by Carl Ribaudo, President SMG Consulting

As more tourism destinations face environmental crises, it’s increasingly important for the tourism industry to understand how to respond. Today, destinations across the country deal with a variety of environmental crisis issues, from fires, droughts, hurricanes, storms, and flooding, to public health issues, like Zika virus, and more.

As these disasters become more commonplace, destinations and DMO’s will need to be more strategic in how they deal with them. The framework on how to analyze these disasters is multi-phased, including beginning, mid-point, end and post crisis. At each phase of the disaster, there are different, communication goals, communication strategies, and key communicators. So, it becomes necessary to identify the communication strategy, message, and target segment, as well as the role of the tourism industry, for each phase and message.

Recently California was impacted by several major disasters, including the closure of Highway 1, the state’s famed coastal highway and, more recently, the Thomas Fire. The Thomas Fire was California’s largest wildfire ever. It burned approximately 275,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

At the recent Central Coast Tourism Council strategy planning session, I was the moderator for a Crisis Panel forum. On the panel were Chuck Davidson, President &CEO of SLOCAL, Michelle Carlen, Director of Sales, Visit Santa Barbara, April Locke, Director of Marketing & Communications for Monterrey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Marlyss Auster, CEO and President of the Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau. Each of these individuals have had to contend with major crises impacting their destinations. In the case of San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties, they are eighteen months into dealing with the closure of Highway 1. Both Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties are still feeling the impact of the Thomas Fire.

Key Findings

Each destination had some level of a crisis plan for their organization. However, the panel made important suggestions for destinations to consider:

  1. Think before you plan. The thinking that goes into a plan is critical. Scenario planning is a must because who knows what crisis might impact a destination. In the case of San Luis Obispo, Chuck Davidson indicated his organization had considered fourteen different scenarios depending what could impact the destination–everything from fire and floods to acts of violence and terrorism.
  1. Have a plan and be able to access it in case of a disaster. Having a well-conceived and thought out plan is only the beginning. Being able to access it for all that need to have it is critical. Print hard copies and distribute them!
  1. Have relationships with the key people in your destination. Know the first responders in your destination before a disaster happens and maintain those relationships. Get to know the police and fire chief in your destination, as well as others responsible for implementing disaster plans. They practice for what might happen and its important for your organization to understand what they do, where you fit in, and when.
  1. Communicate accurately. During and after a disaster is not the time to get creative with your communication. Be accurate and timely to both stakeholders and the public.
  1. Safety First for your staff. No matter what the safety of your staff is paramount. Some of them may be impacted by the disaster and their needs are important.
  1. Get tactical when you need to. At some point you will need to soften the story away from the disaster. It’s a great time to talk about your community and how it positively dealt with the disaster. In the case of Santa Barbara, they implemented “Santa Barbara Shines” to showcase their community efforts in dealing with the Thomas Fire and the resulting flooding. Visit Ventura implemented their “Ventura Strong” campaign to rally the local community. In the case of Highway 1, both Monterey and San Luis Obispo County DMO’s were even handing out maps to show visitors what attractions were still accessible and how visitors could move around despite the Highway 1 closure. It’s not all strategic, but it does require thinking. No amount of planning will help you through the entire crisis. It also takes thinking on the fly and taking advantage of a fluid situation.

Final Thought

One of the underlying elements for these destinations was the close relationships they had developed with other DMO’s throughout the region, who responded and assisted where they could. Disasters used to be thought of in terms of that will never happen here, but no destination can be that lax anymore.

In fact, the first step is to start thinking it can and will happen here.