The tourism industry has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic as lockdowns, travel bans and border restrictions have choked off the flow of visitors. Despite these challenges, history has shown us that the travel industry is resilient — and while we don’t know exactly when travellers will be back, we can be certain that they will be back. As a marketer, how can you prepare for the months ahead and ultimately set yourself up for success?

As part of our monthly MarTech Mornings – a now-virtual expert panel series on marketing and technology – Globe Content Studio hosted a discussion with advertisers and marketers from travel and hospitality brands to share ideas, best practices and inspiration for these challenging times and beyond.

Here are the top takeaways from the webinar:

1. The travel industry was hit hard and fast

“It was swift and devastating,” says Richard Bartrem, vice-president of marketing communications at WestJet Airlines Ltd. Demand fell by 95 per cent and while it’s coming back, it’s happening slowly. 

Club Med SAS, like other hotels and resorts, experienced a similar fate. For the first time in 70 years, the all-inclusive holidays company shut down all of its resorts. It was “an extraordinary situation,” says Jeremie Hoss, marketing director of Canada at Club Med.

For Destination Canada (formerly the Canadian Tourism Commission, created in 1995 to promote tourism), COVID-19 accelerated a two-fold shift in the organization’s business model: investing more in research, and adjusting efforts to focus on marketing domestically rather than internationally. “We realized the importance of having great research and we are absorbing that cost and providing it to our partners across the city, province and country,” says Cookie Boyle, executive director of global content at Destination Canada. “The second big shift was in changing how we partner. We are now supporting our provincial partners to market domestically, at a community-based level to tell those local stories.” 

2. Communication is key

Soon after COVID-19 grounded travel, Raina Williams, senior regional manager of Canada at Expedia Group Media Solutions, says the company’s No. 1 priority was supporting and communicating with travelers and partners — including implementing new cancellation policies, updating lodging, health and cleanliness information, ensuring flights with change fees were clearly marked. “We also offer self-service options so travelers don’t have to speak to agents,” she says.

For WestJet, it was all about being transparent on the hygiene protocols that are taking place in airports and on airplanes, and communicating the efforts to ensure passenger safety.

“Everyone wanted to know the steps were being taken to make the journey safer,” Bartrem says.

“The risk of contracting COVID-19 is incredibly low given the technology onboard the aircraft but we had to fight against some of the cliches of recycled air that runs through the aircraft,” he adds. “The entire fleet runs HEPA filters that allow 99.9 percent of pathogens to be captured and the air on the aircraft gets recycled with new air every two to three minutes. That was the biggest thing.”

For Club Med, stepping up communications and pulling back on advertising was similarly crucial during this period. “Our call centre was completely overloaded,” says Hoss. “We had to give [customers] clear visibility in terms of what would be done for them … it was our main priority.” 

The company stopped promoting holiday packages and resorts and launched Club Med At Home, where customers could take part in yoga, cooking and children’s activities at home. “It was a way to maintain a link,” Hoss adds.

Destination Canada seized the opportunity to connect with provinces and territories, says Boyle, taking a ‘Team Canada’ approach from Newfoundland to Nunavut. “[Tourism boards] were sharing learnings and insights and there was this feeling that we’re in this together.”

3. Collaboration has been a silver lining

“Crisis is not the time to be competitive. It’s a time to collaborate,” Williams says. After Expedia recognized that domestic travel would be the first to return, it partnered with Destination Canada to introduce a webinar series called Canada Spotlight, giving every province the opportunity to educate the travel trade on highlights, hidden gems and new safety measures. The company also started circulating playbooks with data points and surveys to understand what was happening and to empower partners and travel shoppers.

Since Club Med sells travel packages, it has naturally been working closely with partners such as airline companies and other travel agencies to make booking and cancelling travel simple for customers. 

At WestJet, new relationships with health authorities and medical equipment providers have been forged. The company also started donating its large inventories of flight snacks to various communities across Canada. “We fly more than 25 million people a year so we have an inventory of cookies and pretzels,” says Bartrem, “so we wanted to make sure we had a good use for it.”

For Boyle, one of the upsides was the fact that they were working with organizations they never would have spoken to before. “We’re on a call with Visit California, who we see as a great competitor, to learn how they’re handling it and learning and sharing our learnings with them,” she says.

The data to back it up

To understand The Globe and Mail’s print and digital readers’ travel and tourism habits, we also asked our Globe Insiders online panel a few questions about how their plans have changed during the pandemic. (Note: These are the exclusive results of a Globe and Mail survey.) Here are some of the most interesting findings:

Be the first to know about our next virtual MarTech Mornings event in July by subscribing to our newsletter here, and following us on social at @globecontent.

Katherine Scarrow is the general manager of Globe Content Studio, the content-marketing division of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national media organization.

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