In the first in a series of sector-specific features, Mustard director Richard Walker provides his assessment of what tourist boards and Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) need to focus on in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
It was all going so well
Tourism across the UK has experienced a decade of solid growth with record tourist arrivals and inbound tourist spend across the nations, supporting jobs and providing its visitors with a great holiday experience. The forecasted annual growth rate for the years ahead was significantly in excess of that for the UK economy as a whole.
Then COVID-19 arrived, and delivered an immediate and full stop to international tourism right across the world, and the islands and nations of the UK were no exception. Since the middle of March 2020, there have been virtually no inbound visitors, most flights have been cancelled and hotels and attractions are closed.
At present, there is great uncertainty, however, tourism in the UK (like most sectors) is likely to be facing a multi-phased recovery period as it exits from restrictions. Thankfully, we are beginning to see a gradual easing of the highly restrictive ‘lockdown’ phase around the world. We are moving into a period of living with the threat of COVID-19, to finally emerging when a vaccine and/or effective treatment becomes widespread. Tourist boards and DMOs across the UK (and around the world) will need to navigate through each phase of the crisis, and in order to do this they each require effective and timely evidence on which to base their decisions.
Research and insight have a big role to play here to inform future decision making and advise on a pathway for recovery. Clearly, the pandemic represents a huge conundrum for tourist marketeers at the moment. While the optics of tourism marketing campaigns in times of ‘panic’ can fail to hit the spot, failing to market destinations which are lower risk can potentially exacerbate the situation. One of the vulnerabilities of the tourism industry is that it is built entirely around a discretionary purchase: most people don’t have to travel, they choose to.
Getting the timing right
In terms of making a decision about when to begin promoting tourism, the extent to which individual destinations are perceived as ‘high risk’ or not will obviously be key. However, the reality is that the word economy is already beginning to reawaken and it will be imperative that tourist boards and DMOs are well positioned on the ‘starting block’ as soon as the time is right.
Beside the market’s perception of risk, there are a broad range of other “knowns” and “unknowns” in the short, medium and long-term. Coronavirus has changed so much of our lifestyles – everything that happened pre-COVID 19 might not apply in the future. Research will become more important than ever to inform decision making. Any assumptions and hypotheses related to the pre-COVID world should be stress-tested. We need to know what’s the same and what’s changed, we can’t be making decisions based on behaviours that might no longer apply. Everyone is talking about the “new normal”, “unprecedented times”, etc. We can’t take any assumptions from the “old world” into the “new world” without challenging and questioning them. We have to be flexible to tailor marketing activity as evidence and insights emerge, and consumer needs, motivations and behaviours start to change.
Identifying and addressing the challenges
From a practical perspective, the key challenges will include ensuring visitor safety whilst allowing for positive experiences which don’t feel overly restricted. Initially, people will want to see evidence and reassurance of infection control. In the short term, tourism is likely to come largely from within (i.e. domestic), and so this should be able to act as a test for the ability to convince international tourists to travel to the hot-spots.
Another challenge to consider is the financial impact of COVID-19. It is estimated that around 25% of the UK workforce is currently either “furloughed” or redundant as a direct result of the crisis. This will have an obvious impact, especially on the premium and luxury travel market. If, as expected, we enter a prolonged recession, how can we best communicate and demonstrate the value in travelling to different destinations (accentuated, we believe, by a perception that some parts of the UK might be relatively expensive destinations compared with other options being considered). It is likely that local businesses across the country will need to demonstrate value to an extent that was possibly less essential pre-Crisis.
That said, these are also assumptions that have to be tested. For example, although a lot of people are “on furlough”, and many others have lost their jobs or face reduced income, there are many consumers currently forced (or encouraged) to stay at home, still earning, and with very little (beyond groceries) to spend it on. Anecdotally, we have heard from consumers who, during the crisis, have saved up a deposit for a house, or for a trip around the world, within the past few months. There are other people working overtime, earning more than they ever have, with not much to spend it on.
Delivering an exceptional visitor experience
Beyond the short and medium-term challenges, what recent history tells us is that experience is paramount. Having waited so long for a break of any type, visitors will be hyper-sensitive to the experience aligning to their expectations, and mindful of value realised from their “investment in memories”.
Tourist boards and DMOs will need to ensure they deliver both their messaging and experiences consistently. This means building and maintaining their individual destination brands (ensuring they are cascaded effectively across all stakeholders), monitoring these to ensure they remain motivating, relevant, differentiating, etc.
Beyond the messaging, we need to ensure the experience matches up to the brand promise and the brand values. People will undoubtedly share their experiences when they do visit, and we need to do all we can to ensure these shared experiences are positively reflective of the overall brand story.
Understanding motivations provides the best opportunity
Understanding motivations is critical. Some consumers are likely to be motivated by escapism, craving an escape from densely-populated areas and from routine. An opportunity exists here for rural retreats. Other consumers will be will be looking to treat themselves. An opportunity exists here for destinations with world-renowned hospitality. Another factor relevant to the recovery of tourism will be spending time with family and friends. This came out top in all recent surveys in the UK about “what are you most excited to do once the lockdown is over”? Making memories with loved ones has always been important, but we believe it’s going to be even more so now. Tourist boards and DMOs will need to deliver big on bringing people together (while also keeping them safe) and creating experiences to share, enabling them to make memories together.
Beyond the primary motivations, is what was important still important? How else have priorities changed? Getting closer to what potential domestic and international visitors REALLY need is essential for DMOs to demonstrate they understand the state-of-mind, to push those buttons in the right way, and at the right time.
There has been a trend for some time now about people craving “experience”. It is possible that the demand for experiences will become even bigger than before. People have spent the past few months simply buying stuff to keep them entertained at home, so they’re coming out of lockdown deprived of experiences. This, again, needs exploring and testing in more detail within the context of individual destinations. It is likely that, for example, the way experiences look like will change. Consumers will be hungry for them, but they will also be expecting to be kept safe.
How research might help with this?
Mustard has vast experience and knowledge of conducting research within this sector and amongst visitor (and prospect visitor) audiences. A broad range of different research projects can be designed to inform marketing and tactics for the short, medium and longer term. For example:
- Customer journey mapping. Understanding decision-making, behaviours and experiences, thus informing market media investment plans, content and messaging creation in the new ‘normal’.
- Marketing campaign testing. Important for DMOs to ensure communications chime with target audiences. In light of COVID-19, ensuring messages make sense, display empathy and deliver emotional connection is essential. Perhaps also, effectively communicating value-for-money.
- Usage and attitude studies. Understanding what people want and why, what they are planning to do and when, and their motivations driving choices. What is most important to people in the post-COVID world, what are the triggers and barriers to visiting, and how are these influencing future travel plans and expectations?
- Segmentation. Be that identifying and targeting “lower hanging fruit”, or stress-testing existing segmentation models for relevance in the present day. Understanding how different priority segments are thinking and behaving is often a starting point for clients following a crisis.
- Brand and ad tracking. Monitoring ad campaign/effectiveness (message and media, providing evidence that activities are working) and tracking brand perceptions amongst priority audiences – ensuring the metrics used are relevant to the new set of decision-making criteria.
- Proposition and concept testing. Using insight to guide investment strategy. Consumers have, for example, been deprived of experiences during lockdown and some will be looking to travel to satiate pent up desires. Now could be the time for something new – but what?
- Stakeholder engagement and sentiment analysis. It will be vitally important for DMOs to stay closer-than-ever to stakeholders post-COVID and have a reliable read of how audiences are feeling. Our ongoing online research communities and panels provide immediate access to insight through our engaging, interactive portals – suitable for b2b or consumer audiences, public and private sectors. Sentiment analysis can provide an ‘up close and personal’ perspective to provide context for findings.
There are still many unanswered questions and uncertainty reigns
What is certain, however, is that consumers have changed. What they want from their short and long breaks will have changed. How they will make their decisions will have changed. The activities they’ll gravitate to will have changed. How they will judge their experience will also change.
Insight will be needed to help re-grow the tourism economy so it fits with the different needs and the new motivations.
Please get in touch for further information or advice on how we can help.