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How travel brands respond to global pandemics

By Emmanuelle Mehta
Mar 30, 2020
3 MIN. READ
During global pandemics like the coronavirus crisis, travel brands that are flexible and transparent with their customers—while finding ways to lessen their anxiety—are well-positioned for the future.

Empty shelves at Target stores. Purchase limits on bottled water at Costco. Third-party vendors selling hand sanitizer for $100 on Amazon. Customers are panic buying, stocking up, and staying home. Skyrocketing CDC Facebook likes. Memes (incorrectly) tying coronavirus to the beer brand Corona. Attempts to make homemade hand sanitizer with Tito’s Vodka. Communities and individuals are seeking information (and often getting fake news). Expo West, SXSW, Adobe Summit, Facebook F8, and [certain] fashion shows—all postponed, cancelled, or moved online. A nationwide work-from-home experiment in China. Parents across the country are doing their best to transition to a new work-from-home reality while keeping their kids—whose schools are closed indefinitely—educated and entertained.

The sudden emergence and spread of the coronavirus has affected us all in dramatic ways, but the travel industry has all but ground to a halt in a matter of days. In the face of an existential crisis, what should travel brand leaders do? Many have chosen to respond to this crisis with empathy, education, flexibility, and transparency—and there are lessons we can all take away from this approach.

Flexibility and transparency for customers

Now more than ever customers want, and deserve, clarity and honesty on how their favorite travel brands are tackling this unique and challenging situation. Below are some effective ways to help your customers remain calm and prioritize their safety and health:

  • Clearly and frequently communicate efforts and response to COVID-19 through your website, news hub, social channels, brand loyalty channels, and/or an email from executive leaders.
  • Dial back broad marketing and communications efforts for the time being.
  • Extend or make up tier status for customers who are opting (or forced) not to travel.
  • Waive change and cancellation fees for those traveling to/from affected areas. As this has become a global crisis, these waivers now generally extend system-wide.
  • Enhance cleaning and disinfecting processes with advanced HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters–and inform customers about these efforts.
  • Encourage mobile app usage for check-ins, in lieu of using a touchscreen kiosk.
  • If you still have guests, be transparent about what actions you’re taking to keep spaces as sanitary as possible.
  • Staff up and empower customer service teams with talking points and scripts that share information.

Brands that stand out

  • Uber combines CDC and past-passenger data to inform customers who have ridden in the same car as a confirmed infected passenger that they may have been exposed.
  • Leaders in the Meetings and Events industry put out a statement from multiple leaders about their efforts, cancellations, and how they will remain committed to their members/customers during this time.
  • Many hospitality and travel brands are rolling out very forgiving cancellation or rescheduling policies. For example, Four Seasons has announced a worldwide waiving of cancellation fees through the end of April.
  • Marriott has put a human face on this pandemic with an honest and emotional message from its CEO. 

How to take action

Companies that haven’t been flexible or proactive in their communications to their customers are only adding to their customers’ anxiety and stress levels. Not addressing the severity of a situation and not doing something about it can become a quick way to lose customer loyalty. Here are some ideas to be more proactive:

For both hotels and airlines, alleviate customer anxiety and provide a sense of relief by assuring those that still have to travel, whether for work, or to get to family, that your brand has taken all of the sanitary precautions possible, and their health is one of the first priorities. For frequent customers or loyalty members that are not currently traveling, exemplify calm, and optimistic but realistic attitudes. Let them know you’re following guidelines, waiving or allowing cancellations/rescheduling, and staying up to date on CDC news.

With your colleagues and staff, create a pandemic recovery plan to keep everyone connected. This plan should focus on:

  • Prioritizing customers and critical business operations.
  • Planning for your workforce to work from home.
  • Creating redundancies in suppliers and third parties.
  • Launching a war room with key stakeholders to manage the response plan.

Overall, travel brands that handle this current crisis well may be best positioned to recover the confidence and business of customers for future years to come.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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By Emmanuelle Mehta

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