A gunman opens fire on the crowd, a new disease threatens the lives of thousands, a hurricane leaves no buildings standing: whilst Travel & Tourism can offer a relatively quick path to development, it’s also susceptible to its own challenges. Natural disasters, disease and terrorism can provoke precipitous drops in visitor numbers.

One of the stand out sessions at the recent WTTC Global Summit in Buenos Aires brought together Travel & Tourism professionals from destinations in both the developed and developing world to discuss how they dealt with crises.

Here were some of the things they learned from their experiences:

Be prepared for both the unexpected and the expected

At a sector and Governmental level, it’s important to have a defined plan for managing crisis and promoting a swift recovery. This should take into account learning from previous incidents. It’s been notable how French authorities clearly learned from earlier terrorist incidents in Paris, responding with speed and efficiency during the shooting incident in Trèbes earlier this year, which could have become far worse. Swift action, to reassure citizens that their country is safe and visitors that life goes on, can be very effective at ensuring long term fall out is limited. Generally, the Government has to set the framework for crisis management and industry should then be made to follow — potentially with the use of legislation. Some crises can be anticipated too. As H.E. Edmund Bartlett, Minister of Tourism, Jamaica pointed out talking about the hurricanes that wreaked havoc on several Caribbean neighbours recently.

Develop the response network

Talking about how they handled a live shooter incident, Cathy Tull, SVP Marketing at Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority explained how having the right contacts across the different constituencies was key: the hotel where the incident took place, the emergency services, the hospital, the media. Whilst you may have planned for a crisis, in reality things rarely happen as you expect. So coordinating response requires the fast forming of teams built around the right people. When the first reports start to filter back that there’s been a serious incident, who do you call? Having a team of key people in your contact file who know what their role needs to be is crucial. This becomes more important if communications channels are disrupted: knowing not just who you will contact, but how you will contact them, with multiple options in case some channels fail.

Manage the social media

As Sean Donohue, CEO of Dallas Fort Worth Airport, highlighted, social media means you can’t control bad news these days. So your planning needs to include an approach to managing it. This is about quickly occupying the space. You need to become the trusted authority for information so that the risk of incorrect rumours exacerbating the crisis is minimised. Ensuring you have a social media manager who knows what to do and then making sure they’re plugged into that same communication eco-system, you have in place for managing the crisis makes a great deal of sense. They should reach out to members of the public on the ground who are vocal on social channels, try to verify their responses to the crisis and co-opt them into framing the story correctly. Social media has a big influence on recovery post event too. Cathy Tull explained how using user-generated content was key to the recovery for Las Vegas. Having real holidaymakers publish posts showing that everything was fine was in many ways more credible than any number of official press releases saying similar things.

Managing mainstream media

How the mainstream press deals with the story both as it happens and in particular once things are starting to normalise is very important too. Often it’s the mainstream media that picks up rumour from social media and amplifies it, creating an overly negative impression of the situation. Some of the destinations effected by crises on the panels expressed frustration at the way negative narratives tended to get bedded into the media stories during the crises and that was that. Little effort was made to update on the situation, report on the recovery and quash incorrect rumour. H.E. Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Kenya wondered if the mainstream media favours Western destinations compared with African ones when it comes to help with recovery after crisis. True or not, it’s clear that a media narrative of recovery and growth needs to be encouraged as a matter of urgency and the right PR planning needs to be in place to achieve this.

Promoting swift recovery

Hiromi Tagawa, Chairman of the Board, JTB Corp talked about recovery and pointed out that it should be about ‘building back better.’ This makes a lot of sense. If the slate has been wiped virtually clean, awful though that may be, once the immediate event is over, it should be see as a chance to start afresh, an opportunity to do things better. This could be adopting more hurricane or earthquake resistant building practices, or introducing better infrastructure for managing the outbreak of disease or protecting holidaymakers. Private sector investment to rebuild and renew can be turbo-charged with tax breaks and incentives. And once there’s product to sell people again, it’s important to get the word out. After the Paris shootings, France put in place a coordinated marketing campaign, targeting key markets like the USA and the UK.

As H.E Najib Balala, pointed out, the crisis incident is only part of the problem. The knock-on effects to people’s jobs and livelihoods can be huge. How lasting its impact is and how quickly recovery takes place can make all the difference.

Further reading: Minimising the impact of the 2017 hurricane season in the Caribbean’s tourism sector.

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