In the third of a series of articles looking at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on various industry sectors and practice areas, PRovoke Media interviewed several experts in the travel industry about what they have seen, and what they expect to see going forward.

Other stories in this series:
Covid-19: What it means for corporate reputation
Covid-19: What it means for public affairs

Participating in the discussion:

  • Leah Chandler, CMO, Discover Puerto Rico
  • Sara Garibaldi, partner and managing director, travel & economic development, Ketchum
  • Virginia Messina, managing director, World Travel & Tourism Council
  • Clayton Reid, CEO, MMGY Global
  • David Zapata, CEO, Zapwater Communications

Diana Marszalek: What has been the pandemic’s impact on the travel sector?

Sara Garibaldi:
Given the travel bans in place across air travel and cruising, corporate travel restrictions, event cancellations, the absolute necessity to socially distance, and overall aversion to travel, the global tourism and hospitality sector is reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. Even while firefighting through the immediate impact, tourism and hospitality leaders need to begin thinking about the critical shift from crisis management to recovery planning. In the past few weeks (especially in the US and across Europe), the travel sector quickly realized and accepted we have an important role to play in flattening the curve, as much as it pains us to see numbers plummet.

With this pandemic we have realized that there are no rules or playbook for this situation, and the right answer is constantly shifting. While the exact timeline of recovery is unclear (many predict a possible three to six month window) the impact will eventually pass. Once this is all over, people will travel again.

Clayton Reid: 
The travel industry has been on the front line of the impact, both in terms of the economic devastation, but also the response and control of the virus's spread. We should expect trillions of dollars to be carved out of the travel economy in just a short amount of time, but should also expect our industry to be a leader in the recovery phase. Airlines and lodging have been ravaged, but I am hopeful that government intervention and responsible cost-cutting will allow a quick bounce back by summer to support a consumer demand that spikes quickly based on pent-up travel demand.

Virginia Messina: Everyone is deeply concerned about the global health crisis, but we are also very concerned a about the economic crisis that this is going to be leading to. We have been looking at some numbers and doing some calculations in terms of impact. A couple of weeks ago, we los about a million jobs (in travel and tourism), according to our numbers. Globally, we believe that about 75.2 million jobs are going to impacted. These are jobs looking at the whole supply chain. One job in travel and tourism creates jobs across other industries as well.

David Zapata: There has been a tremendous impact for all our clients, not just our travel clients.  And based on my conversations with other agency leaders throughout the world, we’re all feeling it.

I think a different comradery has formed among independent agency owners that may not have existed before.  We’re all sending notes checking in on one another, sharing experiences, and offering words of encouragement.  I think it has forced everyone to perhaps view each other as colleagues rather than competitors.  “Zooming” with others in a similar boat has been a glimmer of positivity in a time where they might otherwise be hard to find.

Leah Chandler: It’s fair to say the tourism sector is one of the industries most impacted globally. For Puerto Rico specifically, it’s too soon to tell the actual economic impact. That said, we feel confident that the precautionary measures and protocols in place on our Island will help us recover much quicker. Compared to destinations across the mainland, Puerto Rico didn’t waste any time in its efforts, and was the first to put into place a shelter-in-place mandate and evening curfew.

DM: What have been the priorities in terms of communications these past few weeks?

VM:  Our biggest effort has been communicating with governments. We are trying to put things into context. We have to try to avoid, as much as we can, this global health crisis becoming a global economic crisis. We have been advocating with governments trying to get the right relief measures for the sector because that’s really needed at this point. We pulled together an open letter for governments where we basically were calling for financial help and to protect the salaries and the jobs of millions of people that depend on our sector…  to try to get interest-free loans for global travel and tourism companies, both the biggest players and the SMEs.  They are all relevant here.

And we are also trying to get some to waive government taxes that are due. So we are really trying to see where we can help or where governments can support our industry. We have been pleased by some of the measures that have been announced. I know in the US the bill was recently signed and that was a very good first step that is going to help a lot of our members, bigger and small. But we also are looking at good examples, trying to share those across the other countries and trying to see where a bit more help is needed and how we can support our members.

Right now, we are focusing on ensuring future visitors are inspired by the unique characteristics and world class experiences that Puerto Rico offers hence why we launched our “virtual weekend escape” and have other ideas brewing. By bringing traditional salsa, cuisine and cocktails from the Island into people’s homes, we’re showing them all that will be waiting for them on the Island once things settle down. While we aren’t encouraging travel right now, we certainly encourage travelers to day dream about our Island now and plan travel to our beautiful island when the time is right.

The biggest priority has been to be a resource for all travelers impacted and now we’re seeing a shift in that messaging. Our travel sector at Ketchum surveyed over 100 US travel journalists to get a sense of what the new state of travel reporting looks like today. The data within our pulse survey, State of Travel Journalists in the World of Covid-19, revealed how travel journalists are approaching tourism-related coverage in the Covid-19 media landscape. Utilizing two pulse surveys we discovered that 8 in 10 journalists are currently covering tourism topics focusing on future-focused travel content, domestic travel, how companies are addressing Covid-19 and future travel deals. We’ve realized that as long as the content is sensitive to the situation at hand, there is appetite for it in the earned media space. Making sure you have strong relationships with journalists, knowing what they’re covering (as many shifted beats amidst all this) and having the right approach is critical. Our media strategies need to now shift to finding creative ways we can help them inspire a sense of wanderlust and hope among their reader

CR: We are espousing a “Wait. Ready. Set. Go.” strategy with our clients. There are some tactics that are warranted in the market today: a continued spend in search, targeted social engagement, PR and informational sharing for travelers that helps to inform their decision making., But,  mostly we are moving budgets and developing plans that need to be deployed in late Q2/Q3 that will help drive a resurgence. This should be considered on a sector-by-sector and client-by-client basis, but most of the share of voice today is around the virus and industries close to the pandemic.

DZ: In terms of priorities, our teams are staying connected and close to clients, making sure we’re addressing all current needs, while also understanding that we are in a quickly evolving situation.  We are truly blessed that our clients genuinely view us as partners, so we’re involved and having all the honest and difficult conversations side-by-side with them.

DM: What will be the major communications challenges as recovery begins?

CR: The industry needs to make it OK to travel again; to remind people that travel is a celebration of humanity and that finding connections to others in leisure and business is a fundamental part of our communities and economy. It is also a reality that early market entry, post-crisis, will need to include a value message and inducements that support positive traveler sentiment. MMGY Global and US Travel Association are pulsing a study each week to measure this sentiment and to understand timing and tone for customer engagement. It's a moving target.

We need to understand now that the tourism industry will be facing a new post-Covid-19 reality where companies are all vying for the hearts and minds of wary travelers—likely in some form of a sustained economic downturn driven by this crisis. The new normal will likely include everything from the minutiae of sanitation practices (and consumers wanting to know more about them) to broader topics such as the health of nations/regions/ports-of-call, the role of travel insurance, and issues unique to specific modes of travel (e.g., is social distancing possible in modern air travel)? Also, as price-sensitive travelers may be looking to trade down on products and amenities, we’ll see shorter booking windows, and possibly more trips with lower spends and much briefer itineraries.

We are constantly sharing all the information with our members, what we get from WHO but also what we are learning from governments in terms of relief. We also recently have started to try to bring people back to their home countries. Some of the tour operators have been trying to get people back to their homes. And we need to make sure the information is accurate.

DM: How will this impact the industry and communications in the long-term?

: We need to use this time to begin to anticipate what that new normal might look like and prepare for it. Major crises like Covid-19 almost always fundamentally change and evolve the status quo. As such, it’s not just a matter of getting the tourism industry’s engine restarted. Instead, the collective tourism stakeholder ecosystem must understand what has changed, and what will best position the industry to grow together and become a global force once again in the new normal. We’ll be working closely with the industry to help understand and, where possible, define the evolution of post-covid-19 tourism. We are optimistic that soon enough we’ll all be able to—through a different lens—explore the world with newfound appreciation.

With 3.8 million jobs lost in a matter of weeks, and more to come, not only is hospitality bearing a disproportionate weight of these cuts, but the job losses and economic damage will also re-shape what travel looks like in the early days of recovery. Look for strong brands and intermediaries to gain strength as we come out of this, but there will also be some weaker travel suppliers that don't make it to the other side. In the end, travel must be a fundamental part of stimulating economic and social healing, as it has been in past crises. I believe strong leaders in airline, cruise, lodging, attractions and tourism will fight hard. I also believe strongly in what the U.S Travel Association, WTTC and Brand USA are doing to support recovery.

I believe in my inner core that the travel industry will rebound. I imagine many people are feeling isolated in their homes dreaming of their next travel adventures! Unfortunately, things continue to change by the day and even the hour, so the hardest thing right now for everyone is the unknown "when." As an agency, we’re taking things month-to-month and examining what our business looks like 75 days from now and beyond. 

Other stories in this series:
Covid-19: What it means for corporate reputation
Covid-19: What it means for public affairs