Travel and tourism operators affected by the coronavirus outbreak are all too aware of one worrying trend: panic is spreading much faster than the disease, fuelled by misinformation on social media.
Take Australia, for example. Despite only 30 confirmed cases at the time of writing, local supermarket shelves are already being cleared of supplies, with toilet paper now at a premium across Sydney.
France has banned the traditional French double-cheek kiss and large public gatherings, while one agency boss believes clients are questioning whether to attend the Cannes Lions in June.
Today, Japan's Olympics minister warned that Tokyo's summer Olympic Games may be postponed until the end of the year.
In the UK, where there are just over 50 confirmed cases so far, the government has outlined details of a coronavirus outbreak 'battleplan', with measures including a three-month working-from-home policy and a ban on large events if the situaiton deteriorates.
For the tourism and travel industry, the economic pinch has already turned into a squeeze. Aviation regulator IATA (the International Air Transport Association) has relaxed rules governing airline slot use at airports, warning that airlines are experiencing “serious declines in demand”.
One carrier has reported a 26 per cent reduction across its operation; one hub carrier to Italy has said bookings are down by 108 per cent year on year, and in some regions collapsing to zero; while many airlines are reporting 50 per cent no-shows across several markets.
“The economic effect could be much longer-lasting if the coronavirus does what the seasonal flu tends to do and fizzles out once spring arrives.” said Marc Cornelius, founder and managing director of aviation and travel PR specialist 8020.
“The real problem for the travel industry is that the panic is more infectious than the virus and the only antidote is reliable information.”
Promoting ‘safer alternatives’
Although the global tourism, travel and hospitality industry outlook is bleak, in the short-term, at least, tourism and travel operators have begun shifting PR and marketing spend to promote regions that are not yet affected.
Rooster managing director James Brooke said that while bookings to Asia are “understandably down”, there has been no overall drop in UK outbound travel as “demand has simply shifted to other regions”.
Paul Charles, founder and chief executive of the PC Agency, told PRWeek he is aware of 'safer destinations' planning to increase their PR/marketing spend in the UK during March/April, shifting it from markets that are in lockdown, such as China.
“I believe you’re about to see a wave of ‘We are open, visit us’ messaging which is being prepared by bolder brands,” he said.
“Destinations, airlines and hotels that are less affected – because they are not Asia-focused – will need to reassure customers about existing bookings for 2020, as well as inject more spend into PR and marketing to show why many areas are still perfectly safe to visit.“
Getting communications right is critical to operators, who need to strike the right balance between "not over-reacting, yet being seen to respond and taking the impact of the virus seriously”. At the same time, added Charles, operators need to closely manage employee care and engagement.
Cornelius said it is no surprise that operators and destinations will communicate safe travel options, but “everybody must be doing that responsibly”.
He added that during a rapidly-moving epidemic like coronavirus, tourism messaging must quickly evolve and adapt to changing healthcare advice.
This is already happening across Europe, where large global events are being postponed or cancelled.
Could Cannes be canned?
Although the impact of the coronavirus has largely affected travel to and from Asia, experts agree it is only a matter of time before it hits the UK.
Several countries in Europe are already taking steps to contain the potential spread of the virus by restricting travel and large gatherings.
Major events on the continent have already been cancelled, including the world’s largest travel show, ITB Berlin, and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Several events in the Middle East have also been canned, including Dubai Lynx.
These decisions are often made at a national government level.
“The Geneva Motor Show and (the watch conference) Baselworld were cancelled because of a new rule by the Swiss government to ban public meetings of more than 5,000 people,” Cornelius said.
He warned that Japanese authorities will be under "tremendous pressure” to postpone the Olympic Games, which has already been flagged.
“If we do continue to see governments banning mass gatherings it would follow that the general public might be unable to attend the Games," he said.
A major event closer to home that could be in the balance is the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. Recently, organisers told PRWeek that there were no plans to cancel the event, but Havas PR Global Collective chair James Wright believes it is under threat.
“A number of our clients have pulled out of events and conferences, including SXSW,” said Wright, who is also global CEO of Red Havas.
“I think Cannes will likely be affected in a big way as well – a number are discussing their roles there.”
A Cannes Lions spokesperson told PRWeek: "Our priority remains the safety of our delegates and teams – we continue to closely monitor the development of the COVID-19/Coronavirus and any potential impact on our event.
"We are following guidance from the venue, the World Health Organisation and the French authorities, including recently announced temporary measures to restrict events taking place in France."
The Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port – a PR disaster for the cruiseline industry (Photo: Getty Images)
Good vs bad comms
If the economic damage is to be minimised, experts agree that communications will play a critical role, with travel and tourism operators on the frontline of the crisis.
Four Communications' chief executive of travel, Debbie Hindle, said the Singapore Tourism Board is one example of an authority that has handled comms well by making sure all of its social-media channels and consumer sites are providing official coronavirus guidance in a promiment place, and keeping the tourism and hospitality industries regularly updated with the latest information."
Sarah Barnett, head of PR at Black Diamond, echoed this advice, adding: “For our global tourism board clients, this means keeping a close track on where the virus is spreading and where new cases arise, together with communicating any entry changes to the consumer.
“Tahiti Tourisme and Japan National Tourism Organization, for example, have placed these temporary requirements on their websites," she said. "For our airline clients, specifically Lufthansa Group, we have been regularly communicating as flights have been cancelled to China."
Not all tourism operators have been handling the situation well, however. The costs of COVID-19 are really being felt by cruise lines that have grown in recent years on the back of China opening up to tourism.
“The cruise line sector has been hit hard by the long saga of the Diamond Princess,” Charles explained. “It has been a case study in what not to do – those passengers, some of whom have been vocal on social media, should have been taken off the ship much earlier and held in quarantine onshore in Japan.”
It may take some time for the cruise industry to recover, particularly those operating East Asian routes, but experts are optimistic that the resilient tourism and travel industry will bounce back, although they concede that some of the most directly affected operators may not survive.
As Brooke pointed out: “From a comms perspective, the travel industry is used to dealing with a multitude of issues – political unrest, natural disasters, terrorism, company collapse (think Thomas Cook) etc – and has been on the front foot since the start of the outbreak.
“What’s certain is that the affected regions will recover with time, Brits will continue to travel, and the UK travel industry is extremely resilient and adaptable.”
Until then, effective communications may be the only "antidote" travel and tourism operators have to mitigate damage caused by the coronavirus outbreak and its "infectious panic".