Interviews

Destinations which react the fastest will be stronger after this crisis

Milena Nikolova is a tourism destination expert and a traveller behaviour analyst.

Nikolova mentioned a few features of the post-Covid19 traveller to Event Point, warning that destinations need to reinvent themselves as fast as possible. According to her, the MICE sector is one of the most affected by this crisis.

Is this an opportunity for destinations to reinvent themselves?

Absolutely! Not only is this an opportunity.... change will be inevitable because traveller behavior will change so destination offerings and marketings cannot stay the same. The opportunity is in the path to reinvention that destinations will take. The ones who overcome the shock from the sudden pause fast and see the benefit of resetting tourism and improving some of its inefficiencies, will be stronger on the other end of the crisis. We have a unique opportunity to stop, think and fix mistakes we have done in the past. I really hope that more destinations take that opportunity and contribute to a smarter post-crisis tourism.  

Do you think that things will never go back to the way they were in terms of mass tourism?

It is hard to say.... Traveller behavior is shaped by two forces: individual specifics (our preferences, emotions, including the fear of the disease and concerns for our safety) and the external environment. In the short- to mid-term people will be very cautious in their travels. They will demand different level of hygiene and safety. They will avoid crowds and will seek to postpone the first time to go back on a plane. These will be the individual forces. Operators and service providers who rely on mass tourism will not stay around. They will be proactive in seeking to restore their business and lure travelers with deals that will minimise their safety and health concerns. It is likely that they will have some success, especially after some time passes. 

To me the main role in ensuring that we see less of the wrong type of mass tourism should be played by destinations. They are the ones who need to rethink how to continue hosting visitors curious to see the wealth of their culture and the beauty of their nature without forming crowds, without disrespecting locals and without contributing to human health risks. 

Let's not forget the important role of local residents in host destinations. Resident perceptions will also play an important role here. In many places tourists might be unwelcome because locals fear that they could bring viruses and harm them. Destinations will have the task of convincing their own residents that tourism will be different and that the masses will not return with the pre-crisis volumes. 

What kind of work should the destinations be doing now?

The two most important things for destinations in the current period are to support their local industry and to reorganise their marketing strategies. 

First, I think that smart destinations are investing simultaneously in supporting the local businesses during this time along with bettering their competitiveness and sustainability. Many countries and regions are directing financial assistance at local businesses to ensure they survive. I think that financial assistance should be conditional upon improvements businesses are required to make. For example, they can improve their digital marketing or social media skills, they can optimise and upgrade their itineraries, or they can spend time optimising their operations to minimize energy use or eliminate single-use plastics.

Companies in our sector are so shocked by this unexpected wipe-out of their business that few of them will initiate such improvements on their own. If, however, destinations nudge them by tieing financial assistance to improvement requirements, at the end of the crisis the entire local industry will be stronger and more sustainable. 

Second, destinations should also be using this time to reconsider their marketing. Demand after the crisis will be very different so there is need to identify new segments that are more relevant in the short term and change tactics that might bring back some of the top markets in the longer term. This is where some of the mistakes with unsustainable growth, overtourism and undesired impacts can be fixed. 

How should they communicate at this point?

Almost all destinations quickly realised that their classical promotion is irrelevant at the moment. At the same time marketers know that silence leads to loss of the share of the travelers' minds. In this context there are some fantastic examples of destination communications that align with the demands of the crisis and touch the hearts of their audiences. Portugal's #CantSkipHope video is a great example. 

Creativity is another differentiator. Communicating in a smart and creative way that is different from the noise of everyone else is always a winning strategy. A great example of the Remote Tourism campaign of the Faroe Islands. This is a way to stay home but keep a share of your travelers' minds. 

How is this pandemic changing the habits and choices of the travellers?

Traveler behavior will be impacted significantly. Obviously, different segments will respond differently and will change in different ways but there are a few characteristics of the post-COVID-19 traveller that we can expect will apply to the majority of the consumers. One is the firm expectations that new hygiene standards are non-negotiable for all operators along the supply chain. In that sense the accelerated introduction of contactless solutions at security points, check-ins, etc. will be in higher demand. We also mentioned earlier the fear of crowds. People's desire to stay away from big crowds will be combined with desire to socialise with the friends and family they were away from during the social distancing restrictions. This means that there will be demand for smaller group experiences and that destinations and service providers need to take measures to eliminate the risk of crowding. 

Is there an opportunity for green destinations in the future?

I think that the only future is for green destinations. The time for industry players who downplay sustainability is running out. It is as simple as that - smart tourism means preserving the assets that make you attractive and that generate the great positive impacts you desire to see. Given that this is good for the place, for the hosts, for the travellers, why would there be an alternative to being green and sustainable?

How do you see a change in the meetings industry, with less (none at the moment) international travel and all kind of restrictions in terms of events in the future?

The MICE industry will be one of the worst hit segments in the travel industry. It will also be one that will be disrupted in the long run. First, the crisis accelerated experimentation with digital event formats. Of course, digital interaction can never be the same as live interaction but the current experience proves that for many situations it can be good enough. Given that we will be in an economic downturn for some time and budgets will be tight, it could be that a sizable share of live events will move online permanently. 

Second, the events industry will have to adjust to the new realities and expectations of customers. New hygiene and safety procedures will require some investment and training. New setup and formats will need to manage audiences and prevent crowding. 

Third, it is likely that smaller and more specialised events will be more attractive than large formats. I am very curious to see how the largest trade shows and conferences will change, and whether some interesting innovations will come from them. 

Cláudia Coutinho de Sousa

Tags: Destinations, MICE, Tourism

27-04-2020