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Niagara Falls Tourism is encouraging local hotels to illuminate their windows in the shape of hearts.

When it became clear that COVID-19 would cause a sharp downturn in air travel during U.S. spring break, destination marketing organizations sprang into action.

“We had some clients who said, ‘People don’t want to fly any more, so let’s focus on getting them there by car,’” said Martin Stoll, chief executive of Sparkloft Media, an Oregon-based marketing agency focused on the travel industry.

That inability to grasp the severity of the situation, or unwillingness to acknowledge it, are among the many marketing challenges facing travel-related businesses and organizations now that “getting away from it all” has been given new meaning. “DMOs [destination marketing organizations] are just so out of their element with COVID-19,” Stoll said. “On one hand, the crisis is such an unprecedented moving target. On the other hand, how do you market a product that for all intents and purposes doesn’t exist any more?”

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To the travel industry’s credit, marketing miscreants have become outliers since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 16. Businesses and organizations with the wherewithal to rein in marketing content have pivoted en masse to support emergency communications, pause paid marketing and cancel trade shows and other events.

“Despite mistakes by some stakeholders, the industry as a whole is doing a good job of sending the right message,” said Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. “When travel restarts again, maintaining trusting relationships with customers will go a very long way.”

Contrary to their natures, many DMOs are actively exhorting their audiences not to visit. Some, it turns out, are extremely adept at this. Visit Estonia posted its most-engaged tweet ever by using the provocative (and trending) #staythefuckhome hashtag. An inspiring video from Visit Portugal declares that the pandemic is “the perfect time not to visit anything,” while an e-mail from Travel Yukon points out that “travel is the last thing on anyone’s mind. So for now, all of that great Yukon exploring will have to be put on hold.”

This doesn’t mean DMOs are sitting on their hands. Far from it. Phase 1 of Destination British Columbia’s three-step recovery campaign, for instance, calls for online and social-media content designed to inspire future travel. The Yukon e-mail signs off by asking readers to “stay home, flatten the curve and start dreaming about your next trip to the territory.” It then directs them to its website for content “to help you spend your hours indoors.”

Niagara Falls Tourism says it's demonstrating their solidarity and working together to help conquer COVID-19.

Niagara Falls Tourism took its inspiration efforts offline by encouraging local hotels to illuminate their windows in the shape of hearts. “It’s not meant to be a marketing message,” said Janice Thomson, the organization’s president and CEO. “It’s about demonstrating their solidarity and working together to help conquer COVID-19.”

This kind of aspirational and inspirational travel messaging has “a huge role to play” amid the crisis, Sparkloft’s Stoll said. “The next few weeks are going to be pretty dire, and people need something to look forward to. I want to think about going back to the beach with my kids or to an art museum or to a New York restaurant I love. This will help the tourism industry recover, but it also helps everyone see a light at the end of the tunnel, however distant that light may be.”

To that end, travel stakeholders are unveiling a number of virtual experiences. Discover Puerto Rico, for instance, is hosting salsa lessons, a cocktail-making class and a cooking demonstration. Visit Florida has posted a list of feature films set in the state, including The Truman Show (in Seaside) and Scarface (in Miami).

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Just as tourism’s return depends on regional factors ranging from health and safety assessments to the state of local travel infrastructure, the timing and tone of a return to traditional travel marketing are still murky.

Phase 2 of Destination BC’s strategy, which is intended to kick off once travel restrictions within the province are lifted, will focus on encouraging locals to explore B.C. this summer and fall, when out-of-province Canadians and U.S. visitors will begin being courted again. The third and final phase is slated to start this winter or by the spring of 2021 – or whenever normal travel has resumed.

Niagara Tourism is also working on recovery campaigns “to make sure we have a clear, compelling message when the time comes,” Thomson said, adding that the messaging may focus on outdoor experiences to reduce the potential for crowding. “It was like a switch was turned off when this crisis started, and I think it’s going to be like a switch being turned back on once we have clearance from public health authorities.”

Ryerson’s Dimanche takes an opposing view. Hotels and airlines will need time to scale back to full operation, he said, while travellers will initially favour visiting friends and family close to home. Combine this with financial struggles and sagging traveller confidence, and it could take many months for people to start exploring further afield. “We’re going to see a pretty even match between what the industry is supplying and traveller demand, which means prices will not go down the way some people are expecting.”

Whenever the comeback takes place, and whatever form it takes, “understanding the mindset of the consumer is essential,” Stoll said. “Otherwise this will backfire, and stakeholders will come across as tone deaf. Best case you’ll just waste your money. Worst case it could have a hugely negative impact on your brand. It’s a real balancing act.”

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