Zika, Forest Fires, & Travel Bans…Oh My!

These are unpredictable times with plenty of unpredictable impacts on hotels and the hotel industry. HSMAI’s Marketing Advisory Board recently discussed what you can do before, during, and after disruptive events – whether it is disease, natural disaster, or political upheaval – that are beyond their control, and return to normal levels of business as soon as possible.

The key is to have an informed and ready plan for when something does happen.


Leverage your professional network to take advantage of others’ experiences in managing crises. Brian Hall, Chief Marketing Officer of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, and member of HSMAI’s Americas Board shared what he learned during and after the civic unrest in St. Louis following the tragic death of Michael Brown. His advice is applicable to many different situations:

1. Be totally transparent by explaining where the disruption is/isn’t happening and what visitors can expect. Do not attempt to minimize or explain away the situation or its impacts. Be truthful and candid and stakeholders will respect you for it. Ferguson, where the majority of the demonstrations and riots took place within a three-block area, is 12 miles from downtown St. Louis. If you tuned into CNN during that time, you would have thought the entire region was ablaze. Our job was to overcome the misperception with facts such as those posted on this module of our website: http://explorestlouis.com/fergusonfaq/.

2. Don’t wait for guest/clients to reach out to you. Train your sales staff on how to discuss the issues so they can have open conversations with their customers. We actually ran all our sales staff through a two-hour training involving role-playing. It is the elephant in the room – just address it and do it well. One month after the Grand Jury decision that was broadcast nationally on almost every network, we hosted a meeting of our National Customer Advisory Board (including a tour of Ferguson) and recorded and shared their candid remarks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRdsrHGv9KM&feature=youtu.be.

3. Be empathetic with all perspectives – be the calm in the center of the storm swirling around you. Most importantly, do not take sides or you run the risk of creating controversy.

4. Social justice and racial equality are national issues – when asked by reporters about the impact the unrest is having, remember that many destinations including St. Louis, Baltimore, New York, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago, Miami, and others have been exposed to similar events. It is most important that your leaders work to ensure public safety, while addressing the longer-term societal challenges associated with equality, opportunity, and social justice. With a wide group of community stakeholders, we created a special website documenting the many positive steps our region took as a result of Ferguson. This initiative was actually featured on CNN.

5. Know that your region will take some important steps to improve – and customer memories and attention spans are short and will be occupied by future news cycles. While you may feel the heat now, it will pass and people will move on.


The travel industry lost a billion dollars a month in meetings business in the midst of the 2009 recession when politicians were demonizing meetings-based travel. Travel marketers must stay informed, and prepared to educate their lawmakers (at the local, state, and national levels) about the importance of this powerful economic engine should similar rhetoric rear its ugly head again.

• There are 15.1 million American jobs in the travel industry today. These are not exportable jobs, and are ones that fuel the country’s economic engine.
• The world wants to visit the United States, and spend money here. The U.S. welcomed 77 million international visitors in 2016 (up from 50 million in 2005).
• The U.S. Travel Association’s Travel Trends Index tracks the direction and pace of travel. Its February report illustrates how the world has reacted to the recent executive orders on immigration and visas.
• Security is essential for travel. While we put security measures in place, at the same time we must clearly communicate that America is still open for business, and is very welcoming to international visitors.


Public health scares come and go – there will always be something with which we as an industry have to cope. Most recently, for many in Florida and Latin America, it is Zika.

As temperatures rise, we can expect more outbreaks. The good news this year is that the medical community and travel marketers are better prepared, and there has been significant investment in vaccines and treatments.

Unfortunately, the damage of overreaction and sensationalism tends to last much longer than the actual health issue. For travel marketers, the key is to not let them turn into long-term stories. Start by preparing, at the destination level, a synchronized communication strategy to “manage the panic.” Share accurate information about the situation, and what the property and destination are doing to accommodate guests.


Meetings Mean Business: Talking points, toolkit, and resources available for no charge.
Project Time Off: The growing stockpile of unused paid leave is contributing to worker burnout and even larger balance sheet liabilities that directly affect a company’s bottom line – toolkit and resources available for no charge

Special Thanks to Gary Oster, Executive Vice President–Member Services & Managing Director–Project Time Off, U.S. Travel Association, for joining HSMAI’s Marketing Advisory Board in its discussion.

About HSMAI’s Marketing Advisory Board

HSMAI’s Marketing Advisory Board leverages insights, emerging trends, and industry innovations to inspire marketing for hotels. Members include:

• CHAIR: Maureen Callahan, Vice President of Marketing Communication & Public Relations, Destination Hotels
• Michael Bennett, Vice President, Marketing, White Lodging Services
• Tiffany Braun, Area Director of Sales and Marketing, Commune Hotels and Resorts
• Katie Briscoe, EVP, Client Services, MMGY Global
• Matthew Clyde, President & Chief Strategist, Ideas Collide
• Sean Dee, CMO & EVP, Outrigger Resorts
• Agnelo Fernandes, Senior VP of Sales & Marketing, Terranea Resort / Destination Hotels and Resorts
• Brian Hall, Chief Marketing Officer, Explore St. Louis
• Natalie Osborn, Senior Industry Consultant, Hospitality and Travel Global Practice, SAS Institute, Inc.
• Mandy Penn, Senior Director of Resort Marketing, Universal Orlando Resort
• Florence Quinn, President, Quinn
• Lisa K. Ross, President, rbb Communications
• Andrew Rubinacci, CHSP, SVP, Distribution & Revenue Management Strategy, IHG
• Bill Rubino, Partner, President, Panzano & Partners
• Paolo Torchio, CHDM, VP, Product Management, Sabre Hospitality Solutions
• Casey Ueberroth, Chief Marketing

Categories: Marketing, Sales
Insight Type: Articles