With the H1N1 swine flu appearing in a year that seems determined to offer a new crisis every week, the travel industry finds itself facing an ancillary crisis: a credibility gap.
Whether it's the demonizing of the luxury and meetings sectors, hysteria over Mexican drug gang violence, questions about a passenger jumping off a cruise ship or worries about political protests in Thailand, the industry ends up defending itself rather than defining itself.
What's ironic is that the industry's positions on these topics, if viewed rationally, are pretty solid. Are company shareholders really well-served if a corporation forfeits a $300,000 deposit because it has canceled a meeting at a Four Seasons in order to move, for appearance' sake, to a Howard Johnson? Is it credible to think that Mexican drug lords in Ciudad Juarez are even remotely interested in tourists bobbing in a wave pool on the Riviera Maya? What does suicide have to do with cruise ship safety?
For smart industry marketers, all of this should be familiar territory. Consumers, we thought, had already come to understand that luxury can also represent value, that Mexican resorts are wonderful places to relax and that cruise ships are centers of fun, not worry.
Part of our problem is tied to the ways in which travel is promoted. Travel is not typically sold with facts. Square footage, thread-counts and the sugar-white quality of sand will get you only so far. Travel, we learned long ago, is best marketed by striking emotional chords. Feelings, not facts, are the powerful sales drivers of the industry.
But there are emotions, and then there are emotions. We're finding that two emotions in particular -- fear and anger -- are more powerful than those typically thought of as positive. Perhaps travel marketers, accustomed to building their cases on good feelings, are ill-equipped to craft crisis response.
The most effective counters to fear and anger are not opposing emotions but facts -- i.e., credible information, delivered quickly. The cruise industry has learned this lesson with regard to missing passengers, but it still faces intense media attention with each new occurrence, partly because of earlier missteps.
As an industry, our responses to the various crises of 2009 -- is it only May? --have been mixed. We've had some issues with timing and discovered that if problems are not addressed quickly and credibly, fear or anger can rise fast and dissipate slowly.
For example, U.S. Travel's proposed meetings guidelines, which were put together after the public had already become outraged over Troubled Asset Relief Program recipients gathering at five-star resorts, was not a case of too little, too late. It was just too late.
The guidelines themselves are excellent and contain a surprising number of concessions from hoteliers. Granted, it's time-consuming to wrangle consensus among a diverse membership, but by the time the association's document surfaced, public anger had built such momentum that it became risky for politicians to do anything but unilaterally condemn meetings at five-star resorts, period.
As regards violence in Mexico, the situation is more a question of facts than timing. After the advisory on drug gang violence was issued by the U.S. State Department, consumers had highly specific questions: Have any tourists been kidnapped in the resort area I'm considering? Anyone killed there as a result of drug violence? If the answers -- hard facts -- were known by anyone, they were not readily available, and any attempt by the Mexican government to answer these questions with generalities or anecdotal testimonials came off as evasive. At that point, people didn't care that hundreds of thousands of Americans visit the country each year without incident. They wanted to know if they would be safe exactly where and when they were going.
The question of credibility is key. Last month, I heard a speech by Kasit Piromya, the minister of foreign affairs of Thailand. His message was primarily political, and initially he painted a dramatic picture of the Thai political protests.
"One death could lead to civil war," he said, "so we practiced great restraint." The sense of drama was heightened as he spoke about threats against his life.
After he finished, I asked whether it was safe for tourists to visit Thailand. "Protests are really confined to one or two spots in Bangkok," he said. "I can assure you the rest of the country has been normal. Tourism goes on as usual. There's nothing to be afraid of."
Except, perhaps, that one death which will throw the country into civil war? It was difficult to reconcile his reassurances with his earlier statements.
Swine flu will be a severe test for the global travel industry over the coming weeks (only weeks, I pray). If health and government officials issue warnings cautioning against travel to other countries, there is little any destination can do to counter that.
But tourism officials can make the situation worse for themselves. They can be evasive about the extent of the flu or delay providing statistical information or, worst of all, provide false or misleading statements.
I suspect the public will have little patience with anything less than the whole truth, provided quickly. In a medical crisis, no one wants to see a spin doctor.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/awtravelweekly.