Marketing during a crisis: Back off but don't disappear

Photo Credit: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
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The coronavirus crisis has thrown travel marketing departments into disarray as they navigate a world in which travel is stalled indefinitely, borders are being closed and the public is being asked to hunker down. 

Marketing experts offer different takes on how brands should react in terms of scaling back and adjusting their message, but most seem to agree that falling off their target market’s radar is not a good option. 

Robert Li, director of the U.S.-Asia Center for Tourism & Hospitality Research at Temple University, said brands should not shut down completely, but he added that strategies should differ depending on the sector and situation. 

“I think destinations cannot simply abandon marketing at this point,” he said. “Right or wrong, you have to keep some kind of communication with your source markets. ... In some cases, it also helps to clarify some of the messages, such as travel bans. Always be genuine and empathetic.”

For the cruise industry, which has taken an outsize hit so far as a result of the outbreak, Li said, “Maybe taking no action at this point is the best action. The situation remains rather complicated, and sending premature marketing messages at this point could further complicate the situation and could even be misinterpreted in some cases. Maybe in that case you should not say or do too much. But always listen to your customers and monitor the market sentiment and try to keep your bond with the community and target market and show your social responsibility.”

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. did just that early in the crisis, before the industry grounded its fleets for 30 days by planning to use some ships moved out of Asia to offer cruises to first responders in the U.S. and Australia. 

Cruise executives said they have adjusted both their spend and message.

“I think marketing has to change while we are all in the ‘pause’ phase in our industry,” said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and trade support and service for Royal Caribbean International. “I think major advertising must be placed on pause and we all go back to the basics of true one-to-one connecting. That means calling our past clients, checking in with them, emailing, snail mail. After all, it is so rare these days to receive a card in the mail.” 

Freed said sensitivity is important. 

“Selling them hard during this period is not appropriate,” she said. “Let your clients lead the interest in vacation planning.”

James Rodriguez, Oceania Cruises’ executive vice president of sales and marketing, said Oceania is scaling back its marketing, but “looking for new and creative ways to connect with our guests and travel advisors via social media and personal messaging.”

“Given the current global environment, brands must stay in sync with the emotions and mindsets of their guests and partners,” Rodriguez said. “This doesn’t necessitate a change in strategy or philosophy but does require us to think differently in our approach in how we consistently communicate the right message at the right time. While our ships may not be at sea at the moment, our guests and travel partners are relying on us to keep them dreaming about their next voyage. And that’s what we intend to do.”

Freed said travel advisors can also keep their clients dreaming. One way to do that, she said, is to host a virtual cruise night that people can join from home. 

“It allows clients to dream about that vacation, and when they are ready to truly vacation, they have more knowledge about the product,” she said. “No hard sell, just educate.”

The point is to stay top of mind. 

“It is important to market yourself during this time frame and not become a hermit,” Freed said. “Staying in front with your clients and prospects is the key to the rebuilding process. The stress that the world events are creating for us today will encourage people to take a break and vacation.” 

River cruise lines are in a somewhat different situation, since the crisis unfolded before their main Europe season had started. 

Even before the U.S. shut down travel from Europe, Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, said the company was planning to continue with already-contracted efforts, but “new marketing right now is on hold. We’d rather spend the money later.”

AmaWaterways also held off on sending out its new brochures this season.

Marcus Leskovar, executive vice president of Amadeus River Cruises, said it was also holding off on new marketing, as “It would just fall on deaf ears right now.

“Everyone’s trying to figure out how to get out of their vacation,” he said. “They are not going to jump into new commitments.”

But Pamela Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways, said it is important not to take one’s eyes off the long game.

“This is a short-term problem, and we are in a long-term business,” Hoffee said. Like Freed, she expressed the hope that when this crisis passes, there will be huge pent-up travel demand. 

Hoteliers are faced with deciding whether or not to launch new brands and properties this spring that have long been in the pipeline.

“There’s just so much that goes into any new launch,” said Oscar Yuan, president of Strategy3, a consultancy owned by market research firm Ipsos. “You may have media you’ve purchased, employees you’ve hired. And you’ve maybe built the financial forecast around a launch or opening, and it’s really difficult to just back out of those types of things. To stop and then later restart something completely from scratch is an enormous investment.”

Some hotel groups are sticking to existing launch and opening schedules.

Aman debuted Janu this month, the first new hotel brand to join its portfolio since its 1988 founding. That same week, fellow luxury player Capella Hotel Group unveiled Patina Hotels & Resorts, a lifestyle brand.

Even as occupancy is in free fall in key markets worldwide, Mama Shelter is among the brands still opening new locations. Its Mama Luxembourg is still slated to open this spring. 

Yuan approves of this. 

“The whole industry needs to try to keep things business-as-usual to the extent that they’re able to,” he said. “The worst thing a travel brand can do is to create any extra hysteria around things and ruin any chance they have of coming back later in the year completely. We know there’s going to be impact, but I think demonstrating stability and consistency as this pandemic is sorted out is probably one of the best things that can be done.”

He also said that delaying an opening could mean ceding a chance to ride a potential rebound later this year.

“If all the planning and preparations have gone ahead for a hotel to open, then they might as well have the opportunity to get some revenue this year,” Yuan said.

Max Starkov, an adjunct professor at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, takes a contrary stance.

“Launching a new hotel brand or new product now is simply counterproductive and a complete waste of money,” he asserted. 

The best approach, he said, is to follow the strategy of the producers of the James Bond film “No Time to Die,” who have postponed its release until the fall. 

Otherwise, he said, “For a brand to be positioned correctly and to be able to relay the right value proposition is just impossible at the moment.”
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Christina Jelski and Jeri Clausing contributed to this report.

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