COVID-19 Upends Tourism Marketing, Sparks Idea of “Safecations”

CONCORD, N.H.  — The coronavirus has upended the way cities and states market themselves as summer travel destinations, and some tourism officials are just emerging from an especially awkward position: telling potential visitors to stay away.

The pandemic's effects can be seen on promotional websites that acknowledge the new risks of travel. An Illinois site encourages people to explore the state's natural wonders from their sofas. Virginia's main tourism site features a mountain range with the message "We'll be waiting for you."

"We really had to ask ourselves, 'When is it irresponsible to ask people to travel? What do we do as a tourism brand?' We can't come out and tell people to plan a trip because we have no idea when people are going to be traveling again," said Lindsey Norment, brand director at Virginia Tourism.

Virginia's tourism office spent a year working on a summer marketing campaign only to halt it four days after its launch in March. Ads featuring a Seattle family's vacation in the state were scrapped.

"That was a scary moment in our office to think, 'Everything we've done up to this point, we can't say that anymore,'" Norment added.

The U.S. Travel Association estimates that domestic travel spending will drop by 40%, from $927 billion in 2019 to $583 billion in 2020, because of the pandemic. That decline has tourism officials scrambling to salvage what they can.

Many agencies settled on step-by-step approaches that initially emphasized staying home and virtual tours. Gradually, the message is shifting to encouraging people to explore places close to where they live. Next will be cautious outreach to out-of-state visitors.

Or as Lori Harnois puts it: Dream, plan, go.

Harnois is the director of travel and tourism in New Hampshire, which had planned to launch a summer marketing campaign in May called "Discover Your New," a play on the state's name. The effort has since been revamped to include changes brought by the virus, and the rollout was pushed back to this week, Harnois said.

"It's still in that dream tactic — we're not being super aggressive with saying come visit," Harnois said.

Similarly, the EnjoyIllinois.com website opens with an image of the rugged cliffs of a national forest. "These views took 300 million years to make," the site says. "They're not going anywhere anytime soon, so explore Illinois from your couch."

Virginia will be moving to its next phase by the end of the month, but officials have stopped far short of issuing an invitation to large numbers of visitors.

"We want people to keep Virginia in mind, but we don't necessarily want a ton of people flooding our state right now. It's a very tricky line to walk," Norment said. "That's a hurdle I never expected to face in tourism: What if we don't want people here?"

The city of Philadelphia had a $2.5 million marketing campaign centered on live entertainment set to launch April 15. Instead, it's developing new strategies based on research into how far people are willing to drive and what will motivate them to travel, such as weddings and other celebrations, said Jeff Guaracino, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia.

"We also are reverting back to reassuring people that the Philly you know and love is still here. You'll see much more imagery of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Rocky, cheesesteaks," Guaracino said. "Most destinations try to evolve beyond the iconic things they're known for so they can expand their appeal. We see in the research right now that people need to be reassured about what's open and what's closed."

Beyond attracting visitors, tourism officials are also promoting how their cities and states will keep visitors safe. The tourism group Choose Chicago leads an effort to enlist hundreds of hospitality and event-related businesses to make a public commitment to prioritizing health and safety.

"There is no marketing template or operational template for what we're going through," said Glenn Eden, chair of the group's board of directors. "We want to be viewed as an intelligent and socially responsible destination that visitors can trust."

Traditional marketing messages will not work but neither will keeping silent until the pandemic passes, said Xiang Li, director of Temple University's U.S.-Asia Center for Tourism and Hospitality Research. Instead, marketing organizations need to find gentle ways to persuade potential tourists to keep their destinations in mind, he said.

"You have to keep your tourists engaged and give them a sense that you understand them. You have to send a message with empathy and understanding that says this is a challenge we're all going through," he said.

North Dakota's tourism office targeted a similar message to in-state residents when the virus hit, said Sara Otte-Coleman, the state's director of tourism and marketing. While the state has not traditionally been a tourist hot spot, it may become more attractive to travelers in search of wide-open spaces.

"Staycation" has been part of vacation lingo for a while, but now there's also the notion of "safecations," Otte-Coleman said.

"We've kind of owned uncrowded, and we've owned safe," she said. "So if there's going to be a winner in this, I think it might be us."


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