Destinations: Reality After COVID-19
When the FreemanGroup operated The Caribbean Hospitality Training Institute, I had occasion to visit many of the islands throughout the region, frequently working in places I had never been to. On my first journey down to one such island, in glancing at the airline magazine, I came across a full-page ad promoting the same destination I was en-route to. The ad featured a chef standing on a pristine beach holding a freshly prepared redfish and wearing a smile as big as the page, with the phrase, “ Come visit us, where the people are as pleasant as the weather “ Nice ad I thought as I stuffed the magazine into my carry on in preparation for my meeting with the Minister of Tourism.
I was greeted on arrival by an immigration officer, who clearly had not seen the ad and who, equally clearly, was not as pleasant as the weather! It occurred to me right then at that moment that marketing ads were not in unison with service delivery. Further, nor did all of the people who deliver on these services seem to realize the personal impact they had on a visitor’s perception of their country. In short there was, and frankly still is in a number of countries, a gap in understanding that the greatest asset a tourism destination can have is the ambassadorial role of it’s citizens. Yet, notwithstanding the possibility of this evident gap, I found then and find now that over 50% of these countries were, and still are, selling the same product….the friendliness of their people. In our current situation, where COVID19’s impact has been felt worldwide, you may ask, “What on earth does a marketing strategy based on the friendliness of people have to do with the how these destinations recover?” For me, …everything!
The challenges that destinations like the majority of the Caribbean face in normal times are daunting enough, how to entice and then encourage visitors to visit and then return has always been an ongoing focus of attention. Physical safety has in the past, been central to encouraging tourists and that has not been without it’s challenges. In this current environment the future economies of destination countries will need much more than just ad campaigns reminding us how friendly their people are. Target strategies will need to take the following potential challenges into account:
- Relying on the Cruise Ship industry will no longer be a sure bet. This travel segment will face sweeping reductions, surrounded by possible bankruptcies. It could, and probably will, take cruise companies years to recover.
- Airlines will probably encounter reduced numbers of passengers, generating reductions or elimination of routes, all potentially resulting in an infrequent and unreliable level of flights to transport tourists.
- Hotels, resorts, and restaurants will struggle to adapt to the new normal and will, almost certainly, be restricted to the number of guests allowed at any one time on the property.
- Governments may, and perhaps should, consider adding defined health requirements (temperature checks, medical documentation, travel history, etc.) to enter and stay in their destination.
- Visitors will be much more aware and focused on the health and safety practices of the chosen destination. Until a vaccine is developed and made globally available, the cleanliness and personal hygiene protocols at every hotel, resort, and restaurant in these destinations will be under a microscope.
- Destinations must be transparent with data. Visitors will meticulously research the overall state of the country’s COVID situation, highly focused on the number of cases and fatalities.
These six challenges put an enormous amount of pressure on leaders of these countries to enact strategies that support the private sector while protecting the health of visitors and citizens. This is a fine line for a destination, as they must balance a host of competing interests:
How do governments persuade the public to visit, reassuring them that the destination’s past and current actions will not endanger tourists?
How do governments ensure the virus is not carried into the country unwittingly?
How do governments keep their own citizens and hospitality workers safe, employed and protected?
It seems to me that any solution has to be built with an aggressive educational and training process for the very asset these destinations use to promote and attract visitors…the people! Destinations now have a huge opportunity and window of time that must be used to train all its citizens that their ambassadorial importance to the economic well being of their country has been magnified tenfold. They will be part of a tourism economy that relies not only on their friendliness, but also their knowledge and sensitivity to the COVID19 environment. Particular attention of course will need to be paid to those who have contact throughout a visitor’s vacation experience (Immigration, Customs, Police, Restaurants, Hotels etc.) New standards of hygiene safety and behaviors that complement that skill will need to be enacted. Training needs to provide citizens the tools to answer questions, using data that demonstrates what actions have been taken to protect against this virus in the past and what is being done at present. This information needs to be communicated daily. It is this effective communication of informative and precise information that will be the key to a successful re-opening of a country’s tourism product.
Destinations have begun to key into these challenges and a good example of this would be the actions taken by The British Virgin Islands (BVI) in the immediacy of the virus onset:
- The BVI was the first Caribbean destination to prevent the docking of cruise ships.
- They enacted strict access rules for their charter and private boat business (over 75% of their current tourism economy)
- The BVI closed all borders after 2 cases were diagnosed.
- Citizens were immediately placed on a six-day preparatory lockdown, followed by a 14 day, 24-hour lockdowns that only allocated one specific day to purchase supplies.
Kedrick Malone a former Director of Tourism in BVI, also a colleague and friend, informed me that these measures enacted resulted in the grand total of ONE case as of Monday 13th April. Amazingly, from a virus point of view, The British Virgin Islands may be one of the safest places on earth right now, so much so that apparently there are tourists remaining there that do not want to leave!
I believe that type of action, with that type of result, is what all potential tourists will be expecting when they research their vacation and it will form a huge part in the decision making process of tourists moving forward. It must be said however that although the BVI has been successful thus far, this success needs to be supplemented with a vigorous plan for ongoing protection and communication of the protocols in place for COVID19 safety. Therefore, it seems to me that the following actions need to be part of an ongoing, everyday, business life within any tourism destination.
- The supplying of ample facemasks and hand sanitizer, supplemented by a health test on entry and exit of the destination will be crucial.
- Widespread communication of a comprehensive policy which outlines the destination’s new habits and guidelines of how the business of tourism has adapted and will continue to adapt to the emergency to be given to arrivals on entry to the country.
- A comprehensive review of all airline policies and practices in respect of the virus and a refusal of entry unless strict adherence to the nation’s policy is complied with.
- A weekly review within all hotels, guest houses, resorts and, in short, any accommodation offerings, with the refusal of occupancy if strict compliance is not met.
- Occupancy of over 50 guests at any hotel should be required to have a full-time nurse practitioner on staff to monitor guest and staff symptoms.
- A robust and interactive training strategy enacted quickly and online via webinar sessions to ensure all domiciles of the destination are aware and practice the new order of personal hygiene and cleanliness protocols. Training of all tourism products should be mandatory with the added accountability tool of random checks to ensure practical compliance.
- Enactment of a marketing strategy that continues to focus on the friendliness of the people but is supplemented by the advertising of the facts. The outcomes and proactive measures the destination is taking to ensure all citizens have participated in a comprehensive training process to control COVID-19.
I particularly love the Caribbean and Central America, not just because through the work we have done at the FreemanGroup I have visited and continue to visit so many places. I love these destinations because of the people I personally have met; the same people these nations surround their marketing strategies on, are the same people who have welcomed, valued and treated me brilliantly over the years. Moreover, they are the very same people who, if given the right tools and training will lift the region on their backs though this crisis.
I have also always admired how prideful these nation’s citizens are, how eager they are to share their stories and the genuine interest they have in yours (you all know I have a few!). This pride was evident when speaking to Kedrick about BVI’s response and his confidence that BVI took the right steps to limit the impact of this virus.
I do worry though about the impact that this event will have on any destination in the world that relies so heavily on tourism. I firmly believe that the actions needed in the future take courage, persistence, creativity and an unwavering focus on doing the right thing, by putting robust processes in place for the safety of visitors and citizens. These destinations are resilient, but dealing with what will clearly be a different and challenging time, will truly test and make all of us appreciate the people of these destinations even more.