•Angie Champsaur, director of corporate comms, Focus Brands
•Kyle Dropp, cofounder and president, Morning Consult
•Roger Frizzell, SVP and CCO, Carnival Corporation
•Linda Rutherford, SVP and CCO, Southwest Airlines
•Sally Schiff, VP, global team member comms, Hilton
Collecting, analyzing and acting on real-time data provided a lifeline for businesses trying to navigate a market turned upside-down by the pandemic.
In its early days, a lack of information about the quickly spreading COVID-19 virus was a huge challenge. Then, as varied and conflicting sources of information began to emerge, comms pros needed to navigate the data landscape and establish themselves as a trusted source of information for their stakeholders. That became their main focus.
“Our goal was to communicate what we knew, when we knew it,” says Roger Frizzell, SVP and CCO at Carnival Corporation. One of its ships in Japan was among the very first to experience a COVID outbreak. As the company coordinated with the Japanese Health Ministry and tried to make sense of incoming information, Frizzell and his colleagues built a crisis team in Japan to bridge culture and language barriers, while another active team managed comms in the U.S.
Real-time conversations with guests, other stakeholders and crew members were challenging.
“We couldn't get on board,” recalls Frizzell, “so we had to use Zoom and rely on the captain's announcements and conversations through a door with our guests.”
NO PLAYBOOK FOR THIS
It became clear very quickly that the hotel industry was going to be among the sectors particularly upended by events.
“Every crisis is different, but there's a playbook and scenarios you prepare for. As we started to learn about COVID-19, we had to activate a different internal team,” notes Sally Schiff, VP, global team member comms, Hilton. Her team focused on consistent and transparent communications and created a dedicated microsite to act as a single source of information for team members and limit misinformation. The site is still active today as Hilton continues to navigate its recovery.
Of course, hotels and airlines are forever linked, so the latter sector was hit just as hard by the pandemic. And one of the top comms leaders in the space quickly realized that engaging with stakeholders was a critical component in assessing how to move forward.
“We did quite a bit of social listening,” reports Linda Rutherford, SVP and CCO, Southwest Airlines. As the airline saw a dramatic and expedient rise in cancellations of future bookings, tracking customer sentiment, which has always been a priority for the brand, became their top focus. The depth of the crisis provided a learning moment that underscores the importance of continually collecting data.
“We need to understand what's on the minds of our customers, our employees, what's going on in the communities that we serve and even regulators and what's happening with the Biden administration,” adds Rutherford.
AN INSIDE LOOK
While the changing dynamic of the brand-customer relationship, particularly for sectors most impacted by the pandemic, became clear very quickly, there was another audience that demanded immediate attention: employees. And not just from a comms standpoint, though that is crucial, but a safety standpoint.
“Confidence was the sentiment we had to attain, which was particularly difficult,” emphasizes Rutherford. “A flight attendant or pilot can't work remotely. They need to feel safe coming to work, so that was first and foremost.”
While her team worked closely with the C-suite to be transparent and show vulnerability about the challenges the airline faced, it also needed to keep people motivated and inspired in an uncertain environment.
Confidence and trust were the sentiments that guided comms teams. “When we invest in our team members, they invest in our guest experience,” explains Schiff, who was acting in the moment, but still kept her eye on the future and the time when guests would be back as normal.
For Focus Brands, franchisees comprised an additional stakeholder group that required their own set of comms objectives.
“We are a global company and most of our brands have franchisees, so we were listening to them, too,” says Angie Champsaur, director of corporate comms at Focus Brands, which is a parent company to well-known chains such as Moe’s Southwest Grill, Auntie Anne’s and Carvel. “They are small business owners trying to decipher what this means, what the CDC is saying, PPP loans. We brought together a cross-functional team of operations to communicate a streamlined message to our seven brands to ensure consistency and help our franchisees feel supported.”
Roundtable participants were (clockwise from top left) Champsaur, Frizzell, Rutherford, Schiff and Dropp.
CREATIVITY UNDER PRESSURE
Initiatives created under pressure-cooker conditions proved to be winning strategies for many brands.
“Listening and learning led us to launch initiatives,” offers Schiff. Once it became clear that health and safety was the critical priority for consumers and team members, Hilton teamed up with Reckitt, the makers of Lysol, and the Mayo Clinic to launch the Hilton Clean Stay, a program the brand plans to continue for the foreseeable future.
The lack of on-site customers is clearly an issue for a hotel chain, but Hilton got really creative by launching Hilton at Home, a dedicated initiative to connect with their guests during lockdown. A popular highlight was the release of the famous Doubletree cookie recipe.
And as personal travel began to tick up while business travel continued to dip, Hilton instituted a Confirmed Connecting Room policy aimed at family travel, an opportunity for differentiation that emerged loud and clear from Schiff’s team’s data evaluation.
Carnival Cruises put together a panel of world experts in medical and science, in addition to health authorities, to formulate the safety and health protocol the company put in place.
“There was an expectation by our guests, and by the larger public, that we would make improvements and take action,” explains Frizzell.
Southwest adopted a similar focus.
“All our research was telling us that if we could align with trusted medical voices and rely on science, we would be more effective in convincing people to get on an airplane,” notes Rutherford. “That became the Southwest Promise, dialing up our narrative around cleaning protocols, a commitment to not sell the middle seat, talking about the HEPA filtration on board our aircraft.”
To attract leisure travel, the airline opened 17 new “sun and fun” route destinations during the pandemic to let consumers know that when they were ready to travel, Southwest was there to safely transport them to their destinations.
Focus Brands leadership is “always looking at ways to make sure our frontline workers and guests are engaging with us when and where they want us,” adds Champsaur. Data her team gathered led to Moe's market kits at supermarkets and the launch of 350 curbside to-go stands. “We're going to continue to make sure we're sensitive to what's going on in our communities.”
TRUST FROM TUMULT
As consumers return to the market, their experiences during the pandemic will likely shape the way they view a brand. How those organizations stepped up to meet the crisis had a lasting impact on how brands are perceived. Real-time information continues to help brands adapt to new consumer expectations – and actually have their reputations helped in the process.
“Trust in travel and hospitality brands is higher now than it was pre-COVID,” shares Kyle Dropp, cofounder and president of Morning Consult. “After seeing trusted brands in travel and hospitality report declines in reputation, we're seeing them either back to pre-COVID levels or even slightly higher.”
Dropp continues by noting that when Morning Consult surveyed consumers this spring on the top things they were excited about, going on vacation, taking a road trip and socializing in a public place were top responses. Consumers ranked “making me feel secure and safe” and “reliability” as top reasons they liked a company.
“Our research tells us there's pent-up demand and our past guests are really anxious to cruise again, but we’ve got some work to do for people that haven't cruised,” says Frizzell. “It will be critically important that we give our guests a great vacation experience and that we do that every time. The bar is higher. Our research shows our brands are scoring higher than they did pre-pandemic, so we're getting some benefit of the actions we put in place and how we communicated.”
Going forward, Champsaur notes her brands’ commitment to “really talk to our guests to let them know that we're here for them. To meet guests where and when they want to engage with our brands” will be a critical factor in communications strategies.
“Never underestimate brand equity and how that can pay back,” she counsels. Carvel Ice cream, which usually has a set season, experienced high engagement during the pandemic. “There is so much emotion and sentiment around Carvel. Our guests engaged with our brand because at a time when they weren’t feeling positive about much, it made them feel good.”