Taking tourism online: How businesses must reach out during lockdown

Every sector of the global economy has been impacted by the outbreak of Covid-19. The crisis has led to marketing plans being torn up and even booming businesses finding themselves suddenly having to fight for survival.

The tourism industry is among the sectors hit hardest. As the country stays home, visitor attractions, hotels, travel providers, events companies and catering businesses have had to close, with no certainty around when - or even if - their customers will be able to return.

Just a few months earlier, the outlook had been good. In December 2019, Visit Britain had forecast inbound visitor growth of 2.9%, and a 6.6% increase in spend to £26.6bn in 2020. Then coronavirus hit. International tourism was all but shut down and the picture changed dramatically.

In April 2020, Visit Britain updated their tourism forecast for the year ahead. Inbound visitor numbers were revised drastically downward, turning initial predictions of growth into a 54% decline in visits and a £15bn drop in spend versus the previous forecasts. Similarly, the domestic outlook is now for overnight stays and day visits in 2020 to be down a staggering £22.1bn versus last year.

How accurate these predictions are remains to be seen. Visit Britain make clear that this is their “central scenario... one possible outturn [that] involves many assumptions and simplifications due to the fast-moving and uncertain situation”. The real outcome could be better - or even worse.

So how have tourism businesses responded? And how can marketers make the best of a very bad situation?

With people confined to their homes, there is an opportunity to reach out to audiences online.

Visit Britain themselves have taken this approach, with this message greeting visitors to their website:

“We’re bringing Britain to you, with traditional recipes, interactive maps and boredom-busting articles, from the best British TV shows to binge watch to a round-up of London’s musical hotspots (with a special playlist to match). Hop on over to our social channels and you’ll find more tips and trivia – there’s even a pub quiz each week, so you can enjoy a true taste of Britain. So sit back, relax and discover Great Britain from home. When we’re all able to travel again, we’ll be ready and waiting to welcome you.”

Individual attractions have launched virtual tours (such as this example from Birmingham Museums https://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/bmag/virtual-tour) while others have shared content via their websites and social media using hashtags like #MuseumFromHome.

At Aerospace Bristol, we used the last two days before lockdown to record as much video footage as we could, including brief introductions to our exhibits that would later be released as online ‘spotlight talks’ under the name ‘At Home with Aerospace Bristol’. A small team edited these videos, while also creating activity sheets and how-to videos. The results can be seen at https://aerospacebristol.org/at-home-with-aerospace-bristol.

While it may seem like a lot of work, particularly as many organisations run with a skeleton staff while others are furloughed, there are numerous benefits to engaging audiences through online content.

First and foremost - online content keeps a business at the front of people’s minds, even during lockdown. This is hugely important. For those who still have something to sell - such as advance bookings or gift vouchers - it is a way to attract attention to your offer. For those who don’t, it is an opportunity to strengthen your brand and increase the chance of your business holding a coveted position near the top of people’s to-do lists once lockdown is eventually lifted.

For museums and attractions run by charities, online content can also be a source of income at a time when no tickets are being sold. This doesn’t necessarily mean charging for the content itself. Many people who enjoy online resources will choose to support the charity with a donation. Importantly, online activities can enable charities to continue fulfilling many of their aims, even while their physical premises are closed. 

Finally, there may be a hidden benefit of taking your tourism business online. One that will only become clear once things return to some kind of normality.

The crisis has forced organisations to think differently, learn new skills and communicate through new channels. It will be important for all businesses to take the lessons learnt during lockdown and think about how they can be applied post-lockdown.

Even once businesses reopen, those who have been able to engage audiences online would be foolish to stop doing so. Instead, they must turn this new online presence into an ongoing advantage.

Marketers have the opportunity to lead the way, using their skills to help organisations communicate with remote audiences better than they ever before. This will remain true even once tourism businesses can - at last - return to meeting customers in-person too.

Adam Jones is Tourism Ambassador for the CIM in the South West.