MARKET FOCUS: Travel & tourism: Wish you were here

Tanya Lewis looks at the PR challenges of luring Americans to foreign places.

Tanya Lewis looks at the PR challenges of luring Americans to foreign places.

Never before in world history has air travel been so accessible. And never before has such a confluence of events and circumstances so pervasively damaged the travel industry and negatively impacted American attitudes about long-distance travel. As terrorism threatens the globe and war with Iraq looms, PR is navigating the dual responsibilities of promoting unstable destinations while protecting those who travel there. "The main role of PR is to communicate accurately and honestly," says Rene Mack, president Weber Shandwick Worldwide's travel and lifestyle group. "You're trying to educate and influence people about possibilities and opportunities. It's imperative that you communicate the very real and tangible concerns in addition to the amenities and activities that are normally associated with a destination." International travel declined 12% in the first half of this year, compared with the same period last year. Travel-industry analyst Jim Cammisa says it could suffer an additional 15%-20% decrease in the first three months following a war with Iraq. Business travel is still weak, as losses force cuts in discretionary travel expenses. Leisure travel is stronger, as the crippled travel industry has been forced to reduce prices and cooperate in package deals. Promoting long-distance travel is a sensitive business that revolves primarily around media relations efforts. Fierce competition for limited space Drastic ad-revenue reduction has limited media space, and coverage competition is fierce. Newspapers simply don't have the money to fund big, frequent travel sections, and terrorism has pushed bleak tourism stories into news columns. The same holds true for broadcast media. Consumer magazines are prime targets for positive coverage, but reduced staff and narrow editorial calendars mean PR people must remain in constant contact and craft careful messages. Karen Weiner Escalara, president and CEO of KWE Group, says focusing on special-interest magazines worked well for client Mexico City, which has long been viewed as unsafe. US trips to Mexico were down 17% through June, compared to last year. "It's more difficult for a culinary or architecture magazine to bring negative issues into stories," she says. "Newspaper, TV, and radio foreign-bureau chiefs are also often overlooked, and they are very powerful because top media outlets depend on them for destination information." Escalara represented Mexico City for three years, but the client has yet to issue an RFP this year. KWE still has ties to the city via hotel client Marquis Reforma. Laura Davidson Public Relations (LDPR) reports four new clients this year, half of which are foreign. SVP and partner Leslie Cohen says the agency previously had a higher percentage of international accounts. LDPR served as agency of record for TAJ Hotels, Resorts and Palaces in Bombay, India for two years. Press trips were suspended following September 11 because the agency felt it was inappropriate - and nobody was listening anyway. Now Cohen is encouraged because editors are covering India again, and some who were afraid to travel last year have told her they're now willing to make the trip. "If people are afraid, we're not spending a lot of resources to change that," she says. "That's more than a PR challenge, and it's not a wise use of clients' money. India is not a mass-market destination, so our media efforts are very targeted toward people whose minds are open to India." She adds that TAJ relies on LDPR to monitor media coverage and American attitudes so it can make informed PR decisions. "We have to make recommendations based on the facts," she says. "We have to be on the front line with travel editors, and then take all intelligence to our clients. It's very important to have relationships and dialogue with the media, and pick up the programming." Americans have complicated feelings about travel. Fear causes some to refuse to consider long-distance travel, while it provokes a carpe diem attitude in others. Many waffle on the conundrum of drastically reduced prices versus fear. However, a recent Travel Industry Association study shows that most Americans don't want to give up traveling. "Travel was once viewed as a privilege, but because the world has opened up so much, people now feel that travel is a right," says Cathleen Johnson, EVP and GM of Edelman's tourism and lifestyle practice. "It's a very American thing. In some instances, fear has caused an immediacy in terms of actualizing dreams." Adapting before traveling Rissig Licha, EVP, senior partner, and MD of Fleishman-Hillard Miami/Latin America, believes most people will adapt, and regain a sense of normalcy. "We are under constant threat that provides significant challenges," he says, "but people learn to live whatever is given to them." Americans are used to traveling, and prior to September 11, global-village realities changed our perceptions of far away and exotic. "People used to have once-in-a-lifetime travel dreams," Johnson says. "Now they want exotic travel once a year." Package deals help, especially in countries such as Argentina, where the problems are economic depression rather than safety. "Economic difficulties make Argentina an affordable venue," says Jane Schlansker, president of InterStar, which won the Federal Investments Council of Argentina account in October. The agency partners with American Airlines and various Argentinian service providers, who are extremely receptive to US travelers. "It's a beautiful, diverse destination, and we don't feel safety is an obstacle," she says. "But it's important for travelers to know it's safe, and we'll address that issue through testimonials and firsthand experience." But "exotic" too often means dangerous. Even though Indonesia has been considered unstable and unsafe for years, Bali was perceived as a peaceful resort destination until the October nightclub bombing that killed nearly 200 people. Tourism accounted for $5.75 billion in Bali's income, with 1.5 million foreign tourists visiting each year. Hotel occupancy rates were at 70% before the incident. America represents the sixth-largest foreign market for the country (behind Japan, Australia, Taiwan, the UK, and Germany), and US visits were already down 30.8% from last year as of June. "Bali is an important leisure destination," says KC Kavanagh, VP of PR at Starwood, which has 10 hotels in Indonesia and two in Bali located 20 minutes from the bomb site. "It's critical that the tourism community there and abroad work together to step up security, promote the island's otherwise tranquil history, and make travelers comfortable enough to return." Immediately following the attack, the company waved cancellation fees and helped coordinate transportation home, or to other resorts in the Asia-Pacific region. It also put up rescue workers and donated water, blankets, and towels to hospitals. The in-house PR team sent updates to corporate headquarters and local offices around the world so staffers could speak to local media on behalf of the company. Hilton, Hyatt, and The Four Seasons also operate in Bali. Hilton posts security information on its website, but Hyatt does not, and did not respond to interview requests. The Four Seasons also does not address security issues online, and agency Ruder Finn was unable to comment. Escalara says different situations require different tactics. When a US tourist was murdered in Mexico City, KWE Group responded within hours to quell serious damage. "But sometimes the best thing is to do nothing," she says. "If a country is extremely political and there is a negative story, politicians are sometimes pressured to have the agency do something," she says. "Mexico City officials wanted us to issue a release following a volcanic eruption, and we had to explain that it would alert the media to a situation they didn't otherwise know existed, making a bad situation worse." "Some people think less is better when there are problems, but usually the opposite is true," counters Jack Leslie, chairman of WSW. "The more information you can give, the better." WSW represents the Bahamas, and was successful at setting up a hurricane conference there. Facing the problem head-on won confidence, and even saved lives. "PR has no credibility unless it's honest," Mack says. "We have an important responsibility to educate people about destinations, no matter what the facts are," adds Edelman's Johnson. Geographic education is often part of the job. "Americans suffer from a severe lack of geographic knowledge," Johnson continues. "We spend a lot of time educating people about where things are." Because India borders Pakistan, Cohen says she spends a lot of time explaining that it is a huge country, most of which is far from conflict. WSW chairman Leslie agrees that promoting specific destinations that are removed from unsafe areas is a smart strategy. "I always tried to get the Columbians to do that with Cartagena," he recalls. "In some cases, it's like saying, 'Because New York City has crime, we're not going to Dallas.'" Laura Davidson, president LDPR, says the future could benefit tour operators. "People might feel more secure traveling with companies that have ground operations all over the world, and that are really indoctrinated," she says. "I think that's what we're going to see happen for some of these far-flung places." ------------ How conflict affects overseas travel Laura Davidson opened her travel and tourism boutique agency at the start of the Gulf War in 1991. She reflects on the differences between then and now. Attitudes/Perceptions Then "The Gulf War was purely a military war, and it was happening 'over there.' We didn't think it was going to affect our vacations. People still traveled, but they avoided the Middle East and Europe. Business travel didn't suffer that much." Now "Many people think that if we go to war with Iraq, there will be repercussions at home. People are afraid to get on planes because they're afraid they're going to get stuck. There are many more factors now - the economy, memories of September 11, the threat of terrorism, and government warnings." Media Then "Freelance travel writers could get your stories placed because there were more outlets for them. It was much easier for us to get airline tickets for journalists." Now "Today we have to work directly with editors. Airlines are losing money, so it's much harder for us to get them tickets." PR Business Then "Being a small agency worked to my advantage because I charged smaller fees. If people were spending less money, they came to me." Now "Our clients are cutting ad budgets, but sticking with PR because they understand its value. We get new business calls all the time because we are a boutique. All the big agencies used to have million-dollar travel budgets, but they just aren't there like they used to be."

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