Coronavirus tourism survival and recovery

This shouldn’t be news to anyone by now, but tourism and hospitality stand to be the worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and, to add injury to injury, probably face the slowest recovery.

All accommodations with the exception of the most robust hotel chains will hear a near-death rattle at some stage, if they survive at all. The same goes for dinning, attractions, airlines, and services like group tours, travel booking, guidebook publication (I’m pulling for you, Lonely Planet authors!), and the bajillions of full-time influencers. At minimum, everyone is going to take a point-blank gut punch before this is over, with the exception of the recession/depression-proof destinations – which is a very short list.

I’m referring to alcohol, sex and drugs, in case you were blanking on what falls into that last category. If you work in a perennial party destination, you can relax (a little). Though if your destination happens to be the N95 mask or toilet paper capital of the world, this might actually be the best tourism revenue years of your life.

But I hope the tourism industry won’t go down without a fight and I have high level advice about how to keep the lights on in the interim.

This advice probably won’t strictly apply to most people reading this, or will need extreme customization, so if you’d like to talk about strategies specific to your situation, like virtually everyone else right now, I could really use the consulting work.

So, what are the challenges we’re facing and how can we navigate them?

Drastic, short-term marketing adjustments – i.e. your main demographics are probably no longer your main demographics

Whatever your situation, I imagine you have spent ages laying the groundwork for multi-layered marketing efforts to reach your thoroughly researched key demographics. The bad news is that, for at least two years (at least!), any fly-in or drive markets greater than eight hours away are all but useless to you now. You need to pour one out for those efforts. They’re not dead-dead, only mostly dead. Nevertheless, you need to compression pack those materials away for future resuscitation.

I realize that abandoning a strategy that you’ve put so much time and resources into is going to cause panic attacks and indignation from high level decision-makers who are disassociated from the day-to-day work you do. But like the dearly departed Kenny Rogers once sagely said, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Most of you will need to fold ’em, and possibly run, until the travel industry is back to something recognizable.

Even after we’re allowed to go outside and touch our faces again, there are two primary reasons contributing to the long road ahead:

  1. Air travel is going to need at least as long to recover as your destination and probably longer, due to reduced route frequency, perceived safety, and financial losses so brutal that people are grimly predicting air travel may never fully recover.
  2. Unemployment numbers not seen in the entire history of humanity means that once COVID-19 finishes kicking our asses, it will be quite some time before most people have the requisite disposable income to spend on something non-essential like extended vacations more than 500 miles away from their homes.

Hopefully, there will still be a partially intact foundation of your previous marketing efforts when coronavirus vaccines are perfected and become widely available (again, roughly two years from now, if everything goes perfectly), which you can eventually revive and nurse back to health, but that distant eventuality isn’t something we have the luxury of contemplating right now.

So, apart from crying into our pillows while we mainline tequila, what are our options?

Right Now – Part I

If you’re a non-governmental entity, in all likelihood there’s already some money earmarked for you in the economic recovery packages that have begun. If you haven’t done so, you need to do the research and apply for every damn grant, loan, program, handout and table scraps available. Even the financial help that seems like a long shot is worth your application time. Not guts, no economic recovery glory.

Crises notwithstanding, governments have never been famous for their judicious and thoughtful dissemination of money, so there’s an even chance you’ll land some cash by accident. That’s just the reality of how things unfold when your simpleton government shifts gears from incompetence and inaction, straight to four-wheel drive panic.

If they aren’t complete ding dongs (*if*), the people distributing this stimulus at state and federal levels will understand that tourism/hospitality is one of the most important, if not the most important, component of their respective GDPs and employment sectors. They will therefore be especially generous to anyone in a position that so much as waves ‘hello’ to tourists.

Right Now – Part II

Once you’ve done that, you may want to get yourself ready for a possible near-term influx of legit revenue. I’ll admit this may just be a crackpot theory of mine, but there’s a significant chunk of people who will remain gainfully employed throughout the COVID-19 mess. Logic would therefore suggest that the first thing these people do when it’s safe leave their homes is find an antidote to their weeks/months of confinement. Double goes for people that had to canceled vacations during the lock-down.

All but the most batshit crazy of these people aren’t getting on an international flight anytime soon for fear of being stranded during the next wave of lock-downs, so that will be your chance to pitch them your destination.

Assuming I’m right, families (and people needing to get as far away from their families as possible) are going to be the primary markets during this sharp, possibly brief blip of initial recovery. If you lay the groundwork for reaching these people, starting like now, those pale, lonely, pleasure-starved folks are going to be desperate to give you their business.

A little later, but soon

You probably already have some form of drive market targeting in place. Well, you’re going to need to triple down on that. Brainstorm ways to seed consideration for your destination once people are allowed to gather in groups of three or larger again. Or run campaigns to get them to commit to a visit sometime down the road. This could mean anything from limited time, modest discounts to all-expenses-paid vacation package contests. While you’re green-lighting those efforts, you’ll also need to reach out to locals.

Does the term “staycation” make you want to rip your ears off with your bare hands and feed them to a coyote? Well, TS. Most destinations don’t have an existing, robust campaign aimed at locals, because why would they? But those locals can potentially save your proverbial bacon, so figure it out.

The reality is that most people outside of our industry haven’t been pummeled senseless by the term “staycation” and until someone invents a new, popular encapsulation of that concept, you’re gonna have to grit your teeth and say it with a smile. Practice in front of a mirror if you have to.

Despite the flogging of that concept over the past decade, up until a few weeks ago, staycations were still a somewhat atypical choice for people with the means for a bit of extravagance when considering vacation ideas.

Whether they’ve realized it yet or not, our new reality means long-haul transportation options are going to be limited for the foreseeable future, so all but the most well-off individuals are going to be staycationing the ca-ca out of their downtime for years to come while the economy limps to recovery.

The good news is that marketing to locals is relatively inexpensive, because the challenge of raising awareness about the many highlights of everyone’s respective hometowns is already done. In all likelihood, people did some form of staycationing when they were young and broke, so persuading people to plan a nostalgic return visit, or making them aware of what’s new and unmissable since their last visit on a junior high school class trip, is going to require a lot less work.

Example: The Minnesota Zoo is wonderful. I’ve been out there at least a dozen times in my life and every one of those visits was super fun. That said, despite being only 20 miles away, I haven’t been out there in about 25 years. What would it take to convince me to go out and see all the cool new stuff and revisit old memories? Something as little as a $5 ticket discount would probably do it.

Can you cite examples of regionally focused destination marketing campaigns that don’t suck?

Oh hell yeah.

One DMO in particular, Nebraska Tourism, has already spent years refining innovative, clever tactics you can emulate, targeting in-state and neighboring-state prospective visitors. Their willingness to take risks has also rewarded them with at least one head-spinning bout of national exposure.

I strongly encourage you to Google and absorb the 274,937,012 articles about Nebraska’s “Honestly, it’s not for everyone” campaign. Or you can listen to the Passport Podcast episode that Chris Christensen and I recorded with their Executive Director, John Ricks. The epic success of that campaign aside, we spent quite some time talking about untested creativity in tourism marketing versus the “same ol’, same ol’.”

Launching new and unproven marketing campaigns is scary. I get it. I mean, being famously partial to audacious ideas, I don’t get it, but I can kinda see how some people might lose urethra control at the prospect of a sudden marketing reboot when they’re so close to retirement or whatever stereotype applies.

But can you imagine the singing, dancing, baby-making bedlam if your DMO bagged more than $6 million in earned media after sending out a single email?? I’m willing to bet there were a lot of new parents in the office nine months after Nebraska Tourism served up that slice of brilliance.

Destinations who are already doing regional outreach well are going to suffer like everyone else, of course, but they are also going to recover faster when people start carefully peeping out of their gopher holes to see if it’s safe to go looking for vegetables and worms – or long weekend getaway ideas.

The still unknowable time between “soon” and “full blown recovery”

This is going to be an awkward phase. The first challenge is going to be recognizing exactly when this nebulous interval will be in effect. This is going to be tricky, because you’ll need to see our return to normalcy on the horizon a full six months (or more) before it actually occurs, so you can start transitioning back to your tried and true marketing efforts. New or restarted awareness campaigns take quite some time to (re)grow roots and bear enough fruit for a destination to make fruit salad.

If you don’t already know it, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the tragic story of Colorado tourism’s demise after the state completely eliminated its tourism marketing budget in 1993. If you encounter high-level decision-makers balking and dithering about when and how much money to throw at your tourism recovery efforts, you can cite this example of how unbelievably long tourism recovery and can take and how disastrous the revenue losses can be in the meantime.

This is an extreme case, obviously, and probably (hopefully) won’t strictly apply to your situation, but extreme cases can be awfully compelling when high-level, vaguely informed executives have to make important decisions about your ground game.

The timing and exceptional resources needed for this endeavor will be particularly crucial, because you’re going to have to split your attention between slowly re-starting your traditional marketing efforts, while maintaining the ongoing outreach to locals and drive-ins. Unless you have wet-dream-caliber budgets, it’s gonna feel like you’re spreading yourself too thin to adequately accomplish both at the same time, but I don’t see how you have any choice. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures and so forth.

Outreach like you’ve never done before is going to be key here. You’ll need to clearly and exhaustively communicate to everyone – old demos, current demos, and new demos – letting them know you’re open for business or, if not, exactly what is open and what isn’t.

To get a jump-start on ideas about how to accomplish this, you can look to destinations that have gone through this ordeal recently, like Puerto Rico, New Orleans and/or the Gulf Coast.

Again, reading the tea leaves is going to be the most critical part of this transition. There’s already talks of rolling waves of virus-related closures and stay-at-home orders for years to come – unless you live in Florida or Georgia, then I guess it’s anything goes.

If you start going after your old demographic too soon, you may end up burning crucial resources on people who can’t visit you even if they want to. If you wait too long, you’re leaving much-needed cash on the table.


I’m aware that what I’ve written here is going to be hard to swallow for the more nervous, play-it-safe members of the tourism community. There will be denial, resistance and even anger about what I’m suggesting here. Having their marketing fate suddenly yanked away by events entirely out of their control drives some people to conniptions.

(Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story about how Explore Minnesota’s Brand Strategy Manager had a frothing meltdown when I innocently pointed out, with a touch of evocative humor, the irony of a similar, but far less serious 180-degree marketing transition forced upon them a few years ago.)

The reality is we’re living in a new normal now – possibly forever. There may be no comfortable period for travel and tourism to catch its breath between when the pandemic recovery is safely behind us and the irreversible, catastrophic effects of the climate crisis begin.

In any case, those determinedly clinging to traditional marketing and the “we’ve always done it this way” dead weight are in for a rude awakening. Start planning, brainstorming, blue sky dreaming and whatever else it takes to get a thousand bad ideas and a couple good ideas on your white board.

Do anything but stay the course. That’s the path to certain doom.