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Weathering the storm: How the travel and tourism industry can survive when nobody is allowed to travel

There’s never been a more challenging time to work in the travel and tourism industry – but resourceful operators are already coming up with strategies to weather the storm.

Sked Social is hosting a series of educational sessions with industry experts to help you upskill during this time of global turmoil. The second of these ‘Upskill and Chill’ webinars, ‘Tips & Tricks in Travel & Tourism’, brought together two powerhouse women to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their industry.

Natasha Mahar is the CEO of Australia’s North West Tourism, a destination marketing organisation in Western Australia. The operators she works with are struggling – “they’ve just come out of a wet season, now they’ll have six months of nothing, and then straight into another wet season, so that’s essentially 18 months without any cash flow” – but she’s been “buoyed by their willingness to survive and hang on”.

Sonia Beckwith is the General Manager of Live Ningaloo, a wildlife tourism operator in Exmouth (in the north-west of Western Australia). The pandemic has had a “devastating” effect on her business, as it came at the start of their season in March, and travel restrictions could remain in place until the end of their season in October.

The panel was facilitated by social media strategist Meg Coffey, who grilled the panelists on their top tips for engaging with customers and followers in the midst of the downturn.

Embrace the new ‘normal’

As much as you might be craving a return to ‘business as usual’, Sonia said tourism operators need to accept that ‘normal’ might be a long way off.

“It’s important to understand that everything has changed,” she said. “I’m not convinced things are going to go back to ‘business as usual’. I don’t think it has to be a negative thing, but I think there could be a change in how people travel… I think patterns may change up for quite some time, and we need to be prepared for that.”

Natasha said that intrastate travel will play a more important role than ever for tourism operators as Australia is gradually unlocked.

“The ‘new normal’ will be led by intrastate travel,” she said. “We’re going to see people travelling within their own state first, followed by interstate travel, and eventually international travel. It’s a huge opportunity for us to tap into that intrastate market. People will be saying, ‘Well, we were going to go to Bali, or we were going to go skiing, but instead we might jump on a whale shark tour here’.

“We’re doing a lot of intrastate market research to find out what people who live here want to do and what’s in their comfort zone, because they’re going to be a little bit wary of travelling. We need to make sure we’re tapping into what people will want to feel and experience.

“Traditionally, people tend to explore their own backyard last of all. That’s how it’s worked in the past. We travel the world and we do all sorts of crazy, wild and wonderful things overseas before we explore our own state. So this is an opportunity to do that… it’s not going to be too hard to convince people to travel within their own state after this, that’s for sure.”

Sonia agreed that intrastate travel will present an “immense opportunity” for tourism operators in a post-COVID landscape.

“I don’t think state borders will open right away,” she said. “You’ll have clearance to travel in your own state but nowhere else. People will want to vacate where they’ve been stuck for months, but they won’t be able to leave the state… so people are going to be rediscovering their backyard. That’s the messaging that I see us using when it’s appropriate.

“We need to understand that people are going to be fearful to travel far, and some of them may not actually have the income to do so, but we have everything they need right here anyway. It’s going to be about falling back in love with every corner of your state.”

Now is not the time to sell

While it might be tempting to make up for lost income now by aggressively pushing deals and packages for the future, both Natasha and Sonia were adamant that tourism operators need to read the room.

“Clearly, communications have changed,” Natasha said. “We need to be really careful, and our messaging has to be incredibly subtle. We can build the travel fantasy and say, ‘We’re here when you’re ready, but we just don’t know when that will be yet’, or ‘We can’t wait to welcome you back when it’s safe to travel again’.

“It’s about making sure that your region is front-of-mind for people while they’ve got all this spare time to be looking at their screen, but you also have to tune in to what your consumers are feeling right now. Now is not a time to sell – it’s a time to dream, and a time to plan.”

“Every single time I get a retail email pushing 20, 50, 70 per cent off, I’m cringing,” Sonia said. “I’m not going to start selling until I stop cringing. It just feels wrong… I’m not spending anything on advertising right now, and I don’t see myself doing that anytime soon.

“It’s in every small business owner’s nature to keep pushing, to keep leaning in, but what I would say to all of the business owners who want to get their sales messages out, who are feeling that pent-up energy, is to focus that energy on building more foundational pieces. Update your website, update your photos, do all those little jobs that aren’t sexy but need to be done. That way, when it is the right time to market, you can hit the ground running.”

Keep it real

Just because you’re not selling doesn’t mean you should stop communicating. Sonia emphasised the need to stay in touch with your audience, and be honest about your situation – both with your customers and yourself.

“In some ways I’m actually communicating more, but I’m doing it more gently,” Sonia said. “I’m sending more newsletters than I ever have before in such a short space of time, in order to keep guests that are booked for later on in 2020 informed, because it’s all moving and changing so fast.

“At this point, you can’t be above begging. We’re asking guests who have bookings, ‘Please do not cancel, please take a gift card or postpone your travel instead, because we need you’… I think it’s important for small businesses to understand that this is an emotional time, but you do have an opportunity to shore up as much recovery as possible if you’re smart.

“In terms of social media, I’ve been posting photos that give me that warm feeling inside. I posted a photo of a dugong that reminded me of a chubby ocean bunny, and I posted about how we had made chocolate chip cookies that day. Why not, you know? Everybody needs that feeling. So we’re taking a raw, real approach with our socials, and more of an informative, ‘please have our back’ approach with our newsletters.

“You need to be on social media. If you’re not on social and you don’t plan to be, I hope you’re at least collecting email addresses, because that’ll be the way to contact everyone. But it will be more difficult if you’re not on social.”

Meg agreed that it’s essential for tourism operators to use their social media channels to keep their audience informed and engaged throughout the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s a cheap and easy way to get your message out there to a lot of people,” she said. “The situation is changing by the hour, or the half-hour. By the time you see it in print in a newspaper, it’s old news.

“Social media is one of the most indispensable tools you can be using, but you need to be transparent.”

Natasha agreed that a strong social media presence is a must – “there’s no excuse for not being on social media now; no excuse at all” – and emphasised that businesses will need to take a realistic approach to their new circumstances.

“Let’s bring things down to basics,” she said. “How relevant are your KPIs at the moment? I think everyone has to take a deep breath and do what they can to get through this without overcomplicating things. KPIs… that’s not something we’re focusing on right at this moment. We’re focussing on planning for recovery and advocating for our members.”

Ultimately, Natasha said, authenticity needs to be the lodestar for your company’s communications.

“Be bold and brave and zig when other people are zagging,” she said. “Be your true self and authentic and I think that will reflect in all of your comms.”

To see more ‘Upskill and Chill’ webinars, receive information on upcoming sessions and suggest topics you’d like to learn more about and experts you’d like to hear from, click here.

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