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Ralf Garrison: Plan B for destination tourism

by Ralf Garrison
MTRiP

The continuing crisis swirling in the Gulf of Mexico, escalating violence in Jamaica and Iceland’s volcanic eruption provide timely reminders to those of us in the tourism industry of our constant vulnerability. These events beyond our control impact consumers, especially their discretionary choices about time and money and are particularly threatening to tourism-dependent businesses.

However, there may be a chance to minimize the risk and even uncover some opportunities, but only to the extent that one is properly prepared. Historical and current events show that as an industry, destination tourism has often been forewarned about its volatility … and must therefore be forearmed with a contingency “Plan B” to prepare for what seem to be inevitable bumps along the road to success.

As if the economic downturn of the past two years wasn’t enough to freeze consumers’ discretionary spending, recent crises in the news this month demonstrate a broad spectrum of threats that continue to assault the tourism industry. Catastrophes caused by man, such as the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or those instigated by weather, such as the paralyzing volcanic eruption in Iceland, have a decidedly negative influence in the minds of consumers allocating scarce discretionary dollars, diminishing vacation travel (least temporarily) in the process.

The time for “Plan B” isn’t just when one of these happens, it’s now. While no one can predict the timing of these threats, here are four key areas in which you can prepare:

Customers with whom you have established a special relationship are more likely to remain loyal in times of peril. Remember the Golden Rule when building ties: Be loyal to them and they will more likely be loyal to you. This equity invested in during the good times can be cashed in when things get tough.

An added advantage for many tourism destinations is the attraction (ski, golf, beach, etc), to which some consumers are intimately engaged and passionate. Someone identifying him or herself as a skier or golfer already has a personal connection to your destination’s draw. I’ve discussed the notion of “identity travel” before, but it’s important to remember that cultivating your core consumer base is critical to constructing customer loyalty.

Staying in regular touch with clients should be a no-brainer. Yet, when a “situation” occurs and there’s a message you need to deliver in a hurry, you should already have communication channels established. Whether through an e-mail campaign or social media interaction, be proactive in your communications, striving to be as authentic as possible and accurately fulfilling any brand promises to avoid jeopardizing the entire relationship.

Another component of being forearmed is the maintenance of sufficient operational reserves to support both continued operation and the protection of key assets. Often the intangible assets such as your “brand,” what you stand for in the eyes of your customers, and your staff, who in service industries deliver the product and support the brand promise, are overlooked. Both have associated overhead and are tough to maintain in lean times.

Too often tourism-dependent businesses are built on a foundation of their owner’s lifestyle rather than economic rationale, operating as if the proven rules of business no longer apply. As tourism veterans joke, “the best way to make a million dollars in this business is to start with two.” Yet here’s the opportunity. If your business manages to maintain the brand promise and hold key staff in hard times, you can come out ahead, gaining customers and market share in the process.

Attractions usually lure guests to resorts: skiing, golf, the beach, etc. Like the adage about all your eggs in one basket, it’s crucial to remember that boasting more than one destination draw always strengthens your position. For example, resorts that cultivate a conference business in addition to their primary pull will find the conference is the attraction, making the resort less vulnerable to uncontrollable elements like the weather.

Fortunately for the tourism business, consumers continue to show a short memory, and the same media that may have sensationalized today’s threat to your resort will quickly pick up another. Whether disease, politics or weather, don’t forget that “this too shall pass.” In the meantime, hunker down, hold the line and do your best to minimize the damage and maximize the opportunity. Hopefully you will have a “Plan B” already in place to do just that, emerging stronger as a result.

Ralf Garrison is the founder and director of the Advisory Group, which provides marketing services to destination resorts around the country, owning and operating the Mountain Travel Research Program and the Mountain Travel Symposium. Contact Ralf at rgarrison@adv-grp.com.


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