The Covid-19 pandemic brought travel to a halt, but for many public relations firms, the shutdown has meant working overtime on behalf of their travel industry clients -- often at reduced pay, occasionally for no pay at all and almost always with a reduced staff.
"We're a company that never counted hours and never counted how much we did for each client," said Geoffrey Weill, president of the Weill public relations firm. "We just did and do what we need to do."
As the travel industry inches forward with reopening, now those clients are asking Weill and other PR firms to help them shift their messaging from the "dream now, travel later" approach seen in the early days of the shutdown to offering reassurances about health and sanitation measures.
While the shutdown meant that many travel companies initially went dark, almost completely discontinuing their publicity and marketing efforts, business has picked up for PR firms over the past few weeks as certain sectors, particularly stateside destinations and higher-end properties, have entered the reopening phase.
"Domestic hotels and resorts are picking up summer bookings, especially nature-based vacations and beach resorts," said Laura Davidson, president and founder of Laura Davidson Public Relations. She said that among her agency's clients, "Places like Chatham Bars Inn up in Cape Cod and Ocean House in Rhode Island are full, and out West, Amangiri in Utah and the Resort at Paws Up in Montana will have great summers."
Some PR firms have even signed up new clients. Jennifer Hawkins, founder and president of Hawkins International PR, said affiliate agency Maverick Creative, whose portfolio comprises predominantly U.S.-based clientele, recently signed up The Point in New York state's Adirondacks and the Little Nell in Aspen. And reflecting prevailing wisdom on Americans' near-term travel plans, "the new clients we're seeing coming into our portfolio are domestic and drivable," Hawkins said.
Beyond the U.S. drive market, "Our Caribbean resorts are starting up marketing and PR with the hopes of getting a good fall and winter business from the U.S., and late summer business from Europe," Davidson said.
Weill and Davidson both said that U.S. travelers are anticipating a return to long-haul travel in 2021. "People are starting to plan their long-haul overseas trips for next year," Davidson said. "Everyone wants something to look forward to, right?"
But for 2020, Weill, whose clientele consists primarily of international hotels and destinations, said that "most people I think are beginning more and more to realize that they ain't going to be doing that much traveling this year."
Weill said that during a recent webinar by client Dan Hotels for travel advisors and media, "I think those that tuned into it expected to hear that Israel is opening to Americans. And there was a kind of silent affront that no, it's not. ... And for Americans to be told that they're not welcome yet is not something Americans are used to hearing."
So as the industry waits to see when key destinations will open up to U.S. visitors, for Weill and others, much of their work these days focuses on helping clients reassure those luxury travelers who are able to visit that despite "all of the protection and all of the restrictions, their hotels are still beautiful and pleasant," Weill said, and that even though the staff's smiles might be concealed by masks, "the eyes are smiling."
"That is so important if you're spending $800 a night or $1,000 a night to stay somewhere beautiful," he said.
Hawkins said her agencies are advising clients that once they have a clear vision for when they're going to reopen, they must ensure "their protocols around cleanliness and social distancing are very clear. We're not saying put a press release out about it, but make sure it's clearly indicated in your customer correspondence, on your website."
Davidson concurred, adding that "it's also important to manage guest expectations in terms of services and amenities available at your hotel. Is restaurant seating limited? Do you now have outdoor dining? What private picnic experiences are available? Is the spa open, and what are the rules there?"
That managing of expectations includes ensuring a hotel does not send mixed messages, Hawkins said. "Don't put beautiful pictures up of your spa on Instagram if your spa's not going to be open right now," she said. "You have to be really careful you're not putting up pictures of full restaurants or people standing at the bar clinking glasses."
Conveying a consistent message is paramount, according to Alice Marshall, owner of Alice Marshall Public Relations.
"It is important for tourism partners to be transparent and realistic to avoid renewed outbreak, which would undermine confidence," she said. "Every brand needs to establish or re-establish trust. They need to clearly communicate their elevated regulations and protocols as well as their stance in the future of travel and what their guests can expect."
The New Travel Conference
The future of travel will be the theme of The New Travel (TNT) Conference next week. Besides Davidson, Hawkins, Marshall, Weill and other PR firms, the virtual conference from June 22 to 26 will gather hoteliers, destination marketing organizations, cruise lines and other travel industry businesses, along with travel media and luxury travel advisors, to examine how the next six months might shape up for the industry. Advisors will also be encouraged to schedule one-on-one follow-ups with TNT exhibitors.
Indeed, Hawkins said that travel advisors will play a key role in the industry's recovery. "Some of our clients in Paris that are opening now, because a lot of the city is not open in terms of museums and restaurants, they're able to provide special, private viewings in galleries," she said. "But you really can only do that through a travel advisor. You're not going to call up and get this private access. You have to go through a travel agent to get the inside scoop."
For more information on The New Travel Conference and to register, click here.