On September 11 Marriott International lost one of its most impressive properties, the World Trade Center Marriott, located between the twin towers, and two managers—described by chairman and chief executive officer J.W. “Bill” Marriott as heroes—who had remained behind to make sure guests and employees were out of the building.
But the company stands to lose much more unless the American public gets back on the road and in the air, as does the remainder of the travel industry. That’s why Marriott has become one of the most visible corporate leaders in the wake of the terrorist attacks, appearing on several hard news shows that don’t usually focus on travel and tourism, interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Tom Brokaw on NBC, Chris Matthews on CNBC, Neil Cavuto on Fox News, and others, and emerging as a leader of the troubled travel sector.
“After the tragic events of September 11, everyone in the U.S.—especially the media but also consumers—has come to realize just how large and how important the travel and tourism industry is,” says Rene Mack, who heads the travel practice at BSMG Worldwide, which counts Marriott among its clients. “By some estimates it could be as much as 40 percent of the economy, when you include all the money that’s spent by tourists in restaurants and in shops and on taxis and everything else. It’s become apparent how important the tourism industry is to this country.”
The hotel industry was suffering from the soft economy even before the terrorist attacks, with estimates that revenue per room would be down 0.3 percent from 2000 levels. Now Pricewaterhouse-Coopers is estimating that revenues in large urban areas could be down 25 percent in the fourth quarter. In response, Starwood Hotels & Resorts has announced that it is laying off 23 percent of its U.S. staff and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union says about 60 percent of its members in Washington, D.C., have been laid off.
The World Travel and Tourism Council, meanwhile, estimates that the hotel industry could lose $2 billion as a result of the drop in travel after the attacks, and says the industry could lose 3.3 million jobs unless measures are taken to get people traveling again.
In the face of such gloom and doom, travel public relations people are pondering how the industry should respond. Destination clients have been reluctant to use the traditional images of happy tourists cavorting on beaches at a time when so many people are grieving. And no one has been enthusiastic about addressing safety concerns head on.
“It’s a very sensitive time, and we are being a lot less proactive right now,” says Maren Lau, who heads the tourism practice at Hill & Knowlton. “For about two weeks, no one has really been doing anything. It’s a quandary. People are working to figure out the boundaries between recognizing people’s fears and letting them know it’s okay to start traveling again.”
For those who have been communicating proactively, the messages have been generic—focused on reviving the travel sector as a whole—rather than company specific.
“We counseled our clients that the first thing they had to do was express their sympathy to the victims and the families,” says Mack. “The next thing was, they had to take care of their employees and their associates. But what is happening now is that everyone, from the president to the mayor of New York has been making the point that we have to get back to business, that we need to return to travel. Now is the time for our clients to join in to spread that message.”
That’s what Marriott has been doing.
“What business needs to do now is to work closely with the media,” says Mack. “We have been in touch with every major writer, producer, and editor to find out what they need, what kind of resources we can provide to them. First and foremost, we found they were asking for industry leaders who could provide an overview of the impact on the industry.
“Mr. Marriott is one of the most well-known people in the world of travel,” says Mack. “He has been going on TV shows not to sell rooms or to discuss discounts at Marriott hotels, but to reinforce the idea that people need to travel, that we need to get back to normal, and to talk about the sort of things that might encourage more travel, like the reopening of Reagan National airport in Washington, or waiving hotel taxes.”
Marriott has been joined in delivering that message by Jonathan Tisch, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels and chairman of the Travel Business Roundtable, an industry group historically focused on policy issues ranging from tax policy and immigration reform and now focused on the kind of assistance that government might provide an industry in distress.
Says Tisch, “The business of the America is business and people are going to have to get back on the road. They’re reaching the end of the year, and they’re going to want to do deals before we get to December. It’s our right as Americans, the freedom to travel. And the ultimate form of defiance right now is coming to a town like New York City where our industry is suffering. We need the visitors to come back, to keep our hotels full, to put people in the restaurants, to go see the Broadway shows, to ensure that our employees who have been so loyal to us don’t get laid off.”
Marriott, Tisch, and Starwood’s Barry Sternlicht have also approached lawmakers about tax breaks and other relief, and commerce secretary Donald Evans asked them for a formal proposal.
“We have encouraged all our clients to be absolutely forthcoming,” says Mack. And Marriott, for one, has been extremely candid about the difficulties the industry is suffering, with occupancy rates down from 80 percent to less than 50 percent in some cases.
Not everyone agrees with that strategy, however. According Lou Hammond, president of travel and lifestyles PR specialist Lou Hammond & Associates, “There are a lot of interview opportunities dealing with bookings, and we have approached that issue with some care. We don’t see any benefit to perpetuating the bad news.”
Edelman, meanwhile, has been reaching out to government officials in Chicago, urging the mayor and the governor to reassure people that travel is safe, that it’s important to get back to business as usual. That message got a boost last week when President George W. Bush visited the city and advised people to “get back on a plane and fly.”
“The big question is what is it going to take to get people moving again,” says Richard Mintz, who heads the public affairs practice at Burson-Marsteller and has been involved in travel issues for clients including the Business Travel Roundtable, American Airlines, Greyhound, and Orbitz. “We have started a tracking survey on consumer attitudes and looking at what messages we should be delivering and how to deliver them in a way that makes most sense.”
Almost every firm is trying to monitor both media and consumer attitudes.
“We have been trying to keep our finger on the pulse of the travel industry,” says Cathleen Johnson, director of the tourism and lifestyle practice at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. “We have been making calls every day to keep on top of what’s going on.”
The firm has also been monitoring attitudes internationally, through its offices in the U.K., France, and Germany. “The U.K. is one of the more skittish markets,” she says. “There’s a lot of trepidation about traveling overseas. In Germany and France, the attitude appears to be more defiant, more ready for business as usual.”
“As time goes on, I think we can slowly get more aggressive,” says Lou Hammond, president of travel and lifestyle PR specialist Lou Hammond & Associates. “We have spoken with editors, and they are mostly looking for hard news right now, and they are more interested in domestic travel than they are in overseas travel.”
Others see signs that the media is interested not only in stories of the industry’s difficulties, but in helping the industry recover.
“We are beginning to see an interest from reporters in information about legitimate packages, deals and discounts that might get people moving again,” says Mack. “In the broadcast arena, we are seeing a demand for quality b-roll.
“The overall message is that clients need to be working with editors and producers. Contrary to popular belief, reporters are not being abrupt in their dealings with PR people. In fact the dialogue with the hard news media and with travel reporters has been very informative, very helpful. The media have been reaching out to try to help the industry. It’s been an exceptional media relations experience.”
There are signs that consumers are beginning to respond. A survey by Conde Nast Traveler found that 97 percent of its readers are still willing to travel in North America, 87 percent are willing to fly domestically, and 83 percent are willing to fly internationally.
“In the long run, we are very optimistic, particularly when it comes to domestic travel,” Hammond says. “A lot of meetings business wasn’t canceled, it was rescheduled for later in the year. A lot of our clients are gearing up for a recovery in the fourth quarter. But I think the outlook may be more bleak for international travel.”