share
by Roger Dow | October 1, 2018

Roger Dow, president and CEO, U.S. Travel AssociationThe freedom to travel is one of the most rewarding benefits we enjoy as Americans. But sometimes that freedom is threatened by things far beyond our control: Natural disasters, public-health emergencies, acts of violence, social unrest or tourist accidents are all crises that have the potential to derail travel activity and cause disarray for a destination.

From 'S.O.S.' to 'Bienvenidos'

This side-by-side image from a few weeks ago exemplifies the vital role that destination marketing organizations play in crisis management --two different messages, photographed in the same place one year apart.



"S.O.S." -- a desperate plea for food and water -- was the message scrawled into the middle of an intersection in Punta Santiago, Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

But the message today? "Bienvenidos" and "#CoverTheProgress."

#CoverTheProgress is an appeal to showcase the island's progress to replace the negative imagery that saturated the airwaves following Hurricane Maria -- and continues even now. The #CoverTheProgress campaign elevates positive stories of recovery on the island; shares beautiful, real-time photos and encourages visitors to plan a trip to see Puerto Rico's remarkable recovery.

#CoverTheProgress was created by Discover Puerto Rico, the island's newly established official destination marketing organization, which has been deeply involved in Maria response and recovery. Discover Puerto Rico is determined to share Punta Santiago's message of welcome to the world, and let visitors know that the island is once again open for business.

"Six months after Hurricane Maria hit, more than 50 percent of travelers said media coverage negatively impacted their view of Puerto Rico as a destination, and we're hoping to change that as the one-year anniversary approaches," said Discover Puerto Rico CEO Brad Dean.

While Puerto Rico is writing its comeback story, other destination leaders are grappling with crises and aiding in their communities' response efforts.

Working with state and local officials

Visit North Carolina conveyed critical information to residents and visitors alike as Hurricane Florence battered the East Coast. Visit North Carolina promoted the state's official emergency-preparedness app, continually updated its website to display emergency-services information and road conditions, and listed the counties that remained under mandatory evacuation. The organization embraced the maxim that safety is the top priority in the midst of a crisis, and worked tirelessly with state and local emergency-management officials to keep residents and visitors informed.

Visit North Carolina also partnered with its southern counterpart, Discover South Carolina, to launch the CAREolinas initative, encouraging donations to the North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund and the One SC Fund, and spearheading the #CAREolinas social-media campaign, the goal of which is to amplify the united spirit of the Carolinas through positive images and stories of recovery.

Florida is currently dealing with a different type of crisis: red tide. The naturally occurring algae bloom along Florida's Gulf Coast triggered a state of emergency in August, and the toxic chemicals in the water and air continue to pose a risk to some beachgoers and marine life. While Sunshine State natives might be familiar with the phenomenon, Visit Florida knew it was important to educate its visitors on the facts associated with interacting with red tide, and shared interactive maps on beach conditions across the state.

The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, like Visit Florida, shared useful resources at the outbreak of the red tide and is working to ensure that visitors are not deterred from taking their planned trips. The DMO also understands the devastating effect that red tide can have on Florida's tourism-dependent economy, and has been promoting and updating its extensive list of off-the-beach activities.

The cost of a crisis

Out West, wildfires raged across California and Oregon this summer, and some areas are still affected by the blaze. Both Visit California and Travel Oregon updated their websites to include resources on current conditions and fire prevention tips, and Travel Oregon promoted its "What You Need to Know About Wildfires" guide. The DMO also produced a video, "Living with Wildfire," that explains the cause of the wildfires and shows that Oregon is recovering and eager for visitors.

Travel Oregon estimates that wildfires cost the state $51 million in lost tourism revenue in 2017, and a recent study by Visit California revealed that 11 percent of travelers said wildfires prompted them to cancel their trips to the state. To combat perceptions that their states are unsafe, tourism leaders in California, Oregon and Washington teamed up to create the West Coast Tourism Recovery Coalition, which assists in the recovery of the region and encourages tourism on the West Coast.

"The real crisis for the tourism industry isn't the fire itself, but the news coverage and conversation around the fire," said Caroline Beteta, president of Visit California. "Videos can be alarming and cause people to cancel their trip, particularly international trips."

Battling negative perceptions

In many cases, a crisis is exaggerated and poses little risk to visitors. The Kilauea volcano eruption on Hawaii's Big Island made unhelpful news this summer. Headlines such as "Lava from Kilauea's Eruption in Hawaii Is Flowing Faster Than You Can Run" did little to assuage visitors' fears about vacationing in Hawaii. Despite the alarming imagery, the Big Island was completely safe to visit (although state officials did advise against visitors taking part in "lava tourism"). The Hawaii Tourism Authority understood the effect that perceptions of danger could have on its tourism industry, and promoted dozens of articles and television clips to encourage visitors to follow through on their trips.

No one gets to choose if and when a crisis will strike. But in all types of emergency scenarios, destinations like Discover Puerto Rico, Visit North Carolina, Discover South Carolina, Visit Florida, the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, Visit California, Travel Oregon and the Hawaii Tourism Authority serve as leading examples of the new role that DMOs are called on to play in their communities.

Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.