Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

It was odd. On one hand, I was hearing concern being expressed by tour operators and hoteliers who promote Mexican destinations to Americans. They were seeing that some of the negative reporting that was getting widespread media attention this past summer -- particularly charges about "tainted alcohol" and the expanded U.S. State Department travel warning -- were adversely affecting their business.

Some expressed frustration that Mexico was not acting proactively in responding to the negative reports. They felt that there was no sense of urgency at the Mexico Tourism Board about a situation they were seeing as a growing crisis.

But at the same time, I was looking at government data showing that Mexico was having a record year in 2017 and that arrivals and occupancy were stronger than ever.

How could the public and private sectors be seeing things so differently?

In unraveling this apparent contradiction, what emerged was a case study on the importance of communication and cooperation between government and the private sector.

Last week, state and government officials and suppliers who have an interest in Mexico gathered for the Cancun Travel Mart. These issues were aired and, according to some attendees, everyone left happier and, importantly, on the same page.

Apple Leisure Group, which owns Apple Vacations, Travel Impressions, Cheap Caribbean, AMResorts and Amstar, is the largest single seller of Mexico tourism. Sending a million passengers there every year, it has an enormous stake in how that country is perceived by vacationing Americans. I spoke to its CEO, Alex Zozaya, while he was in Cancun at the Travel Mart.

At the heart of the issue of contrasting perceptions, he said, were competing sets of data.

"The information they gather from airports and others about arrivals takes a month or more" to gather and analyze, he said.

So, in the midst of the tainted alcohol reports, there was no clarity on whether there had been any impact on visitation. All the available numbers were showing growth, and there was the belief that, yes, there might be risk in not countering negative reports aggressively, but there was also perceived risk in addressing these (and security) issues because that might only keep the story front-and-center in the media.

Moreover, because the numbers indicated there was no apparent problem, there was no need to engage a public relations agency and put together a crisis plan.

Looking at his own year-over-year numbers, however, Zozaya became increasingly concerned by the government's lack of urgent attention.

"We were seeing a decline they weren't seeing, but nothing could be done," he said. "It was an impasse situation. They felt the less they talked about it, the less it would affect them. We said no, because of negative perceptions [about Mexico], people might decide to vacation somewhere else."

In August, Zozaya began sharing with government officials what was going on with his business in near-real time.

"We thought it was likely that what was happening with us would be happening with others," he said. "At the beginning, it was kind of like they were in denial, but it became clear they were not really aware of what was going on."

It took some time, he said, to "align private sector and federal government, and also federal government and state governments."

Prior to the meeting in Cancun, the situation stabilized somewhat.

"We're not in the crisis we were in a month ago," Zozaya said. And he felt much more optimistic following a meeting last week at Travel Mart that brought together Mexico Secretary of Tourism Enrique de la Madrid, state tourism ministers and major stakeholders in the private sector. They came away with an understanding that there was indeed work to be done in order to, in Zozaya's words, "help mitigate some of the negative effects we've seen."

The outline of an approach was formulated and agreed upon.

"We don't want to revive any problems, but we don't want to just go silent and hope that issues go away," he said. "And while it is true, for instance, that crime affecting visitors in tourist areas of Mexico is below that in tourist areas in the U.S., well, that information is good to have, but it's not necessary to put it out there."

Attendees at the meeting in Cancun concurred that the focus should instead be on aggressively promoting positive news.

"The opening of a hotel, the adding of attractions, additional flights -- we all have a lot to gain by putting the good news out in front," Zozaya said.

The narrative above speaks to the importance of strong lines of communication between public and private sectors in travel. The necessity of these bonds surfaces quickly during times of crisis. It is, of course, the nature of crises not to forewarn of their imminent arrival, so all must be in place and ready in normal times.

Zozaya also shared with me some unpublicized steps that the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, is undertaking to address the underlying problems that have led to concerns on multiple fronts. That's crucial. Without attacking the root causes, as Cabo San Lucas recently reported it is doing, the need for urgent public relations strategies becomes a common, rather than crisis, imperative.


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