By Peter Mitham
MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica – The tropical isles of the Caribbean are a world away from the rat race of North America and an attractive destination for travellers looking to escape the latest polar vortex.
But variable and severe weather patterns also threaten the region, not to mention a host of reputational issues that can easily go viral on social media. Whether it’s fears of crime, disease or disaster, knowing how to respond is the first step to a successful recovery.
This was the focus of a panel at this year’s Caribbean Hotel Investment Conference & Operations Summit (CHICOS) in Montego Bay, Jamaica, hosted by HVS and attended by more than 300 people. Panel moderator Leora Lanz, principal of LHL Communications and chair of the Masters of Management in Hospitality program at the Boston University School of Hospitality guided five industry leaders through a discussion around the idea of “Crisis Management: Planning Ahead and Staying in Front of Unforeseen Issues and/or Events.” Panel members included Lou Alicea, senior director, development, with Wyndham Hotel Group; Kevin Dallas, CEO of the Bermuda Tourism Authority; Gonzalo Gonzalez, managing partner of marketing agency bvk Miami; John Niser, director of the International School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Fairleigh Dickenson University in New York and Michael Register, principal of Trust Hospitality in Florida.
The idea for the panel came from the CHICOS advisory board, which felt the various challenges the Caribbean has faced over the past 18 months demanded a focused look on how to deal with crises.
“This impacts our investment,” Lanz said. “We’ve seen in the Caribbean, in the last few years particularly, we’ve needed to communicate stronger.”
The challenges have been many, and stretch back to at least 2016, when the Zika virus began making people think twice about visiting the region.
Reputational issues associated with crime and violence in several countries is another factor. Canada, for instance, has issued a travel advisory for Jamaica, thanks to the country declaring a state of emergency in several regions, including Montego Bay, where the CHICOS conference was held; it advises travellers to “exercise a high degree of caution.”
Other challenges are associated with climate change. Powerful storms have become more frequent, and even when the skies are clear blooms of sargassum have made international headlines.
“There are lots of things that are out of our control, they’re Mother Nature, but we have to prepare for them,” Lanz said. “It’s at a point where it can very detrimentally impact the revenue.”
The panel was helpful.
“It was great because we talked about some of the incidents that happened, what did they learn from these incidents, and what are they doing differently?” she said. “The key take-aways were preparedness, plans, educating, and social [media] with visuals.”
Kevin Dallas, for example, shared Bermuda’s experience trying to defuse weather-shy travellers not sure what to expect in the region. Some of it is driven by ignorance of basic geography, as in 2017 when Hurricane Irma made tracks for Barbuda – and people heard “Bermuda.”
“Bermuda had to quickly get into education mode and educate folks as to geography,” said Lanz. “With the advent of social media you have to use imagery to get the word out.”
Bermuda, located a thousand miles to the north, began showing what the weather was like where it was. Lanz also encourages hotels to make locals ambassadors for the destination, educating their own peer groups about conditions on the ground.
Parris Jordan, CHICOS conference chair and managing director with HVS Bahamas, said the Bahamas faced a similar issue this year as Hurricane Dorian tracked across the country. Just two islands were affected but news reports made it seem like the monster storm was swamping everything in its path.
“Only two islands were affected, and those two islands don’t have a lot of hotel rooms on them,” he told Canadian Lodging News. “Most of the hotel rooms were open for business and were unaffected by the hurricane. So how do we address that? How do we as a region get the word out that we’re open for business when people’s perception of the news is different?”
Professionals were called in to help address the challenges the Dominican Republic faced this year when reports of deadly drinks began circulating. However, destinations that have a clear plan can begin laying the foundation for recovery by tracking the news and delivering clear, honest messaging.
Stay on top
“The challenge is, with so many distribution channels for communications today, is to try and stay on top of it all,” she said. “Someone’s got to stay on top of it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s really important. Some of it can spiral in the wrong direction, so that’s it’s important to stay on top of it – especially in real time, to see what people are saying.”
Being prepared is often the best strategy given the range of unexpected events that can threaten to derail a destination.
“Show them visually what’s working,” she advised, and when a crisis happens, communicate what’s being done to address the issue. “It’s important to stay as proactive as possible. … Preparation, having documented plans, practicing the plans – those were all really important steps and measures that all the panellists agreed has to happen today.”