As coronavirus continues to impact travel, brands in the beleaguered tourism sector can learn from past experiences. Lucy Aitken showcases three tourism brands that retaliated following disaster.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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COVID-19 has buffeted the tourism industry, which accounts for 4.25% of GDP in the OECD economies. The overall cost to airlines has been estimated at $29bn, according to the International Air Transport Association, while Confturismo-Confcommercio predicts that Italy will be €7.4bn worse off in 2020.  

What’s more, global GDP growth is projected to slow from 2.9% in 2019 to 2.4% in 2020, according to OECD. This means that, even when the virus has abated, the economic ripples will be keenly felt by consumers who will exercise more cautious spending. Business trips, too, are likely to decline over the long term as global enterprises adjust to virtual meetings necessitated by the spread of the virus.

Yet it’s worth remembering that tourism can be highly resilient. The examples below show how three destinations succeeded in attracting visitors to countries beset by financial chaos, natural disasters and even a lockdown brought about by a terrorist threat.

Visit Iceland: Unite, share and reward

Nearly ten years ago, in April 2010, a dormant volcano called Eyjafjallajökull, unexpectedly erupted. It coated Icelandic air with black ash and resulted in the largest air-traffic shut-down since World War II. It was another kick in the teeth for Iceland, which was already reeling from the effects of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland's systemic banking collapse was the largest experienced by any country in economic history. The outlook was bleak for Iceland’s tourism industry: who would want to visit a giant ashtray?

To encourage visits to Iceland and stimulate its flagging economy, Brooklyn Brothers devised a three-part strategy to boost tourism. The first united Icelanders behind the initiative. ‘Iceland Hour’ saw the whole country – even the Prime Minister – down tools to wax lyrical about their beautiful country. The next stage involved an army of fans spreading positive messages about Iceland across social sites, grouping them together on the ‘Inspired by Iceland’ website. Live webcams also proved to the rest of the world that the country wasn’t floored with black ash. Finally, the ‘reward’ stage of the campaign was a live-streamed music concert.

In the case study, it’s estimated that an additional 72,794 tourists visited the country from other European countries, with each one contributing an average of £1,750 to the country, pumping an additional £127.4m to Iceland's economy. What’s more, the enthusiasm with which the country got behind the initiative was palpable, helping it sustain considerable momentum beyond the initial campaign.

It also built the foundation for other effective Inspired by Iceland campaigns, including Honorary Icelander and Ask Gudmundur: The World’s First Human Search Engine.

Building brand equity: It’s more fun in the Philippines

Once tourism bodies start investing in communications, they are well placed for when disaster does strike, cushioning themselves from potential impact. This was the experience of the Philippines Department of Tourism.

The Philippines had lagged behind Malaysia and Thailand in tourism terms, attracting fewer than four million visitors compared with 25 million in Malaysia and 19 million in Thailand. Its perception issue wasn’t helped by regular typhoons.

Working with BBDO Guerrero in 2012, the Philippines Department of Tourism realised that it was the Filipino people that made a holiday in the country. They also happened to be avid social media users. Using ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines’ as a north star, Filipinos were invited to share their version of the country. This elicited an avalanche of free content: the case study reports 143,057 Instagram photos and a 231% increase in Google hits for the Philippines (89m in 2013 versus 38m in 2011).

So, when 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded, killed at least 6,300 people in the Philippines, a Thank You campaign sprung out of the main campaign and helped the country curb the potential impact of the typhoon on its tourism industry.


VisitBrussels: Talking billboards

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Brussels went into lockdown for a week, crushing tourist numbers. VisitBrussels had to persuade potential tourists and business travellers that it was safe to visit the city again and needed to position it as desirable.

The #CallBrussels campaign, through agency AIR, saw billboards with integrated phones placed in key locations, inviting people to call Brussels over a six-day period. People could see who picked up the phone via a live stream. Some 12,688 phone calls were registered from 154 countries and the initiative generated PR both in Belgium and overseas. After watching the campaign’s online video, 56% found it reassuring, 91% had a peaceful impression of Brussels and 74% had the desire to go to Brussels. Job done.

People power

If there’s one commonality between these case studies, it’s their reliance on locals to help kick-start the tourist economy. While many places boast breath-taking scenery and delicious cuisine, it’s the welcome that visitors will remember. For tourism authorities in Iceland, the Philippines and Brussels, galvanising their respective populations to sell their destinations prompted spikes in visitor numbers that continued to be beneficial long after the campaign period had officially ended.