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StrategyJul 14, 2020

COVID-19 Communication in the Travel Industry

Christian Buechel and Gail Stout Perry

Customers need to feel safe engaging with your brand. This means different things for various industries, but it is especially important in the travel and hospitality industry, one of the hardest hit in during the pandemic.

In a previous article, we laid out a Now, Next, Future framework to help companies react, respond, and plan strategically during times of economic shock and uncertainty. An essential element of the framework is the focus on multiple dimensions of performance to ensure a holistic strategy that effectively addresses the profound changes that many industries are experiencing. One strategic dimension revolves around the customer. As companies begin resuming operations in our new “COVID-19 normal,” it is essential that they understand and communicate the impact their chosen actions will have for their customers. How are they reducing the risk of transmission? How are they protecting their employees? How are they ensuring the high-quality delivery of goods and services? Companies that neglect this important step will suffer from a disconnect between customer confidence and their envisioned return.

This article will cover considerations for companies in the travel industry looking to effectively communicate their safety strategy with customers.

travel and hospitality industry reopening communication

It’s apparent that companies in the travel and hospitality industry, which includes hotels, airlines, ground transportation, cruise lines, short-term rentals, and others, face an uphill climb. A recent poll found that  48% of customers don’t expect their leisure travel to return to normal until 2021 or later and airlines are bracing for a 50% reduction in revenue from 2019. As cities begin the arduous process of reopening, those in the industry are eager to bring customers back to stem the losses they have suffered this year. But the reality is that reopening does not equate to business as usual. The majority of travel customers are still hesitant to reengage and are looking for thoughtful communication to ease anxieties. This can be done by listening intently, communicating at key interactions, and reinforcing sincerely.

listen intently

To start addressing the anxiety and fears that customers have venturing back into a restaurant or hotel room, companies must first listen. They must hear the concerns, listen to the fears, and take account of how customers may be expecting your company to act throughout the ebb and flow of the pandemic. A Morning Consult poll found that 51% of adult Americans are still “very concerned” about coronavirus as of June 14—highlighting the need to be attuned to their reservations. Customers are watching how employees are being treated, how seriously cleanliness is being taken, which policies are being updated to assist customers, and what companies are doing for their communities during these times.

Morning Consult Poll Showing Fear of COVID-19 is Still High

This can be done the old-fashioned way through reading industry publications, conducting polls and surveys, or having in-depth customer interviews. Some companies are relying on customer service portals to address concerns about COVID-19 on an individual basis. But many companies have opted to go further and look to tools to support their efforts.

Savvy companies bolster traditional methods with a new array of social listening tools that can detect how people are viewing your brand, how often you’re being mentioned on social media, and where customers are likely to be returning. Investment in these marketing technology (MarTech) tools can be highly beneficial to uncover how your brand is being perceived to discover where key communication must take place with customers.

Best practices for listening to customers are:

  • Understand your brand identity to understand how your customers expect you to engage the community and offer help to those affected by the pandemic.

  • Evaluate your MarTech suite to ensure you have all the right data coming in to formulate a communication strategy.

  • Don’t build a listening capability to only be deployed for COVID-19—consider how it fits into the long-term view.

communicate at key interactions

There is a delicate balance that companies must manage when communicating with customers. When COVID-19 first began, everyone remembers receiving emails from every company they bought a single item from in the past five years. This alone is not enough to garner the trust of customers. Neither is inundating them with information at every step of their customer journey. Instead, companies must identify the key interaction points or “moments of truth,” both online and offline, that should be targeted for thoughtful communication. Having a full understanding of the customer journey from the first interaction through purchase is essential to pick the moments in the value chain where COVID-19 creates risk or the perception of risk.

Online examples include prominent banners on websites outlining options for customers to manage their flight, displays outlining cleanliness protocols in hotels, and pages dedicated to displaying what actions your company is taking. All this information is readily shown on the front page of the website, a critical point of contact with a customer possibly considering resuming engagement with your brand. Give them the information they need to make an informed decision and the comfort of knowing how your policies are working to assist them.

Southwest’s Banner on their Home Page

Lyft’s Action Plan

The Best Western’s Prominent We Care Clean Campaign

And despite the recent focus on customer interactions occurring online, we cannot forget to provide cues in the offline experience as well. Placement of hand sanitization stations immediately upon entrance into the airport or hotel, helpful messaging that educates customers about mobile check in, and signs that inform customers of any mask requirements to protect themselves and others are all steps being taken across the travel and hospitality industry. Offline points are likely where many customers are the most on guard, making the need to communicate clearly even more important.

Some key points to keep in mind when picking these moments:

  • When possible, invest in changes that improve the customer journey, even if you removed COVID-19 from the situation. Examples like investing in mobile check in, using phones to unlock rooms, and thoughtful electronic signage in an airport terminal can provide value even after the pandemic subsides.

  • Envision new moments of truth such as showcasing cleanliness. Cleaning used to take place behind the scenes, but now it is an opportunity to highlight your valued employees who do the hard work of keeping spaces clean.

  • Listen to the science to understand high risk interaction points, but don’t stop there. Customer perception of risk can often go beyond the reality of risk.

reinforce sincerely

Companies have an uncertain time ahead of them until a vaccine can be widely distributed. This means the quest for effective communication is a marathon, not a sprint. After listening to your customers and communicating the strategy, it is important to continually reinforce the message and affirm the actions initially communicated are being upheld. This requires two key ingredients: sincerity and accountability.

The travel and hospitality industry is globally spread and often decentralized. Large hotel brands often work with franchisee agreements and airlines engage in global partnerships. Therefore, instituting accountability for all members is important. We’ve seen many hoteliers come out with detailed handbooks outlining cleanliness standards and expectations. These can go a long way in assuring that no matter where a traveler may go, they can trust your brand is taking care of them, even in a franchise brand. Some countries, such as Singapore, are even offering audit programs to allow hotels to have third-party certification they are abiding by cleanliness standards. Those companies holding themselves accountable can retain the trust of customers.

After all this, if companies are committed to meaningful action and communication, it makes the last piece easy: being sincere. Customers can sniff out when companies are saying the right things but lack the follow through. In a recent viral video, a mashup of many COVID-19 commercials was made satirizing how similar many of them were. To be fair, many of the companies featured did accompany the advertising with other concrete plans. But without the communication about the actual implementation, all customers will see is big promises and no delivery.

Lastly, here are a few best practices for reinforcing sincerely:

  • Be informative and selective when communicating with customers via direct channels such as email. Being smart about the right time to send these types of communications and focused in the content will keep customers updated but not inundated.

  • Don’t overpromise what cannot be delivered. In the early days of COVID-19, many companies lost goodwill when they were unable to deliver on their generous cancellation policies.

  • Hold yourself accountable. Public perception is important and all it takes is a disconnect between communicated policies and implemented reality to cause additional stress on your business.

communication is crucial

Skilled communication with customers is more important than ever in a time when uncertainty and anxiety can affect even once-routine activities. Companies that recognize the value of a concerted communication strategy under the backdrop of COVID-19 can position themselves to be at the front of the line when customers start feeling safe to reemerge.

For a partner to help you find key customer journey touchpoints and create a cohesive customer engagement strategy, reach out to Credera at findoutmore@credera.com.

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