Destination Marketing Playbook: Rules for Navigating Your Next Crisis
Eric Pakurar | 8 months ago | 7 min read

It’s easy to become convinced that every new moment of crisis is unique, distracting us while we invent new solutions or get crushed by indecisiveness, but there are common threads tying moments of crisis together.

Sometimes we see a crisis coming from a mile away: A hurricane in the Atlantic lumbering towards land. A headline hinting at political upheaval. Conflict simmering steadily in the background.

Sometimes it’s a bolt from the blue: The stock market bottoms out. An attack from a hostile, violent adversary comes out of nowhere. A sudden unexpected jolt wakes us up from autopilot.

Regardless of how much warning we receive, moments of crisis demand our attention: forcing us to drop what we’re doing and take near-instantaneous action against a complex suite of circumstances, many of which are abstract, interconnected, and constantly evolving.

Digging deeper and looking at examples from recent history lets us identify patterns, connect the dots, and uncover common ways we respond as marketers to moments of crisis. We looked at three crises in three countries—upheaval in Colombia’s politics, the uncertainty of Brexit for Great Britain, and the sudden explosion of Iceland’s famous volcano—unpacking how each responded through marketing.

But this is just a start. We will continue looking at additional examples to bolster our insights. To get you started, here are the first six rules for using marketing to navigate crises for destinations:

Here are the six themes, in brief:

  1. Acknowledge the past while moving forward. Turning a blind eye to your history, especially when that history is responsible for shaping perceptions around the world, shouldn’t be the status quo. Look for unexpected, playful ways to grab people’s attention using what they already know about you.
  2. Know when to place safe, winning bets. Big, unexpected challenges don’t always require inventive or same-size solutions, even if our gut instinct is to always reinvent the wheel. Look to what’s work in the past and where your key strengths really are, start from there.
  3. Transparency helps breed trust (and vice versa). Your audience isn’t stupid. Consistently addressing concerns head-on inspires confidence, while dancing around answers or pretending they don’t exist does the opposite.
  4. Bring the brand to life across initiatives. The solution to a given problem might not always be marketing or advertising centric. Your center of gravity might be in partnerships with suppliers or government policy, build out from there and stay true to the brand whatever you do.
  5. Consolidate to cut redundancy, not just cost. When you lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel, it might be prudent to tighten the purse strings. But when you do, look for redundancies that will make tackling your challenge inefficient or ineffective. Done another way and you might clip the wings of your best chance at success.
  6. Repurpose the media moment. Bad news drives media coverage. While we often recognize these moments can be used to sell a destination, that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. Repurposing them for a message of recovery and rebuilding can have a positive impact.

Colombian dancers celebrate in a town square

Colombia strikes a candid tone

Moment of crisis:

For the better part of five decades, starting at the close of WWII and ending at the turn of the 21st century, Colombia was plagued with intercountry conflict so violent that it became known as one of the most dangerous places on earth (CN Traveler).

While a peace treaty helped to finally end the violence, the damage to tourism was done. In 2007, according to the UNWTO, inbound international visitation to Colombia was just shy of a million annual visitors (a paltry showing when compared to Brazil’s 5 million visitors or Mexico’s 21 million visitors the same year).

Fast-forward a decade and you would be hard-pressed to recognize the Colombia of today. Named as the number two destination of the year in 2018 by the New York Times, Colombia welcomed a record 4.2 million visitors in 2019 (UNWTO).

How Colombia responded:

  • Acknowledged the past while moving forward. While an efficient short-term coping mechanism, there’s no real benefit in pretending something never happened. Eventually there will be a discussion, it’s just a matter of whether you’re leading it or not. Colombia recognized this with its first real campaign to attract international tourists. Using the tagline “The risk is what will make you want to stay,” Colombia was able to take an existing negative perception and flip it on its head.
  • Placed safe, winning bets. At first glance, shining a spotlight on the very thing that was deterring travelers from visiting in the first place seems extremely risky. But take a closer look at messaging, imagery, and tone of voice and the strategy is actually fairly safe: Lean in to distinct natural features that aren’t being experienced anywhere else. Colombia saw that chaos was their status quo and rightly recognized that additional uncertainty and uncharted territory should be avoided at all costs.

Brexit graffiti highlights one side of the country’s POV

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Great Britain: Brexit introduces uncertainty to a once sure thing

Moment of crisis:

A relatively recent moment of crisis, Great Britain has spent most of the last half-decade in a state of limbo: deciding whether or not the country would actually leave the European Union. With the withdrawal process underway, travelers around the world have been left scratching their heads as to what this means for them. At stake is the freedom to move within Europe’s borders, making both short- and long-haul travel much more complicated than it truly is, adding a layer of complexity to the practicalities of travel (getting from here to there).

How Great Britain responded:

  • Transparency helps breed trust (and vice versa). In 2018 as Great Britain worked to alleviate some of the chaos surrounding itself, the country introduced a new consumer campaign “I Travel For…” that highlighted its appeal to a diverse set of travelers no matter their interests. By not acknowledging Brexit at all, however, the campaign stood in stark contrast to the daily headlines that reinforced perceptions of uncertainty. This resulted in a difficult role out of the campaign that was openly acknowledged by the destinationshowing that a more transparent approach could have benefited the brand more.
  • Bring the brand to life across initiatives. In working to diagnose the challenge facing the destination, Great Britain recognized that its problem stemmed not from a decrease in appeal, but from a lack of confidence in how easy and/or expensive, it would be to get there given so many unknowns. When these concerns were exacerbated by the arrival of COVID, Great Britain worked with the production company Pinewood Studios to rebuild confidence in the destination. By successfully showing that the country was open for business and leaning into the earned coverage that generated, Great Britain was able to demonstrate its continued competence and orchestration as a brand.

Iceland’s volcanoes dominate the country’s otherworldly terrain

Iceland uses focused attention to pivot its brand

Moment of crisis:

While our previous two examples represented slow-burn crises over long periods of time, Iceland found itself suddenly in the dark — quite literally — when it’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in April of 2010. In the days and weeks following the eruption, negative sentiment jumped from 19% to 72% and tourism dropped by 30%, resulting in an economic shortfall of £180 million. The eruption fundamentally changed Iceland as a destination. Couple this with the continuing 2008 financial crisis and Iceland suddenly found itself in the direst economic situation in decades.

How Iceland responded:

  • Consolidated to cut redundancies, not just costs. Iceland knew it was in trouble and one of the first steps was to look for ways to start saving money. Rather than make indiscriminate cuts across the board and risk severing a valuable element of its organization, Iceland instead looked to where there was overlap in responsibilities. Its solution was to move from having three distinct agencies focused on tourism (the trade-centric Trade Council of Iceland, the business development wing Invest in Iceland, and the consumer marketing efforts of the Icelandic Tourist Board) to one organization responsible for all marketing: Promote Iceland. This allowed them to do that without tripping over themselves.
  • Repurposed the media moment. With the eyes of the world on the small island country in the immediate aftermath of the eruption, Iceland was finding all the coverage detrimental to its image and standing. Rather than wait for the news cycle to finish and for everyone to move on, Iceland repurposed the media moment by reframing the story around one of positivity and resilience. For one hour, every person in Iceland was asked to share whatever positive messages, pictures, or videos they wanted about their homeland. Within one day of launching the campaign, one third of the population of 318,000, including the Prime Minister, had participated. More than one million messages were sent and the ginationInspired by Iceland promotional video was downloaded over one million times that same day, with tweets reaching more than five million people and the campaign’s Facebook page attracting 45,000 fans. Engagement in terms of sharing and posting activity was twice the average.’

Bringing it all together

Too often, when faced with what we consider to be a unique moment of crisis, we either reinvent the wheel each and every time — burning valuable hours and manpower — or we are crushed by the weight of it all, letting too much information and choices overwhelm us and drive us to stand still and doing nothing (i.e “go dark”).

But by taking a moment to reflect and look for similarities we can leverage, we can be empowered by knowledge and gain the confidence to ask the right questions to solve the right problem with the right plan of action — saving time, money, and building back tourism at breakneck speed.

Thanks to Eric Pakurar