Obviously, travel and hospitality brands have no ability to avoid COVID-19, but as powerless as they are to stop the virus, how they respond to the situation can impact how much they lose and, perhaps most importantly, how fast they are able to recover when the crisis is over.
Here are seven tips for travel and hospitality brands as they try to weather the coronavirus storm.
Communicate proactively about coronavirus efforts
Travel and hospitality brands cannot ignore the coronavirus. COVID-19 is top news every day and it’s now next-to-impossible to travel without being made aware of it. Many travelers are canceling their trips or considering canceling their trips given the risks and uncertainty the situation presents.
Travel and hospitality brands are wise to communicate proactively about the elephant in the room. These communications might relate to the steps brands are taking to protect their customers and employees. For instance, Singapore Airlines recently sent customers an email detailing the new screening procedures, enhanced aircraft cleaning, and in-flight service changes it has made to promote the health and safety of its customers and employees.
(Source: Singapore Airlines)
Brands should also communicate what options their customers have for travel, accommodations and tours that have already been booked but that they might not be able or willing to keep.
Be flexible and generous even if not legally required
While travel and hospitality brands obviously want to minimize losses, given that coronavirus is a threat to human health, this is the type of crisis that calls for brands to put people before profit.
Specifically, airlines, hotels, tour operators and OTAs should, where reasonable, consider allowing customers to cancel bookings and receive full refunds, even if those bookings were originally not refundable. Where issuing full refunds would not be possible or appropriate, brands should consider giving customers the ability to cancel for a full service credit usable after the outbreak is over.
For example, early on, Booking.com took advantage of its force majeure rights and established a policy under which affected properties were expected to issue refunds and waive any cancellation costs.
“At Booking.com, the safety of our partners and guests is of utmost importance. As a result of the official travel advice about the Coronavirus, guests are unable to travel to or stay at accommodations located in areas that are severely affected by the recent Coronavirus outbreak,” the policy tells partner properties.
Looking forward, brands can reassure customers by giving customers the ability to change their travel plans without penalty. United Airlines, for instance, is waiving change fees on all new bookings through March 31.
In addition to being flexible, brands can also be generous. Case in point: Best Western is allowing members of its rewards program to retain their status through January 31, 2022, even if they don’t continue to qualify.
Market on a foundation of meaningful action
Brands can’t market coronavirus concerns away. Instead, they need to demonstrate that they’re taking meaningful action to protect the people they serve. These actions can include:
- Setting and publishing clear policies related to COVID-19.
- Suspending flight routes, services, activities, etc. that may expose customers to increased health risk.
- Implementing new protocols related to hygiene and sanitation.
- Helping customers protect themselves, such as supplying hand sanitizer and prominently posting information about COVID-19 at facilities.
- Making sure employees understand how the company is responding to coronavirus so that they can inform customers and answer their questions.
- Even though these actions may not prevent cancellations right now, they can help maintain trust, build goodwill and help position the brand for gains when the coronavirus is a thing of the past.
Don’t go overboard with promotional marketing
What’s bad for brands can be good for consumers. Travelers with a higher tolerance for risk can now find a growing number of bargains and those bargains are something brands can promote.
Yet brands must be careful that they don’t push their fantastic deals too aggressively to consumers who are not interested in traveling at the current time. In fact, now is arguably a good time for brands to dial back broad marketing efforts and instead concentrate on specific segments.
For instance, airlines and hotels might want to focus primarily on customers they know are still traveling despite COVID-19 based on their booking histories and behaviorally-targeted remarketing.
Bulk up customer service staff
Travel and hospitality businesses are experiencing higher-than-average demand for service as customers inundate them with questions and requests. Unfortunately, many are letting customers down because they are unable to deal with these requests in a timely fashion.
Although costly, companies should do everything possible to ensure that online and email requests are responded to quickly, and to minimize on-hold times when customers call, because poor customer experiences now could dent their brands leave a lasting impression that hampers their ability to recover once the crisis is over.
To help reduce unnecessary customer service interactions, brands should make sure they’re not unnecessarily forcing customers to contact customer support. For example, one budget airline, Scoot, offered me the ability to cancel and receive a refund for a flight I had booked, but contrary to the email informing me of this, I was not able to cancel through the airline website.
While some travel and hospitality businesses might be hesitant to allow customers to cancel bookings themselves through self-serve online interfaces believing that this will only encourage cancellations, the coronavirus situation is unique and brands should once again remember that doing the right thing is more important than preserving profit at customers’ expense.
Actively manage marketing campaigns
COVID-19 calls for a different kind of rapid response marketing, one based on necessity, not opportunity.
As the virus spreads around the globe, travel and hospitality brands can potentially minimize waste by making sure that marketing teams are actively managing campaigns as the situation evolves.
For instance, if a city or country emerges as a new epicenter for an outbreak, or becomes subject to new travel restrictions, brands should make sure that active marketing campaigns are modified or deactivated as appropriate. Obviously, there is nothing to be gained by marketing travel to regions that are no longer safe, or to which certain individuals cannot realistically travel without great inconvenience.