by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | May 26, 2017
The deadly terror attack in Manchester, England, on May 22 put fresh emphasis on critical topics addressed during the U.S. Travel Association's inaugural Secure Tourism Summit, which was held at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in New York City this past April. The event drew several hundred attendees eager to learn from a roster of U.S. government officials, security experts and cyber-security specialists, who shared personal experiences, case studies and their professional opinions on key security issues.
The daylong summit, which was emceed by Kathleen Matthews, former chief communications and public-affairs officer for Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International, featured a number of panel-based talks on topics such as how to craft a working crisis readiness plan, the perils of cyber security in a digital age, and how to effectively manage crowd control in an emergency.
Also of pointed interest, given the recent dramatic public-relations stumbles of Uber and United Airlines, two major players in the hospitality arena, was a standing-room-only panel on the importance of crisis communication in a world where citizen activism is amplified exponentially by social media.
Ari Fleischer, president, Ari Fleischer Communications, and former White House press secretary from 2001-2003, spoke on how to deal effectively with the press, so as to remain in control of an unfolding story that has the potential to quickly escalate into a late-night talk-show frenzy. "You need to be armed when you take the podium to talk with the press," he advised attendees. "They try to knock you off your game. They will ask you the hardest questions to make it a three-day story. Maintain your discipline. Remember, you have the right to say, 'I will not comment on that.'"
Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Co., reflected on Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm that flooded parts of New York City, creating massive power outages and forced evacuations, and which stranded thousands of travelers at area airports. Dixon said NYC & Co.'s carefully honed crisis-communication plan, and a good working relationship with federal and state emergency agencies, the mayor's office and key private-sector players, allowed his organization to provide information in real time via Facebook. 
"People were looking for real information, like what hotels and restaurants were open, information that news reports were not going into," said Dixon. "We were the only organization that could pull that together, because we have spent a lot of time creating relationships, which build trust." Dixon added that in the week following the storm, NYC & Co. shut down its regular marketing and promotions work and concentrated solely on being "a source of information for travelers and residents of our city."
Betsy Wall, former executive director for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, recounted the crisis-communication efforts of her department following the Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013. While the world media was dominated by horrific images of the event, Wall said, her department took a completely different approach: "Authenticity is your credibility. We uploaded hundreds of beautiful images of Boston to make sure people realized normal people live here in Boston. We weren't trying to change the narrative, but so many people were uploading photos and video taken at the scene. We wanted to counter those images, which were hard to look at, with images that could not be disputed."