‘From promotion to information’: Travel industry changes tone amid coronavirus

PR pros in the sector are walking a fine line between providing information and stopping panic.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Companies in the tourism and travel sector are working to be upfront and fact-based with consumers about the risk of coronavirus while trying to minimize cancelations from overreaction and panic, say in-house PR pros and agency leaders.

Ovation Travel Group, one of the largest independently owned travel management companies in the U.S., has seen an increase in cancelations from leisure travelers. Most have been on tours booked for China and South Korea, countries for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has raised its travel advisory to its highest warning, Level 3. This status recommends rescheduling all but non-essential travel.

Some customers are also canceling bookings to Italy, where the northern region of the country has been hit with a cluster of COVID-19 outbreaks. It has a Level 2 — “exercise increased caution” — advisory from the CDC.

“It is incumbent upon us to be as forthright as possible with our clients,” says Gina Gabbard, SVP, leisure and independent advisers at Ovation.

That includes disclosing the travel advisories and what they mean, she says. While a Level 2 designation doesn’t broadly suggest customers postpone their trips, it cautions “older adults and those with chronic medical conditions consider postponing nonessential travel.” So Ovation recommends those travelers consult with medical professionals.

Advisers also need to “remain the voice of reason,” Gabbard says, such as pointing out to customers that the World Health Organization has not defined the outbreak as a pandemic or called for limitations on travel.

“The challenge is to never discount a client’s concern, yet also not to feed into needless fears,” she says.

Ovation arms its advisers with information and resources from the WHO, CDC and the State Department, and they also reference non-government sources, including a tracking map from John Hopkins University.

“We just dispense the facts as we know them from trusted sources of information, caution clients as needed based on that information and let them make informed decisions based on reality versus fear,” says Gabbard, who also worked on responses to SARS, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and Ebola.

PR counsel Steven Loucks, former chief communications officer at Travel Leaders Group, and Edelman are assisting the travel management company with communications.

Adding to the sense of panic is the stock market, which fell this week over concerns the virus will have on the global economy. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 1,200 points on Thursday, its worst one-day selloff since 2011, and fell an additional triple digits on Friday morning. Global markets are expected to have their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis.

Travel and tourism stocks have taken a beating in particular, including airlines, cruise companies, hotel chains, tour operators and online booking sites.

Adding to the atmosphere of anxiety is disinformation being spread, often maliciously, on social media. Therefore, it’s critical to empower employees to share accurate, verified information.

Royal Caribbean is using text, a call center and website, and on-board communications like its guest app to inform and reassure passengers about the potential impact on itineraries as well as precautionary health measures, sanitization procedures and medical protocols.

“We are in close consultation with the CDC, WHO, government authorities and local and regional health officials,” says Melissa Charbonneau, the cruise line’s director of corporate reputation, via email.

Virginia Sheridan, managing partner for travel and lifestyle at Finn Partners in New York, says the firm’s clients are “accelerating communications to constituents and stakeholders and shifting from promotion to information.”

“We are helping clients update their websites with statements and how site visitors can access other expert resources, as well as organizing webinars, conference calls and in-person meetings with industry partners,” she says. “We are also preparing guidelines and handbooks on ways to best communicate with key audiences.”

In China, where COVID-19 has turned some cities into ghost towns, publicly traded companies such as hotel groups have ramped up messaging to the investment community, says Cathy Chon, managing partner at Finn Hong Kong.

“They are regularly communicating with owners on business strategy and recovery tactics,” she says.

Chon points to French hotel group Accor, whose Asia-Pacific CEO and chairman Michael Issenberg publicly spoke this week about how it is weathering the downturn in business. He said the company is providing advice to hotel owners about cost-cutting and “measures that can be taken during slower business periods to ensure they are ready to outperform when business resumes,” such as making repairs, renovations and providing additional employee training.

More than 78,000 people in China have been infected with COVID-19 since the first case was reported in Wuhan on December 31, 2019. The virus has spread around the globe and onto every continent except Antarctica. Of the 83,774 confirmed cases as of press time, there have been 2,867 deaths, a mortality rate of 3.4%.

As of Friday morning, there are dozens of confirmed cases in the U.S., and travel companies with a largely domestic footprint are watching the situation closely and communicating with frontline employees.

Laurie Barnett, MD of comms and outreach at Southwest Airlines and point person for the airline’s crisis preparedness, says Southwest “is fully prepared” for a domestic outbreak. It has a pandemic preparedness plan that coordinates departments within the airline.

She says the airline’s safety team is playing the biggest role because it serves as the liaison with the CDC on virus updates, using them to inform procedures like sanitation and to develop employee messaging.

“We are letting flight attendants know how they can protect themselves and effectively communicate to consumers if they get questions,” says Barnett. “We have to educate and inform employees on the virus, not feed into the media frenzy.”

She adds that communications pros are assigned to employee groups, like flight attendants, pilots and airport staff, so that they can “customize the comms to address the unique needs of each department,” which receive information via platforms like an intranet.

Southwest Airlines handles its crisis work internally.

Even if the spread of the virus slows or reduces in severity, the work for PR professionals is far from over. They will have to contend with another news cycle stemming from expected litigation around the globe over the response to the crisis.

This could impact companies in travel and other sectors, says Mark Shadle, MD for global corporate at Zeno Group.

“There will be a whole series of lawsuits that are going to come out at some point,” he says. “It could be a shareholder lawsuit, because a lot of money is being lost, or parties who say company X didn’t react quickly enough or weren’t transparent enough about new information. Most crises follow this path: the shock of the crisis itself and then the aftershocks.”

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