01/07/20 // Written by TomMitchell

Coronavirus and the travel industry: How brands will communicate in a new era

Remember 2019? Our appetite for travel continued to grow as international tourist arrivals reached 1.5 billion – the highest annual figure on record. But by May 2020, the UN World Tourism Organisation had predicted those numbers could fall by 60-80 percent due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Its impacts are deeply worrying for almost everyone in the travel industry and beyond. 

Yet while such concerns must be acknowledged, it’s possible to find causes for optimism. A Skyscanner survey found that 60 percent of travellers were hopeful they would travel internationally this year, while staycation bookings are expected to boom.

Meanwhile nature has returned to the waterways of Venice, with some seeing the situation as an unlikely opportunity to rebuild tourism in a more sustainable way.

What this new incarnation of travel will look like is unclear. Peak seasons, insurance policies and customer priorities are all likely to change in the short term at least – as are the ways in which brands communicate.

So what messages will travel companies lead with as parts of the world begin tentatively welcoming back travellers?

Putting safety and cleanliness first

With adventure, comfort and culture to sell first, safety has rarely before been the focus for travel brand marketers. It’s clear the industry now sees it as key to its revival. The UN World Travel & Tourism Council recently released a set of protocols to help businesses reassure travellers that certain safety standards are being met. The AA’s COVID Confident assessment scheme has been designed to do the same here in the UK.      

Cleanliness has rarely been a promotion tool – rather a given – but we’re already seeing brands such as Hilton highlight the extra steps they’re taking to ensure customer safety in guest rooms, communal and dining areas.

The Hilton CleanStay program has been created in partnership with the consumer cleaning giant RB – makers of Lysol, Dettol and more. It aims to ‘deliver the same level of reliable and friendly service you’d expect from Hilton, but with the added confidence of industry-leading hygiene practices created to keep you safe.’

It’s not your typical travel brand collaboration, but we can expect to see others – especially airlines and cruise companies – follow suit. They would be wise to do so too as research conducted by King’s Business School in London found that, though scarcely used, safety messaging positively influenced tourists even in a pre-pandemic context.   

Displaying greater transparency

Communicating in a clear, honest and responsive manner will be essential in retaining customer loyalty once travel opens back up. Many travel brands have come under fire for how they’ve handled customer concerns relating to the health crisis, with Which? researchers discovering that all large UK airlines and travel firms were breaking the law by withholding refunds.

There are practical reasons for these delays. With new bookings almost entirely dried up, many businesses simply don’t have the means to process refunds on mass within the regular 14-day window. The trade body Abta has campaigned for a temporary relaxation of regulations to allow firms longer to process payments, mirroring measures already taken by governments throughout Europe.

With that said, communicating in a vague or difficult way risks eroding customer trust and any hope of them returning. Brands that address these shortfalls and how they’re being resolved will win hearts and minds in the short term, while greater transparency around how the virus could affect a future booking can ensure customers don’t feel misled.

Offering vouchers alongside refunds – not instead of – could appease both those who want to re-book and people who need the money right now. Meanwhile, promoting flexible cancellations, alongside responsive customer support, may help entice new bookings from those who do want to travel again but are understandably reluctant.               

Creating light at the end of the tunnel

While global lockdowns have been in place, many travel brands have asked customers to stay at home and dream of future adventures instead. Others have offered virtual tours to make do while the idea of real-life travel has felt almost unimaginable.

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But as restrictions are gradually lifted, the industry will need to tackle hesitancy by creating light at the end of the tunnel.

In line with the previous point on transparency, this brings a (hopefully short term) need to promote some destinations in the context of this new era. We can expect to see more content highlighting outdoor attractions and activities that allow for social distancing, for example.    

This will be easier for some areas of the industry than others. A Co-operative Travel survey of British holidaymakers found beach holidays to be top of British holidaymakers list of post-lockdown priorities, followed by city breaks. Coastal tourism organisations will have less work to do in reimagining their product than their city-based counterparts.

Regardless, copywriters will need to strike an empathetic balance between caution and encouragement. Too much of the former could feel dystopian and off-putting to some, while the opposite might come off reckless and disrespectful to others. Using digital tactics such as programmatic advertising, travel brands are able to tailor messages based on factors such as past booking behaviour and demographics, a strategy that is always likely to prove more effective than a blanket campaign – but never more than now.

While the travel industry has certainly taken a hit due to coronavirus, as life regains more normality, brands need to and will start to find their feet again. We have experience working with a range of travel businesses, including Exodus Travels, to increase audience engagement and conversions. Combining data and creativity, our brilliant content writers are adept at producing content that helps build brand awareness and industry authority. If you want to find out how our digital marketing services can help your business, get in touch.