Monday, June 21, 2010
By Jennifer Rodrigues, TravelInk’d
Reprinted from younghotelier.com
The BP oil spill has dominated headlines lately for many good reasons. It is the largest environmental disaster in the history of the United States; it has caused untold ecological destruction to wetlands, shorelines, and to the Gulf of Mexico itself; and it represents a massive failure of both commercial conduct (BP) and government oversight (Dept. of Interior).
In Florida, and indeed in many of the resort towns along the Gulf Coast, one of the most significant impacts of the spill, in addition to the ones listed above, has been the potential disruption of tourism to the area. The sugar sand beaches of the Florida panhandle as well as the pristine coastal vacation areas in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are well-established draws for travelers coming from around the world, and, if spoiled, would present possibly insurmountable challenges to area hoteliers.
So what is a hotel manager, owner or operator to do? It is a particularly vexing question, particularly considering there are two obstacles to overcome. First, the impact of the spill itself, and second- perhaps more important, as it has affected travel and tourism entities already- is the impression being created by the media coverage of the spill. It is that impression that is influencing travel decisions of thousands of would-be tourists, and thus posing the greatest spill-related threat to hoteliers.
Since hotels lack the capacity to change the circumstance- i.e., plugging the leak, preventing oil from reaching the shore- the only other option is to try and change the conversation. This is accomplished through marketing and public relations.
Marketing against external factors is one of the more difficult aspects of any outreach and visibility program. There are inherent limitations to what can be done, and common sense guidelines to what information or claims can be highlighted. When external factors are involved, marketing often becomes an exercise in putting forward a concurrent- not contradictory- message designed to emphasize positive aspects unaffected or overcoming the external factors. For hotels, and particularly for Gulf Coast hotels in the current situation, this can seem impossible. But it isn’t.
Changing the Story
The old maxim “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has never really rung true for hotels, where consumer experience is the core product and the bottom line. This is especially true about the Gulf Coast; certainly, the tourist areas have received an extraordinary amount of publicity in the last few months (or, counting since Hurricane Katrina, in the last few years), but almost no hotel owner or operator in the region would claim that such publicity has helped their business. What hotels need at this time is to build the right kind of awareness about their properties. This is an opportunity to present a different face to the public, to highlight different aspects of the property that may sometimes go unnoticed in favor of beach proximity. Another strategy would be to emphasize what a property is doing despite the current events, or in response to them. A story about hotel employees volunteering to help clean beaches away from the property can build goodwill, and good visibility.
Contradictions Are Double Negatives
The knee-jerk reaction for many hotel marketing departments might be to issue statements denying that external factors are affecting the property at all. In the current situation, this might be a press release (or worse, marketing materials) that assert that no oil has reached the local area. If this is deliberately disingenuous, then it will profoundly impact the property in a negative way, and any temporary increase in bookings will be immediately counteracted by poor customer reviews and public reaction at having been ‘duped’. If such a statement is not a purposeful misrepresentation, then it will simply ring hollow. How can any individual property on the Gulf coast claim to be immune? The public is well aware of the crisis, denying it will not advance the cause of a hotel in the affected area. The public sector (local and state governments) will handle official pronouncements of affected areas; individual properties are better served by acknowledging the facts and shifting the message to something more positive when possible.
The fact that the public will be well aware of the situation speaks to the limitations of marketing against external factors. When it comes to most marketing strategy, the limitations are only existing public perception of the individual property (or brand). This allows marketers to work in a vacuum, essentially; their efforts stand alone. In a circumstance where the public is well aware of factors affecting the property, marketers have less opportunity to create the story and message- though the opportunity to shape it still exists. A marketer is not going to convince potential guests that the oil spill does not exist, but it can convince consumers that it need not dominate their travel plans. Understanding this limitation can go a long way toward developing an effective marketing and communications strategy in the face of significant external factors.
Writing about something as catastrophic as the Gulf oil spill in terms of the marketing challenges it presents to hotels may seem a little callous. But to say that public perception of how the spill has affected tourist destinations in the region is significant is an understatement. Public perception- the one aspect of this entire crisis that individual hotels have a small degree of control over- is perhaps the single greatest factor impacting hotels, behind the spill itself. Understanding how marketing and public relations can help shape and subtly modify that perception is the key to retaining and recovering lost bookings. Hotels that can identify the limitations of marketing in this situation, and then go out and spread the right message and emphasize the right aspects of their operations without explicitly contradicting the facts, will survive this latest test.
One final note – We at TravelInk’d want to express our support for all of those hotels (and all of our sister industries) that are being affected by this terrible crisis. We wish you the best of luck this summer and, if you need ideas, questions answered or help figuring out how to best create a successful PR and marketing campaign to counteract consumers’ worries about the oil spill, please don’t hesitate to contact me at any time – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Rodrigues, Visibility Development Manager with ThinkInk Communications, is a seasoned public relations professional with a passion for the hospitality industry, which is expressed in her role at ThinkInk’s travel division called TravelInk’d. At TravelInk’d, she is responsible for developing cost-effective and creative public relations and marketing strategies for clients in the travel and tourism, airline, lodging, cruise and meeting/event sectors. For more information on TravelInk’d, please visit www.travelinkd.com or contact Jennifer at email@example.com.