who is responsible for taking care of communications and what you need to share, you can often shape better communication measures that will make it easier for you to manage throughout the crisis.

If your destination is interested in formulating a crisis communication plan and running a briefing session for your tourism industry partners, talk to us. Our crisis communications specialist, Kayla Leska ([email protected]), is eager to speak with you about how we can help.

Written By

Kayla Leska

Kayla is Managing Director of DCI's Tourism Public Relations Division. She oversees communications strategy for DCI’s tourism clients and directs the firm’s tourism crisis and recovery communication efforts. Kayla leads publicity teams in the U.S. and Canada. She earned her BA in Public Relations at SUNY Oswego.

More Articles by Kayla Leska

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