Travel and tourism is in the midst of a Coronavirus crisis, with large scale events like the Arival and ITB Berlin being cancelled in March, and even the possibility of the Tokyo Olympics being postponed due to the Coronavirus.

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Whether you think this virus is a genuine threat or something that has been blown out of proportion by the media, what matters most is what your customers think.

Many tourists are already putting off travelling, but for many this isn’t out of fear of catching the virus (well not most, anyway) but because they fear losing money on booked flights and accommodation that they might not get back if their bookings are cancelled at the last minute.

I am one of these wary travellers. My family and I were looking to book a trip to Lisbon in May to see family I have over there but we are holding off until later in the year as we don’t want to lose money if parts of our trip are cancelled.

I’ve spoken to a lot of operators and there is an obvious fear that 2020 will be a very harmful year for their business. For some, it could spell the end, but this should only happen if you do not have a contingency plan. In my opinion, you absolutely should work on a back-up plan, as things will probably get worse before they get better. I have even heard some say they may stop marketing altogether.

Marketing your tour business is now more important than ever

For most tour and activity operators, I believe that marketing is more important than ever.  If you decide to stop marketing your business, you may as well give up. 

It's a scary time for anyone working in tours and activities, and you have to look after your business. You know your own business better than anyone, but I hope you're reading this because you accept that marketing could play a pivotal role for travel during the Coronavirus crisis.

Burying your head in the sand hoping it will all go away is not an effective solution. There are several things you can do to mitigate the losses from Coronavirus. One option that is relevant to many operators (especially in the US, UK, and other countries only slightly touched by the pandemic panic)  is to look closer to home and develop products that will cater for people who live in and around your destination. In my honest opinion, every tour operator should have a product that focuses on local tourism even if it is far removed from their normal product offerings.

If your business relies on inbound tourists, then don’t completely stop marketing to this audience as we can’t predict what will happen in the near future — and plenty of people will still want to risk travelling. However, it may safeguard your business to create a product and use some of your marketing budget to focus on locals. Encourage locals to discover their own destination. Play on the fact that locals must unite and help local businesses survive this crisis. This approach worked very well in Australia, after their devastating fires. 

Consider what products you can create that locals can participate in. A food tour? A bike or walking tour? Even if your main product offering happens to be something completely different — like a multi-day tour of Ireland or a safari in Africa — creating products that you can quickly roll out in your local community can allow you to tap into a new audience. Do what it takes to survive and market the hell out of your new local product(s) on Facebook as it is the best and cheapest form of paid marketing available today. 

Make meaningful partnerships with your ‘competitors’

Now, this may seem crazy to some but it’s a great idea to speak to others in your sector — even your biggest competitors. This is not the time to be insular. Create an event, or meet for a coffee (or a beer) and discuss what you can all do to combat this crisis and create local experiences that could support all local tour and activities businesses.

Some of you may wish to see a competitor collapse but think about the broader effects this will have on your destination and local businesses as a whole.

What to do if you are already a local experience provider

If you happen to operate a tour business that already caters for the local market then you are in a good position… and you have a head start. Again, play on the fact, through your marketing, that locals must band together to help those in their local community. Even think about what new experiences or events you can create to help bring everyone together while growing the reputation of your own brand.

I’d like to help out too

I’ve got a bit of a reputation for providing a lot of free advice to the tours and activity industry. This is because I know not everyone has the budget for my company’s tourism marketing services and I think we all succeed as an industry when smaller companies grow and thrive.  I understand that I can’t help every tour operator and travel business out there but I want to help where I can; this is why, for the foreseeable future, I am offering a digital version of my book, Lookers into Bookers, for only $1.

I also offer lots of free advice through my audio and video podcast, The Digital Tourism Show, as well as a free email marketing series that provides tips and helpful guides. You can sign up to these using the form at the bottom of this article. Also, please feel free to ask questions directly on my Facebook group if you need some marketing advice.

Now is the time for the tours and activity sector to work together, creating new partnerships and opportunities. Don’t let this crisis define your business. Assess, adapt, survive… and you may find that your business comes out the other end stronger than ever.

For advice from an operators perspective, take a look at Peter Syme's article relating to the Coronavirus.

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