What to do when crisis comes to your city

Four steps that you should take right now to prepare for and deal with a crisis in your city

Make no mistake: the global spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, is a tragedy and health crisis. Successful containment and prevention requires close collaboration between business, government, and the public.

With that being said, the travel industry faces unprecedented headwinds. Hotel occupancy is down in many regions, dwindling to the single digits in especially hard-hit cities like Hong Kong. On the heels of the cancellation of major events such as ITB in Berlin and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and amidst the growing outbreak in Italy, occupancy has dipped by double digits in most major cities in the EU.

STR-data COVID19

Data from STR showing the progressive drops and occupancy in major EU cities.

It’s hard to measure the total impact of the virus on the economy. Globally, the impact could reach $1.1 trillion by one estimate. In the EU, the government estimates that the virus is costing the EU’s travel industry an estimated Euro 1 billion per month. In China, the epicenter of the outbreak, growth will likely fall below 5% this year — the weakest growth rate in over 30 years. Other APAC economies are already experiencing cancelled events and fewer arrivals from both Chinese and international travelers.

APAC hotels COVID19

APAC is especially hard-hit by the spread of the Coronavirus, per STR data.

These are challenging times for the travel and hospitality industries. Crisis is an inevitable part of the hotel business, from the current pandemic to managing natural disasters. In any crisis, it’s important to carefully consider what needs to be done to maintain some level of confidence and preserve competitiveness for the eventual recovery. Here are four steps that you should take right now so that you’re prepared when crisis comes to your city.

#1: Engage staff

Your staff are on the front lines of this epidemic. They are the ones who are at risk by interacting with guests and they are the ones who can also make guests feel comfortable and provide a memorable guest experience in uncertain times. So it’s imperative to start with your staff! You want them to be both informed and prepared to respond to guest concerns consistently and with a single voice.

  • Communicate with staff early and often: Open up the lines of communications early so that staff feel empowered and informed.  If it seems appropriate, set up a regular meeting during the crisis. As you implement emergency cleaning procedures, send reminders and keep both the message and cadence consistent. It can also be helpful to put posters up as direct and visual reminders of what’s expected.
  • Prioritize staff health: Everyone’s safety is important, including staff. Show that you are prioritizing their safety at work and doing whatever possible to keep them healthy.
  • Maintain morale: Losing great staff leaves you at a disadvantage once this particular crisis passes. Do whatever you can to maintain staffing levels, boost morale, and be prepared for a return to normal business levels. In certain  circumstances, it makes sense to incentivize activity, such as following proper procedures or going out of the way to make a guest feel comfortable.
  • Have a plan: If anyone on staff (or a guest) gets sick, it may be catastrophic. Be prepared for that to happen and let everybody know what they can expect.

Uncertainty causes fear and fear is never good! Assure your staff with open communications, consistent messaging and clear procedures. Remember that they are also going through a stressful time, both from a personal health perspective and a professional “am I going to lose my job?” perspective.

#2: Be transparent

It’s always tempting to ignore the elephant in the room. But, by not addressing the crisis head-on, you leave guests to make up their own narratives. In times of crisis, transparency is key!

  • Set a rigorous cleaning schedule: Develop ( or implement) an emergency  Standard Operating Procedure that increases how often surfaces are cleaned across the property.  And don’t just do the cleaning at night, when it’s invisible!
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: Put your commitment to cleanliness front-and-center wherever possible. Signs and restrooms can also encourage hand washing. For instance, “let’s all wash our hands!” could be an on-brand and light-hearted way to remind everyone that handwashing is the best way to prevent infection. Just like with staff, communicate early and often to get out in front and shape the narrative on your own terms.
  • Provide hand sanitizer: While hand-washing is generally accepted as the most important habit, hand sanitizer is a close second. Put hand sanitizer stations in common areas and make them visible.
  • Reach out to event planners and corporate travel managers: Be proactive with these valuable relationships. Share your mitigation plan so that they can see what your property is doing to keep them safe when on site. As events get cancelled and companies cease all non-essential business travel, you might preserve some business by showing how proactive you are.  Listen to their concerns and develop plans for any expected cancellations. It may be worthwhile to reach out to event planners without any upcoming events and simply stay top-of-mind with that demographic.
  • Open door policy: This applies to all stakeholders:  provide means for a two-way conversation so that any questions, concerns can be addressed quickly and easily. Again, it’s about getting out in front of this and shaping the narrative on your own terms by preventing others from jumping to conclusions.

Throughout each interaction, be considerate and empathetic to everyone’s concerns. The point is to avoid panic by being transparent, responsive and responsible. Yes, this is a very fine line. But you need to walk that line carefully and with intention!

A Travel Weekly survey COVID19

A Travel Weekly survey of travel agents on recent cancellations.

#3: Refresh your marketing

To avoid the risks of infection (or being quarantined at some point during their trip), many travelers are hesitant to travel on airplanes. And, even if they wanted to travel, airlines are dramatically reducing schedules. Your marketing must adapt and target segments most likely to book at your hotel. In the case of a public health crisis, this usually means short-haul travelers and those within driving distance of your property.

  • Staycations: Encourage locals to pay a visit and take a break from the day-to-day stresses of the headlines. For these guests, you’ll want to lean into the transparency angle above to highlight cleanliness and assure them of their safety.
  • Update your segments: Dive into your CRM and see which segments are most likely to buy in this environment. Are there any frequent guests from areas less affected by the virus, such as South America and Africa? Are there other segments that may be worth targeting to gauge interest?
  • Create packages for those segments: Use what you know about these guests (per your CRM) to develop special packages that appeal to them.  are using packages rather than blanket discounts you preserve your pricing power.
  • A/B test ads:  Market those packages to specific segments and test your advertising to find the right balance of creative, copy, and offer.
  • Leverage loyalty: Your loyal guests are a valuable resource in good times —  and especially so in tough times. Build special packages for your loyalty segments that you can sell directly to them via email to avoid commissions.

It’s always tempting to follow competitors in a race to the bottom, especially in times of panic-driven downturns. The smart move is to bring together revenue and marketing to craft a cohesive strategy that uses both pricing and marketing to minimize losses and maximize opportunities. Each crisis has its own specifics, so you’ll adapt your segments accordingly as your team identifies the bright spots and leans into those opportunities.

#4: Think local, think creatively

Hotels that successfully navigate these uncertain, uncharted waters have one thing in common: creativity. They’re able to think outside the box and pursue opportunities that may not be readily apparent to others.

They also think local. Even if a crisis originates abroad, the impact is felt locally. Engage your staff and brainstorm activities to help boost the local economy and nurture community spirit. No idea is too bold, so encourage out-of-the-box thinking and build on each idea to create new and unexpected opportunities for your hotel.

Some ideas on how to think creatively to capitalize on other means to engage business:

  • Small events: Has there been a last-minute conference cancellation? Show solidarity and host a meet-up for those affected. For inspiration, look at #StrandedInBerlin, a community effort to bring together those affected by ITB’s cancellation. There may be other local communities affected by cancellations or travel restrictions;  reach out to these groups and see how you can help.
  • Employee engagement: It’s easy to get suspicious of others and these types of situations. That’s the last thing you want them on staff. Bring everyone together with a light-hearted activity that reduces stress.
  • Creative partnerships:  You won’t be the only local business feeling the squeeze. Pursue partnerships with other nearby hotels and businesses as appropriate. Get creative: you may be able to do some cross-marketing that captures attention. Together, you can drive momentum and awareness that your city is still open for business!
  • Community support: Even in times of hardship, your business is thinking about the local community and doing the right thing. Depending on the crisis, provide means for consumers to donate to a local health centre or rescue center. Or, if it’s a natural disaster and there’s rooms available, offer shelter to those in need. It’s a great way to give back to the community while showing a trusting and open side to your brand/corporate identity.

Beyond the benefits of collaborating locally, these efforts also position your brand as a leader in times of crisis. How we act — or don’t act — is always remembered by consumers. It may not feel like it now but perception is key for how your hotel performs once the crisis passes. These activities are important to share externally because people look closely at how business and brands operate in times of crisis.

Looking ahead

One thing’s for certain: COVID-19 won’t be the last crisis facing the industry. And we’re definitely at a “new normal” in which global awareness around pandemics is now well established. Regardless of the type of crisis, all of the advice about stands. It’s all about  planning and preparation, both done in advance of any crisis. As you look ahead to the next crisis, use your learnings from COVID-19 and either create new contingency plans, or update existing ones to make sure they are the most relevant and useful.

Once these plans are formalized, share them with staff and schedule trainings. You want everyone on the same page, and prepared for whatever may come their way —  especially with crises that require rapid responses, such as terrorism or super-contagious pandemics.

Advance preparation often separates those who make it through a crisis relatively unscathed and those that struggle. For more on protecting your hotel, here’s how to get started with a proper crisis management plan.


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