Planning a Reopening

The U.S. has reached a point which many have been anxiously awaiting these past months; all 50 states are in some phase of reopening. However, according to the New York Times, only seven states are in a phase of regional reopening with the majority in some phase of a state-wide reopening plan. In conjunction with the reopening of the country, Americans are feeling increasingly comfortable traveling, with 69% planning to travel in the next six months, according to the latest Longwoods International Traveler Sentiment Study.

The phased reopening of the country has two important implications for Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs): Americans are beginning to travel around and outside their local communities, and DMOs are beginning to reactivate marketing initiatives. Reopenings may look different across the country, but the industry is in agreement that travel will be different and take through 2023 to recover 2019 peak demands according to Tourism Economics.

To develop a successful reopening, DMOs need to focus on three key areas of insights: understanding their traveler, resident sentiment, and the ROI of the organization’s initiatives. The travel marketplace is guaranteed to be different from what a destination has understood to be true before, and with the evolving nature of the travel environment, it is imperative that organizations keep a pulse on these factors throughout the reopening to be successfully poised for recovery.

At the peak of the pandemic and the country’s shut down, 85% of Americans were changing their travel plans due to COVID-19, according to the Longwoods International/ Miles Media weekly Travel Sentiment Study. While this number was down to 69% by the week of June 2, as an industry we are facing a domestic travel market where the majority of people are changing their travel plans. Coupled with shifts in school dates and changes in the activities travelers plan to engage in this summer, the market fundamentally has changed.

2020 will be the year of the road trip with 28% of Americans changing their travel destination to one to which they can drive. In addition to shifting destinations, Americans are increasingly planning on spending time outdoors with top activities ranging from going to parks, hiking and enjoying the water. While travel plans and activities are changing, one thing has remained constant since destinations began lifting shelter-in-place restrictions -- Americans plan to travel in the next six months, with the percentage planning to do so hovering around 70%.

DMOs can be assured Americans will travel this year, and with restrictions being eased, it is time to shift focus to the early indicators of travelers returning to destinations. Taking the next step beyond evaluating travel intent and measuring trends of travel returning to a market, DMOs can keep an early pulse on the resiliency of their market as well as how their travelers are or are not the same from pre-pandemic times. These insights can keep a DMO agile with the programs and promotions designed to help their community recovery.

Resident Sentiment
Residents are at the core of a local travel industry, being the face of a destination and the partners for a DMO. The knowledge of how residents feel toward travel and the DMO itself is vital for a DMO’s success. At no time has the value of the travel industry to local communities been seen so prominently, and this has created an opportunity for DMOs to engage with their residents and partners together to welcome travel back.

The pandemic and the processes around reopening are a delicate topic across communities. To have a meaningful partnership with residents, a DMO must understand how their residents fall along the spectrum of being ready to engage with their local establishments and welcome travelers into their communities. Prepared with this information, a DMO can create programs and promotional initiatives that engage local residents and create positive partnerships across communities.

The ever-evolving nature of the pandemic guarantees that how a community perceives reopening and the welcoming of travelers from outside their community will shift over time. While a benchmark is important to establish in the early days of the summer travel season, the ongoing exercise of understanding residents is essential to continuously keep a pulse.

Historically DMOs have closely tracked the return on investment for their organization’s use of tax dollars, and their ability to improve the image of their destination. Now more than ever, this is a vital evaluation as the travel market has undergone considerable transformation, and the impact of DMO advertising will, for most, differ from prior years. 

Consumer demand, channel engagement, and factors influencing travel decision making have all shifted, making a reevaluation of advertising programs vital to both show value of the DMO to stakeholders and to enable a DMO to be a proactive marketer.  With nearly half (46%) of Americans saying concerns over COVID-19 will greatly impact their travel plans according to the latest Longwoods Traveler Sentiment Study, perceptions of safety, feeling welcome, ease of travel and familiarity are all hot-button attributes that DMOs must ensure they are moving the needle for their destination. 

Coupling intelligence to meaningfully engage travelers with destination messaging with an understanding of the investment needed to drive incremental travel, DMOs can both be personalized and effective with their marketing initiatives to support their destination re-opening and community wide economy.

An evaluation of both the ROI and the image of a destination post-pandemic informs a strategy that is tailored to the new travel market and demonstrates the value of the DMO to their local community.