Travel spots use comms to win the perception battle

From the Gulf Coast to Atlantic City, destinations are working to build their reputations as part of the ongoing effort to attract tourists.

Despite the fact that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on April 22 occurred more than 100 miles from New Orleans, the city still served as the backdrop for national broadcast reports. Those broadcasts, leading some tourists to believe the city's attractions were less than safe, can be likened to those following Hurricane Katrina, which focused on the city's devastated regions, instead of the tourist-reliant neighborhoods that were restored within a few months.
These kinds of reports, in addition to natural disasters, health scares, and other external factors, create perceptions – and very often misperceptions – that require destinations to update their marketing communications efforts.
While New Orleans is hardly the only perception-embattled city – Atlantic City, NJ, for example, has been fighting that battle for years – it is perhaps the poster child for a destination attempting to attract tourists amid crises.
“We're a tourism-dependent economy and tourism is a business driven by image and perception,” says Kelly Schulz, VP of communications and PR for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We've done a lot with PR for Katrina, the oil spill, and other challenges in between. Our approach is to be honest and maintain credibility.”
She explains that a consistent strategy is promoting the city's reliance on the $5 billion industry that employs 70,000 people. “We don't want the tragedy made worse by having people in the New Orleans tourism industry lose their job because of a misperception,” adds Schulz.
First step: acknowledging the crisis
Like other destinations, she says, New Orleans finds itself catering, to a degree, to what travelers see in the news, since that perception must be addressed as a reality. As such, Schulz notes, the organization is pairing its message about the gravity of the potential harm to the city's tourism with an acknowledgement of the actual tragedy in the news.
“As with Katrina, we did not want to say everything is wonderful when all people saw on TV was not wonderful. We're taking a similar approach with the oil spill,” she explains. “The images from the Louisiana coastline are heartbreaking. We have to acknowledge what an environmental tragedy it is.”
For the Visitors Bureau, PR has been the fastest and most effective response mechanism due to the volatility of consumer fears and the crisis itself. For example, the organization had to rapidly change its message a few months into the spill when it learned that tar balls had seeped into Lake Pontchartrain – the lake is an estuary that flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
“We could no longer say the city was 100 miles from the spill,” says Schulz. Instead, the team acknowledged that the tar balls were in the lake and talked about how they wouldn't disrupt the visitor experience.
Another misperception the team is fighting is that seafood is unsafe to eat. To address these concerns, she and other marketers are leveraging the effectiveness of a third-party expert detached from the tourism organization.
“We can provide the facts, but they must be backed up by data from the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, FDA, or anyone involved in testing seafood,” she says.
Working with Weber Shandwick, the organization filmed restaurant tours and leveraged local stars like August restaurant chef John Besh to talk about the safety, quality, and preparation of the seafood. The team is also consistently updating its website with videos and fresh content for media and travelers, such as a look at the 100th day of the spill.
Finding, creating, and pushing content is key, explains Rene Mack, president of the travel and lifestyle practice at Weber Shandwick, as there are now only a small amount of full-time travel writers at major newspapers to serve as the authority on trends and information.
“The fact we can trace shrimp from the table and back to the exact body of water it was caught in is an immense quality control message,” he says. “Because the media world is shifting so much, the biggest challenge is to stay with the curve of how information is being distributed.”
He adds that since consumers now gather more travel information via the Internet “to find out the good, the bad, and the ugly,” clients are allocating additional budgets to PR to control the message and push additional content.
“A good majority of clients are asking PR to drive the marketing, specifically in travel,” he says. “Storytelling is more meaningful.”
Media's role in misperceptions
The US Travel Association, which recently asked for $500 million in federal funding to offset tourism losses from the oil spill and support Gulf Coast marketing goals, acknowledges the misperceptions, which it says have been in part fueled by media.
Like Schulz, Geoff Freeman, SVP of public affairs at the association, notes, “Perception is reality and you have to accept the way travelers feel.
“You can't put your head in the sand and deny there's a problem,” he adds. “You have to put yourself in their shoes and begin to address perception issues with accurate, easy-to-access, consumer-friendly information. So often it speaks for itself.”
In this particular instance, Freeman says the most vital thing is for the Gulf states to provide information that travelers can't typically find in the mainstream media, such as constant updates on where the oil is or isn't.
“You typically have hundreds of millions of dollars of media exposure that perhaps has the unintended effect of discouraging travel,” he says. “We have to continue to educate people on why travel is so important.”
He adds that public-private partnerships must go beyond federal funding. The organization is encouraging the government to promote its role as owner of Deepwater Horizon Response Unified Command, the BP oil spill website. As a third-party communicator, the government has the opportunity to push a more credible message and information, such as new policies post-spill. The government, according to Freeman, is perceived as a seemingly less biased communicator than BP.
“We are particularly dependent on getting government to operate in the 21st century,” he says. “For travel destinations to say beaches are open and the weather is beautiful is not as credible as the government saying there's a green light.”
During the oil spill, the Gulf's beaches were perhaps as often the subject of traveler inquiry as in Mexico following the H1N1 flu outbreak in early 2009.
After the CDC lifted its recommendation against all non-essential travel to Mexico, hotels and resorts aimed to avoid cancellations – largely from the US and Canada – by providing honest, factual information about the geography.
Palace Resorts, a predominant brand in Mexico, worked with AOR Zimmerman PR to provide statistics on where the outbreaks had occurred. In most of the resorts' cases, outbreaks were outside of a two-hour radius.
The hotel promoted its hosting of the World Health Organization's conference on H1N1. It also constantly updated its website with statistics on the government's actions, health measures at each property, and information about the most dense outbreak regions, which were mainly in or near Mexico City and the country's central regions.
“It was too pervasive to ignore,” explains Carrie Zimmerman, president and founder of the firm. “We could sit there and get nailed over and over again or be up front and provide statistics.”
New image for Mexico City
For this hard-hit area, the statistics were not so liberating. Mexico City had been on a path to position itself as an up-and-coming cultural mecca – to US and Canadian developers, but also to leisure travelers.
The city government enlisted Weber in October, a few months after the outbreak, to help repair its reputation and any misconceptions that the city was still unsafe.
Initially, the team worked to explain the economic toll associated with shutting down a city of 20 million people “in the middle of a global recession,” notes Jim Meszaros, EVP of Weber's international practice in Washington, DC.
Regarding a perception survey that the team conducted in North American and Canada, Graciela Baez Ricardez, director general of the Mexico City Tourism Fund, says, “We found that swine flu was something that will pass, and we saw other issues we need to start working on.”
In the effort to promote the city's cuisine, museums, new hotels, and general development, the team had to battle negative perceptions related to pollution and crime.

For example, the government is spending more than $1 billion a year on climate-related PR and development initiatives, such as a water infrastructure to better deal with devastating rainfall patterns.
The team is promoting the city's attractions, paired with these efforts, to environmental groups and media via outreach, journalist trips, and a September ad campaign differentiating the city from the national government's effort. It's also leveraging Mayor Marcelo Ebrard in various communications programs and tours and promoting the efforts via the city's tourism website and social media platforms.
“Climate is a priority for the mayor and for the North American audience,” says Ricardez. “We're trying to cover all kinds of sophisticated segments to deliver concrete messages.”
By distancing itself from the national promotional platform and developing an isolated image, the city has the opportunity to develop a unique message that is designed to trump the perception that it's a hub for drug trafficking, notes Meszaros.
“Part of what we're trying to communicate is that there's a difference between Mexico and Mexico City and the crime related to drug trafficking is in the northern states of the country,” he says.
As with other crises, the team is up front about a negative issue – street crime. In the hope of attracting tourists and investors, it's promoting a city project to install the world's largest network of surveillance cameras.
“Security is an issue where we can talk about, in a subdued way, what the city is doing, and we don't need to talk about what the country is doing with the national drug issue,” says Meszaros.
Atlantic City, NJ, has been leveraging PR to drive tourism and boost its image for at least the past seven years.
Jeff Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, explains that he had been out of the city for 20 years before accepting his job eight years ago. Upon his return he conducted research showing that people's expectations were extremely low before visiting the city, but upon leaving they were exceeded by 90%.
“The message to me was that we have a perception problem,” he says. “It's different from reality.”
Competing for tourists
Vasser knew the city would have to improve that initial perception to compete with other US locations building casinos, such as Pennsylvania. The organization decided to promote new developments with PR, a more affordable option than ads in the key feeder markets of metro New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Boston, he says.
Over the past few years, as the city has built shopping outlets and new hotels and brought in a Delta Air Lines service, it's conducted extensive media outreach and invested in journalist and fan trips. It also hopes to build boutique casino hotels with proposed legislation that would reduce the requirement for a casino hotel to have 500 rooms.
“We're cleaning up the blighted neighborhood of Atlantic City, and it's not just a couple of blocks” he adds. “It's a good story to tell.”
Referring to another perception of the city as the iconic shore town that existed more than 50 years ago, he says, “We need to place articles that say Atlantic City is not your grandmother's Atlantic City anymore.”
The goal, he notes, is to get people to Atlantic City, especially a new 20-something female target with disposable income, and introduce them to its little-known attractions, such as the culinary and nightlife scene.
A recent strategy, following the introduction of Delta, was to draw in high-profile, Division 1 sports events. Vasser convinced the Atlantic 10 men's basketball conference to move its annual event from Cleveland to Atlantic City.
He sold the organizers on the fact that it's easy for the fans and teams to travel to the city, especially with the Delta service, and that the city has a variety of attractions for fans.
The conference was also a good PR opportunity to promote the city's attractions amongst visitors from key markets, including New York, Boston, and Pennsylvania.
“Division 1 sports is a great way to bring incremental visitors who wouldn't normally come,” he explains. “It's bringing in more college alumni.”
He adds that the city is continuing the strategy with college hockey, tennis, and an exhibition featuring hall-of-fame women's skaters.
The organization is also looking to boost the city's profile via aggressive concert organization outreach, particularly to the promoter community.
As with other destinations looking to go beyond the media and push their own agenda, the city is promoting its turnaround with an active presence on Facebook and Twitter, as well as tools such as podcasts featuring boardwalk passers-by and tourists.

“This year, we had the best concert year ever in Boardwalk Hall,” he says. “We're seeing that pay off.”

Cruises maintain image amid tragedy

Royal Caribbean, the only cruise line that docks in Haiti, returned just three days after the January 12 earthquake upon the government's request that it provide economic support by not changing course, says Michele Nadeem, VP of global corporate communication.
Although cruises have the freedom to change course, they don't always have control over their itineraries or their passengers' experiences. To keep the private Haitian beach on the itinerary without permanently damaging its brand, Royal Caribbean had to anticipate media backlash due to the images of vacationing passengers adjacent to the vast suffering of the Haitian people.
“We were educating our guests about the reasons for continuing our calls to Haiti and that we had the public support,” explains Nadeem. “We weren't going to stop with the media pressure.”
Royal Caribbean offered its passengers the opportunity to donate to various organizations and fill backpacks with relief supplies that the ship would then distribute. It seeded in-depth videos of the relief efforts, including visuals and explanations on how exactly the supplies were reaching those in need.

Attracting international attention for a US destination

Awaiting the official implementation of the Travel Promotion Act, which will promote the country amongst international travelers, US destinations such as Illinois are looking to shape perceptions about their attractions to audiences abroad.

Years ago, Illinois discovered that the UK was one of its primary international targets, especially regarding Chicago's urban nightclub and music scene. The state, working with Edelman, conducted a UK travel survey that found Route 66 is one of the most well-known travel experiences. As such, the team promoted the route as an iconic American experience that would position the state beyond its most popular city.

“We use blues, jazz, and history to lure them in and then there's more of an interest in getting outside Chicago and gaining knowledge of the mid-to-end-of-country road,” says Jan Kostner, deputy director at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

A contest identified a UK ambassador for Route 66. That person was asked to blog and shoot video foot-age that would end up on Chicago's website and social media platforms.

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