Destination Marketing in the time of the Virus

16th April 2020

Harold Macmillan (UK Prime Minister 1957-63) was once asked what was most likely to blow a government off course. Macmillan replied: “Events, my dear boy, events”….. Governments and businesses make plans but it is the ability to adapt to unforeseen changes that will determine success in the future.

The thought piece below looks at the challenges (and opportunities) facing destination brands in the Travel and Tourism Sector, in the face of the current C-19 crisis.

A few important caveats to mention before we start. Firstly, the uncertainty of what the (near) future will hold and how this will impact the industry. Secondly, that all destinations are different and that the observations and suggestions below, need to be considered in this light and thirdly, things are changing fast – what may make sense today may look very different tomorrow. With this in mind hope that there will be some useful inputs here, to advise, at this difficult time.

So, what do destination marketers need to be thinking about now, to ensure their locations are on the ‘tips of consumer tongues’ once they are again free to travel? In other words, how can we ‘vaccinate’ a destination brand now, so that it emerges as positively as possible ‘on the other side.’ What kind of recovery plans need to be put into place now?

In this piece, we will be looking at the following subjects-

  • Timing
  • Messaging
  • Audience
  • Measurement
  • Awareness : Saliency vs Favourability
  • Thoughts In Summary
  • Appendix – some examples of current destination marketing activity


The most importance consideration, given the current circumstances. What kind of communications may be relevant at the current time, if any? Some destination brands may be holding off, but other parts of the industry are activating. Tour Operators are taking bookings for June, Cruise bookings are up this month Y/Y and Disney are taking bookings for 2021. At the very least, one might suggest, this is an inspirational and comforting exercise for consumers to engage in, giving them a sense of optimism, normality and hope. On the other foot, most destinations clearly feel it is not appropriate to be suggesting visitation at this point. For them, it will only be so –  when restrictions on movement are lifted (or are about to be), airlift needs to be functioning appropriately and official travel advice need to be positive.

The specifics of timing will depend on the region of the world in question; but what is quite possible (and marketeers need to be ready for this) is the shortening of the consumer decision-making process, when booking a holiday.


In a recent C-19 related piece, BBH Labs suggested a Mindful Approach to messaging in the current climate. Their recommendations include – being calm, having clarity, focusing on core competences and lightening the mood (if done appropriately) – ‘people are looking for a smile amid the sadness’.

This being the case, what type of communication is appropriate now? If one is looking for inspiration, a number of destinations have carried out some uplifting and engaging campaigns suggesting future visitation. We look at examples directly below and in the case studies section in the appendix.

A number of commentators are predicting that price will play a large role in selection when travelling re-commences, with organisations eager to incentivise customers following a fallow period. However, we also know that health and safety concerns will also be important. Being prepared to reassure travellers in this space, as soon as interest in travelling returns will be key.

Another important aspect around messaging, is understanding the impact of increased uncertainty.
I liked a recent piece that highlighted the need to understand this, looking at uncertainty, the speed of change and ensuring messaging is relevant at all times : The Speed Premium in an exponentially growing pandemic world – ‘If you are writing commentary, the value is being there is the morning, not the evening.  The “commentary cycle” used to stretch at least a day or two, occasionally a full week. Have you perused recent newspapers and mentally noted how many of the articles — such as reviews of art exhibitions — obviously were written and planned in The Time Before (can I call it that?).  Those articles are now largely worthless, though a few of them may have nostalgia value.’

In such fast-moving times, it is essential to keep up to speed with what other marketers and brands are doing. This regularly updated list tracking marketers responses to coronavirus, from AdAge, is worth keeping an eye-on(reg may be necessary) .

In the travel and tourism sector, engaging communications have included – San Francisco Travel’s message that, “The fog will wait for you,” and Visit Fort Worth’s charmingly on-brand reminder, “Ya’ll stay home” — we’re finding ourselves falling (virtually) in love with the spirit of these destinations.

Destinations are leading with softer, sensitive messaging. Visit Norway’s tagline is : “Dream Now, Visit Later.” ; whilst Switzerland’s tourist board is giving users on social media a slice of Switzerland from afar, using hashtags like #neverstopdreaming and #staystrong, to bolster morale.
A number of destinations are emphasising more remote aspects of their offering (e.g. parks, countryside) that provide the space and opportunity to avoid large groups of people; whilst some are offering the opportunity to travel virtually – whet the appetite now and encourage visitation later.

I also love this new piece. Travel boards in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York launch the  “Through My Window campaign, asking residents to post photos of their window views, in the spirit of wanderlust.

Finally, worth mentioning the Butterfly Effect.  At the current time, there may be a number of very small things that brands can do to help people (and themselves). Most brands normally spend a good chunk of time looking for big ideas however, right now, a small idea might be the right approach. And possibly the one best remembered.
(See more examples of current DMO activity in the appendix)


Looking at past traveller behaviours, especially in times of difficulty, we know that people are passionate about travelling. In fact, one could say, there is a sense of ‘entitlement’ in this space. Despite this strong level of commitment, one of the vulnerabilities of the tourism industry is that it is built entirely around a ‘discretionary good’. That is, most people don’t have to travel. They choose to.

This recent piece from AdAge, Why Marketeers Should Focus On Audience, To Navigate The New Normal, stresses the importance, now more than ever, of understating one’s audience and how best to influence them.
An audience first mentality makes sense of course, but the key is understanding who your audience is. A destination has to be clear which audiences are most likely to visit once it is possible to do so. Older audiences are more likely to have money to travel but some may have concerns in doing so. Younger audiences may lack the funds but are more likely to be adventurous. Families may be hard hit by current circumstances but could be willing to go almost anywhere that accepts them, to escape the domestic confines brought about by the lockdown.

In times of such great change, and with audience as a focus , here are two behavioural models that may prove enlightening-

1) People’s Needs (from Vaccinate Your Brand’ : BBH Issues Briefing on Covid-19 for Marketing Leaders) With this model, marketers assess their customers in light of a new pyramid of needs. Looking at the below, brands that can address the bottom and middle tiers, can act first and boldly; brands towards the top should consider action more judiciously. Destination brands may find themselves situated towards the top of the pyramid but some, will find themselves performing strongly against such areas as ‘safety’, lower down –
2) The C-19 + CX Journey Model . ‘Mapping the customer experience path from crisis to safety’

From Scott Doniger, Forrester-certified CX Pro consultant; marketing and ethics transformation mentor-

‘The C-19 crisis has stripped away most of the detritus and noise from our lives, revealing clarity on what matters most and what does not. For most of us, the C-19 crisis clarifies our priorities, simplified to four Life Pillars:

  • Emotion State — our own, personal day-to-day well-being
  • Social Life — family, friends, fun
  • Finances — savings, income, and cash flow
  • Career — current job status and future work opportunity

‘Moving from CRISIS (bottom left) to SAFETY (upper right) will likely take each of us through our own 4-stage journey. On the way, we’ll be considering our Life Pillars and Perceptions every day. Below is a completed model in a simple case study of making a hotel reservation. The same process can of course be applied to other aspects of the travel journey, all the way up to the destinationitself’ –


More than ever Marketers will be considering metrics to assess what is working and what is not. In such a fast-changing environment, there will be a focus on channels that allow precise, real time assessment. Of course, monies will up-weighted towards in-home media and away from out of home; but measurement is essential to assess efficacy and suitability of messaging. AdWeek (currently providing its content free to those who register), is running a number of webcasts on this subject – Find Certainty in Uncertainty With Measurement: Greater Confidence Through Marketing Intelligence, and What’s the Future of Ad Targeting and Measurement? Navigate the Inflection Point.

Awareness : Saliency vs Favourability

This debate was ignited by Mark Ritson’s well observed recent piece in Marketing Week, revolving around Corona Lager and how the virus would impact on product sales.

Ritson observed that brand salience (noticeability, importance, prominence) is key in product and brand selection. He highlighted studies showing that salience is not necessarily related to brand favourability, i.e., how a brand is perceived. It is therefore important for a brand to maintain awareness, even when (perhaps due to external circumstances) brand favourability scores may be lower than normal. This is an important message for destinations at the current time. Just because favourability or affinity scores may be low (due to the C-19 situation) this does not mean that maintaining saliency is a bad idea.

We know that the longer a brand is not advertising (or marketing itself in some fashion) the lower awareness levels will fall; so long gaps between periods of activity should be avoided, if possible. This was nicely brought to life with the ‘bouncing basketball’ analogy ,created by a UK advertising trade body in 1991. Healthy Brands Can Bounce Back.

The IPA Report – Advertising In A Downturn is a useful resource in this area. Findings below pertain to all brand categories and are relevant for the travel and tourism sector-

  1. Cutting budgets in a downturn will help defend profits only in the very short term.
  2. If possible, it is better to maintain SOV (share of voice) during a downturn: the longer-term improvement in profitability is likely to outweigh the short-term reduction.
  3. If other brands are cutting budgets the longer-term benefit of maintaining SOV will be even greater.

Finally, given that the current crisis is quite unlike anything we have seen, at least since the Second World War, worth drawing a relevant example from that time. ‘During World War II, the Government asked a number of food and drink brands to form wartime alliances to ensure the British people could get hold of staple products. For a couple of years individual brands disappeared and were replaced by generics. Despite this move, some brands took the decision to carry on advertising in the National Press. Their ads talked about how they would return after Victory. Schweppes and Stork margarine were two such examples, and after the War ended they saw their brand shares shoot up way past their pre-war levels.’ (Source – IPA’s, Adapting to New Market Realities).

Thoughts in Summary

Despite the prevalence of bad news around at the moment it is not hard, to feel optimistic about the future of the travel and tourism industry. Here are some reasons-

IZEA’s report into Coronavirus’s Impact on Influencer Marketing, provides some uplifting perspectives on prospective traveller behaviour-

  • Frequent vacation travellers are 77% more likely to book future travel and vacations while confined to their home due to coronavirus.
  • Frequent business travellers are almost 2x more likely to book future travel and vacations while confined to their home due to coronavirus.

The prevalence and popularity of pieces, like this one from Planet Able, are indicative of people’s likely future behaviour – 7 ways to travel when you can’t…

As mentioned above with reference to the importance of saliency, even in the gravest crisis, there is still value in presenting a brand in the most positive light possible. This approach is also supported by the many examples of uplifting, engaging destination marketing activities, highlighted in this article.

And finally, I like this slightly enigmatic but charming piece from BBC Travel – The Travel ‘Ache’ You Can’t Translate – ‘For all of us trapped inside our homes who long to travel, the Germans have a word for that: fernweh, or a ‘pain to see far-flung places beyond our doorstep’’.

Soon enough this pent-up desire will translate into significant action. To gain maximum results at that point, it is important for marketers to start thinking and planning how they will act, now.

Appendix – some examples of current destination marketing activities- 

Visit Portugal:

  • Visit Portugal’s ‘Can’t Skip Hope’ video tackles the issue of travel bans head-on in its first few words: “It’s time to stop.”
  • The sweeping vistas and charming scenes displayed in the two-minute video inspire one to visit Portugal in the future, but it does not come across as inappropriate
  • The ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ tone feels uplifting in these trying times

Visit Britain:

  • Britain’s greatest export is arguably its culture – including literature, film and music. Visit Britain has capitalised on this during the crisis on its social media feeds
  • In addition to content that essentially says, “we can’t wait to welcome you again soon,” the DMO has also been posting ways to engage with British culture right now — from a quarantine couch


  • Philadelphia’s DMO has launched a ‘Philadelphia from Home’ webpage, which features ways to interact with the city’s offerings from home, which it is promoting across social media
  • A Facebook Livestream from Philadelphia Zoo, a list of restaurants open for takeout and recipes for a famous Philly Cheesesteak are all ways would-be visitors and locals can interact with the destination
  • The offerings feel genuinely useful and likely to inspire a visit

Discover Puerto Rico:

  • Discover Puerto Rico is inviting its followers and would-be visitors to a virtual getaway, with salsa classes, cocktail making, and cooking
  • Discover Puerto Rico’s CEO Brad Dean said the DMO has shifted from a “visit now” approach to a “visit later”, with the goal of keeping the destination top of mind for future visitors

Travel Saint Lucia:

  • The Caribbean destination is inviting followers to experience the destination via Instagram Live, with its “7 Minutes in St Lucia” campaign
  • It kicked off on March 26 with a seven-minute streamed yoga practice in view of the famous Pitons, world-famous volcanic spires
  • Other activities include a cooking class, a dance party, and a guided meditation. The offerings slot into the kinds of things many people are doing anyway while in social distance mode — cooking and working out — which means it feels less sales-y and more generous

Japanese National Tourism Organisation:

  • Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) announced the launch of new e-learning platform designed to aid the training and development of agents who are currently in lockdown.
  • The portal delivers a complete suite of online training and engagement tools using the latest principles in e-learning, ensuring learners gain and retain knowledge in an enjoyable, engaging and more effective way
  • Website:

Tourism Australia:

  • The new marketing campaign, labelled ‘There’s Still Nothing Like Australia’, aims to stimulate demand in the short-term and gradually rebuild Australia’s reputation as a highly desirable destination.
  • In the adverts, Tourism Australia is highlighting classic tourist attractions such as Uluru and Queensland.
  • The campaign is supported with A$25 million allocated to Tourism Australia through a government recovery fund and will be gradually rolled out worldwide.