Here we are, well over a year since COVID 19 took over the world and changed everything. So many lives impacted, so many more lost, so many livelihoods threatened.
According to Forbes, the global travel industry alone lost over $935 billion just 10 months into the pandemic in 2020, with the U.S. suffering the biggest drop in great part due to its jaw-dropping numbers of COVID cases, the highest in the world. This has left many in the industry reeling and left many more trying to figure out how they will recover.
Though the active distribution of the vaccine has given much hope, the truth is the recovery will remain slow. For one, consumer confidence is at an all-time low, but even more prevalent is the financial hardships and forced limitations on the same, as many households are dealing with income losses. It will be a while before business travel – a massive income generator for many destinations – will pick up again, leaving leisure travel as the most foreseeable generator of visitor investment.
In addition to the psychological and financial impact that COVID has had, there have been social shifts that stand to greatly influence how this demographic will travel when they do again.
For years now, there has been a change happening in the consumer mindset and travel selection process. I have for long been forewarning of the challenges destination marketers and local leaders face should they fail to diversify their marketing and community efforts to be more representative and welcoming of a consumer that is younger, more ethnically and racially diverse, and progressive-minded.
When I travel through rural New York, for example, and see confederate flags ignorantly displayed on lawns and flagposts, it feels dangerous, violent, and unpleasant. It communicates to me, as a Black Latina especially, that a threat exists and that I should be alert. But the negative reaction is not mine alone. Though these discriminatory symbols may steer a certain demographic away, one that might feel physically threatened, it also influences the traveler who sees this as a symbol – and thus community – that stands against their moral and ethical convictions. And this is regardless of race.
With social media influencing so much of how people perceive and decipher a destination, even without them ever being there, the optics of a place are left vulnerable to the outsiders’ experience – even if just in passing. And when threats exist, like through discriminatory symbolism, it makes it that much harder for the visitor to invest in a deeper experience that could stand to contest that perception – which in turn becomes a stereotype, which results in an identity that is reflected in not only visitor demographic, but also in outside investment, talent retention, community growth, and prosperity.
In other words, if local destination marketers and leaders feel that their destinations’ visitors are very white and very old, and very conservative – it isn’t just because those are the only people who like what their destinations have to offer or because those are the only people who would be interested in buying property or working there. It is because those leaders and marketers have failed to demonstrate that their destination is welcoming of or safe for anyone else. It is because they have failed to set a higher standard in their own communities, through their leadership, messaging, and marketing representation. And that can be a huge problem when looking at travel trends for the coming year and on their bottom line.
As Clayton Reid, CEO for MMYG Global recently stated, “Contentious political environments around the world have changed the ways in which business is done. And a transformative awakening of social justice has asked of all of us to be more inclusive and thoughtful for the underrepresented communities around us. So whether it is the effects of Brexit on business travel or the way U.S. communities better embrace diverse travelers, marketers must be aware of these social changes to ensure their brand and customer engagement strategy remains relevant.”
So what can be done?
Don’t leave the definition of what your community is to the outsider
Luckily, more and more industry leaders are recognizing how powerful engaging local communities is for tourism. This practice not only supports sustainability efforts, as engaged communities are more protective of their lands and waters, and other sites but also increases job opportunities and economic growth. Of course, this is only possible when the local residents value and appreciate their communities too and often this is made possible by making room for local voices to not only be heard but be involved in the planning and decision-making process.
It is imperative that local communities are assisted in the efforts to not only market themselves, but to tell their stories, sharing who they are, what they do, and what they stand for. In May 2020, The University of Minnesota Tourism Center offered the following findings from national research and provided insights from industry leaders, “Local residents must love the community as much as your travelers in order for you to have sustained success. This ‘reset’ time is the perfect opportunity for the community to come together to attract visitors and help the local economy recover.”
Yeah, influencers can be great but they don’t always know your story
Though influencer marketing does have a significant impact on brands, it is a mistake to give it exclusivity in telling your community stories.
Some of the best influencer media relationships happen over the course of slow relationship-building. They are initially non-transactional, and non-commital, and more “get to know you”. This matters because finding the right person to tell the story of your destination, and your community in ways that are genuine, truthful, informed, educated, respectful, and open-minded is imperative to not only building brand awareness but also in the fight against stereotypes and misperceptions.
Influencer marketing is a powerful approach, but completely worthless when investing in outsiders only committed to storytelling for profit. Now, finding a talented and skilled, local influencer? That is the golden ticket and one that should be prioritized above all else.
Sometimes, your local story is one that needs to be changed for the greater good of the community and its survival
I have heard marketers tell me, more often than I care to retell, that there’s nothing they can do – say about those discriminatory symbols, or the blinding whiteness of their community and its visitors – it just is who they are.
But the reality is that the world is changing. Demographics, especially in the United States, are changing. According to Dudley Poston, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, “Hispanics and the other racial minorities will be the country’s main demographic engine of population change in future years; this is the most significant demographic change Americans will see.”
The LGTBQ+ community, which continues to be highly underrepresented in travel media, are eager to support and invest in destinations that support their communities.
According to Thomas Roth, CMI founder, and executive vice president, “95% [of surveyed travelers in the LGTBQIA community] really do care that you’re engaged with the LGBTQ community, that you’re not just out there looking for our money, that you’re involved with us, that you get us, that you genuinely want us to be embraced.”
Black leisure travelers in the United States spent $109 billion in 2019 alone, and that number is expected to continue to grow.
What this means is that it is time for destination leaders, marketers, and community members to really have a heart-to-heart and decide the direction they want to take for the survival of their hometowns, businesses, the sustainability of their communities, and retention of their youth and future talent markets. I’ve talked about the need for taking the long road to racial equity and diversity , and it is important to educate yourself on diverse recruiting, as all of these internal elements also help influence visitor attraction.
“As destination marketing and community leaders, there is no longer room for cowardice. It is no longer acceptable to give weight or to concede to the racist, homophobic, and intolerant tropes sporadically displayed throughout the destinations you represent. It is time to stop allowing for those to be the influential voices that dictate how you will market your destination and to whom. It is time to empower the local voices that are inclusive and welcoming of diversity, whose stories not only inspire but are representative of the best among you and the community you want to be. This isn’t a pipe dream. This is the path to success.”
Of all the opportunities that exist in the travel media space, complacency is not one of them. And the idea of “going back to business as usual” is a possibility that, thankfully, has withered into oblivion with this pandemic.
It is time to empower the best among our communities and give the mic to their local voices, arm them with their stories and marketing prowess, and embrace diversity, inclusivity, and progress in all you do. That is the future of travel, and the only path to move forward.