The impact of a crisis on the hospitality sector can be swift and immediate, with far reaching consequences that are out of the industry’s hands. While there are many factors that can’t be controlled - vulnerability to sudden change, media and international reaction - it’s possible to steer the recovery process by ensuring a suitable framework is in place should the worst happen.
The road to recovery
A crisis can emerge suddenly and without warning. There are natural disasters such as tropical storms, wildfires, earthquakes and tsunamis, to name a few - something Puerto Rico knows about only too well. A 2018 CBRE report into the islands’ recovery following hurricanes Irma and Maria states that “catastrophic hurricanes negatively impact long-term hotel market performance” with evidence showing that it can take between two and eight years for demand to reach pre-hurricane levels.
Then there are man-made crises such as political instability, civil unrest and terrorism, which can contribute to destablizing a destination’s tourism industry. Sri Lanka saw its visitor numbers nosedive following a series of bombings over Easter 2019. “Immediately after, approximately 80% of bookings were cancelled,'' explains Ruan Samarasinghe, Managing Director of Jetwing Hotels, “and after the travel advisories were lifted, it recovered to about 50%.”
But there is hope. In Colombia, where the embattled tourism industry has had to contend with decades of conflict, a number of travel companies have not just formed but flourished.
Take Impulse Travel, a tour operator founded on the principles of both rebuilding communities and regenerating Colombia’s reputation through authentic experiences. According to Director Rodrigo Atuesta, the company "uses tourism as a force for peace in Colombia, empowering local leaders and providing job opportunities for people who have been affected by war and, at the same time, rebranding Colombia one visitor at a time”.
Cracking crisis management
There’s no getting away from the need to be prepared. Research into crisis management within the hotel industry has identified that recovery occurs in two stages: short and long term. Short term covers the immediate aftermath, including guest safety and practicalities. Long term focuses on managing reconstruction and reconnecting with your customer base.
This is consistent with what Samarasinghe says: “What’s most important is training the staff on how to handle crisis situations followed by continuous engagement with all stakeholders to give them confidence and assurance in moving forward.”
Therefore, creating a crisis management plan with multiple scenarios is surely an essential for any business in the hospitality sector. This can include training for staff during stage one and a strategic overview of how to begin rebuilding - considering finances, staffing and timescales - through stage two.
A big part of recovery lies in communication. Certainly, destination marketing organizations (DMOs) play a vital role in communicating with the wider world after a crisis. However, not all properties can afford to sit back and wait for international engagement, which is why accommodation providers should continue to talk to potential guests.
“If you interact with travellers on a regular basis,” says Samarasinghe, “and keep them informed of the progress and current situation through constant communication, then you can maintain and hopefully increase their interest.” This is where digital marketing - through social media campaigns and newsletters, for example - is an invaluable tool for sharing pictures, stories and the realities of life on the ground.
Impulse Travel finds that those who’ve tried and tested Colombia for themselves are the best advocates: “We realize that we, as a company, can't change the ideas people have about Colombia before they experience it,'' says Atuesta. “What can really change people’s perception is other people who they trust who have been to Colombia and share a different story. This is why we generate ambassadors.”
Finding the positives
Positives can be found in the form of new opportunities. First, there’s learning to be had from every crisis, which should go on to inform and evolve any existing crisis management plan. What’s more, a crisis that physically affects a property often opens the door to renovation. This can revive a hotel during the long-term, stage two recovery process, with a fresh coat of paint or a complete refurb.
In a wider sense, there appears to be solidarity within the hospitality sector. As Wahida Jaiet, Director of UK & Ireland at the Tunisian National Tourist Office, puts it, “The challenge is to win back the trust of the public and the trade, which is best achieved by showing unity and support for the industry and communicating efficiently.”
Back in Colombia, Atuesta believes it takes teamwork: “Don't see your organization as an isolated thing. Forget about competition, work together with others, be selfless and generous. The success of others is also your own success.”
- The hospitality sector can be vulnerable to swift changes in demand caused by externally-triggered crises
- In areas affected by severe tropical storms, research suggests it can take between two and eight years for demand to reach pre-hurricane levels
- Creating a crisis management plan covering multiple scenarios is essential
- Communication is key when it comes to keeping guests engaged during the recovery process
- Mutual support for both the industry and local community aid in a successful recovery