For Chinese tourists, and European tourist and hospitality professionals looking forward to welcoming them, February is normally a time of anticipation. Travel plans being made and marketing campaigns about to roll out. But China - and other parts of the world - are now watching as the Coronavirus tragedy unfolds.
At the time of writing, the virus has infected 40,000+ people globally, with the vast majority in mainland China. By February 11, two-thirds of flights from China were cancelled, and a number of countries and airlines have restricted travel to and/or from the country. Furthermore, the Chinese government has banned all group travel from the country.
At this point in time, there is expected to be a decrease of 20% in Chinese tourism overall for 2020, although estimations vary and it may be wise to seek out multiple sources for an accurate picture. However, with the virus spreading in isolated cases to a number of countries around the world, as well as within China, the situation is unpredictable and prone to rapid developments in either a positive or negative way.
With little visibility over what may happen in the future and a very real human toll and suffering, now is not a time of anticipation or joy. Indeed, it is a moment to handle with care and sensitivity. But how can European brands respect the gravity of the situation, yet remain proactive?
Think short term to engage for the long term
The tourism industry is already being hit in the short term. But in the medium-long term, the situation will improve. And when it does, there may be bottlenecks in demand as people rush to book and many delayed marketing campaigns launch simultaneously.
Stopping any major marketing initiatives at this stage is a no-brainer. But stopping completely will mean you need to push extra hard when the recovery begins. Therefore it makes sense to test the ground, engage, and not completely halt your marketing efforts. Museum package deals may be out of the question right now, but what about for six months from now? There can still be ways to market your business in a low key way that respects the situation, while realising that it will not last forever.
Invest in your community
To borrow a quote from marketing guru Pam Moore, “You can never go wrong by investing in communities and the human beings within them.”
In a time of crisis, there are a number of ways you can nurture and show support for your Chinese customers. Here are some examples of different companies and sectors doing just that:
1) Brands including the Kering Group (owner of Gucci and Yves St Laurent) and Tesla China donated sums to help fight the Coronavirus.
2) Foxconn - manufacturer of the iPhone - has begun to manufacture face masks.
3) In terms of tourism and hospitality, Airbnb is offering hosts and guests the option to cancel reservations without charge, while many hotel chains in Southeast Asia are offering extra safety and hygiene measures.
While none of these may be “right” for your brand, a wise first step would be to inform, sympathise with, and advise customers first about changes in the situation and how to overcome any challenges, and slowly move towards more campaign marketing as the situation improves.
Tap into the boredom economy
Maintaining respect and sensitivity is priority number one. But people who are forced to stay indoors still need human interaction, entertainment, and humour too. The enforced period of time indoors has led to a huge spike in online and social media activity. One man has shared his story of running 50 km in his flat. Millions have been watching the construction of Wuhan’s new “built-in-ten-days” hospital. And brands are taking action. Since cinemas have been closed, the streaming platform iQiyi has made deals to purchase new release movies to show to a house-bound audience. This begs the question: what clever ways can European tourist brands think of to entertain or engage with a bored Chinese audience?
But ultimately, choose your course of action carefully
The “boredom economy” presents an interesting opportunity. But history is littered with brands that have failed to build strong relationships with Chinese customers, due to a lack of local knowledge. And the Coronavirus outbreak presents its own fast-evolving challenges to which brands must be able to react in real-time. On the other hand, empathy costs nothing and is a low-risk way to navigate the crisis and build your customer relationships.
Whatever your approach, it is strongly advised to partner with an agency with deep local knowledge, especially if you want to be more assertive in your marketing, as they will need to keep abreast of and react to developments as they happen. By finding a partner with the right local expertise, great things may happen as the recovery inevitably begins.