News & Views

Health Crisis Management: Taking the Pulse

When the COVID 19, or coronavirus, broke out earlier this year, it wasn’t immediately a health crisis. Several weeks later, the epidemic has taken on proportions greater than SARS in 2003. Media headlines got scary fast. Stakes are high, this time, as more Chinese travelers than ever before are traveling. It’s not just China however that should be concerned. Destinations around the world will feel the impact of this outbreak.

With cases on the rise in the U.S., it’s impossible to ignore. Any DMO needs to be paying attention to see how the global tourism industry is responding. It’s time to ask whether or not your destination would be prepared to deal with such an outbreak.

Understanding a health crisis

Addressing a health crisis, unlike an environmental crisis, is even more difficult for destinations. For most natural catastrophes, there is always an “after” moment when people’s fears subside, and travel can resume. During a health crisis, an end to the emergency is less clear, and the direct threat of a disease instills more trepidation than an unlikely second volcano eruption or tidal wave. The invisible specter of disease is hard to shake from the minds of wary travelers.

The impact, however, is real. As countries like Italy cancel flights to and from China for at least six months, (and the U.S. cancels flights to Italy given the outbreak there), tourism on all ends will take a hit. Chinese travelers won’t be spending their money abroad, and China will fall into further isolation as foreign travel comes to a near standstill. Nobody wins.

Being prepared for these types of emergencies, however, is key. While the basic tenets of being prepared ring true no matter what the crisis, a health crisis requires a few extra considerations.

Keep in close contact with health officials

Trusted sources for any health crisis are first and foremost doctors. It may seem like a simple statement, but too much misinformation circulates from non-medical sources. Look to your city or country’s health officials for guidance. Prepare a list of real doctors and researchers that you can contact in an emergency to get advice on best practice. Be in contact with them today so that they’ll be expecting your call in the event of a crisis.

Doctors try to get ahead of misinformation, but it’s nearly impossible, and false reports could end up costing lives. Then there is the question of vocabulary. The coronavirus, also called the coronavirus, and then called COVID-19, is also a nightmare of branding, so be sure to keep updated by somebody with a medical degree who can break down these sometimes-complicated evolutions.

Maintain proportional messaging during a health crisis

At first, the coronavirus was minor, then it became the next SARS, and now entire cruise ships are being quarantined. The health crisis escalated quickly. Unlike the media, however, which often races to a sensational headline, be moderate in your DMO’s response. Acknowledge the issue but don’t create more panic than is required.

Follow some writers who temper fears, who spell out the real risk, and who attempt to put the virus in context with the SARS breakout nearly two decades ago. For example, the mortality rate of the coronavirus is much lower than SARS and many people are recovering. Make sure you keep this in mind before warning travelers to avoid a certain destination.

Remember international relations

Just like in an environmental crisis, a health crisis requires DMOs to tread lightly when it comes to political allies. The coronavirus is a prime example. Who wants to ruffle feathers with China? Thailand is just one destination that is torn between closing its borders to its Asian neighbor and maintaining friendship with Chinese leaders.

These sorts of decisions are difficult. Establishing strong relationships immediately with key political players and other DMOs is essential. Only with a strong working relationship can difficult discussions happen more peacefully during an unexpected health crisis. Reassuring allies that a travel warning will go up, but that you will continue to promote travel once the issue has passed, will require careful negotiation.

Get the right information and stand by it

If you’ve done your job and you are releasing information to travel professionals and travelers alike, there are two points to remember. First, get the right information. Verify it three times. Be sure it is as accurate as it can be before you send it out – so no half-baked messages. Second, if you’re confident in your information, stand by it. Travel professionals, other DMOs, and even visitors will all ask questions and challenge it, but nothing is needed more than a clear, trustworthy voice during a health crisis – except a cure to the crisis in question, of course.

When a destination is represented by different agencies in different countries and languages, this sort of communication can be particularly difficult. Maintain your chain of command so that when a representative come back to you and says, “But this person told me…,” you can respond with the official response from your destination. Don’t let Asian, Canadian, and European markets all mix the messaging on your destination, or chaos will take over.

Brace for longer-term economic hurt

Destinations worldwide are already preparing for the fallout as Chinese travelers stay home instead of spending money abroad. This particular health crisis will hit local tourism-related businesses harder than most. So, what can you do?

Destinations need to be prepared to respond to business needs, either with emergency subsidies or getting visitor numbers back as quickly as possible – the obvious goal post-any crisis. Taiwan is just one example of a program to subsidize the ailing tourism industry, financing projects to upgrade and digitalize local businesses. Hong Kong is doing the same.

Imagine what would happen to your destination in similar circumstances. Are there plans in place to keep struggling businesses afloat in the face of a health crisis? If not, the time to act now.

Overwhelmed and wondering if your destination could survive a coronavirus-like event? At DCI, we have 60 years of helping destinations prepare for the worst when crisis hits. Get in touch with Kayla Leska at [email protected] for information on how DCI can help you develop a plan to respond to any crisis.


Written By

Bryan Pirolli

As DCI's in-house Senior Writer, Bryan brings more than a decade of travel journalism experience to play when uncovering the next big story idea for our clients.

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