For fifteen months, we’ve been in the doldrums, along with the rest of America. Few industries have suffered like ours: our costs, our clients, our offices. As the reboot of the travel and hospitality industry progresses, it’s clear our work isn’t going to go back to what it was before the pandemic. The worldwide lockdown taught us to be creative, to utilize new strategies, new tactics, new technologies. While we don’t know yet if the twenties will be roaring, we do know we’re never fully going back to 2019 practices.
It’s not just that Departures has departed. We’re not going to trash all those new things we learned. Our clients, and we, couldn’t have survived without a massively increased presence online, massively enhanced use of social media, without Zoom, without less-releases-more-pitches. And we ain’t going back.
The first big change many of us will have to face is that business travel will never be the same. Fifteen months of Zoom has taught every boss in the world that flying 20 people to San Francisco or San Juan or Samoa to sit in a darkened conference room and watch a PowerPoint is just not going to be happening much anymore. Yes, the big kahunas will still fly to important meetings, but much of the day-to-day travel of sales people and mid-management may be out the window for good.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's July '21 Travel & Tourism PR Magazine
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But there’s a definite upside. Because leisure travel is going to come roaring back. And it’s going to be even bigger than ever. Why? Because everyone who works at a desk in an office can extend their vacation for a few days or a week of working remotely. We’ve all learned that working remotely has some downsides, but it works. So that one-weeker to Italy can handily be stretched to 10 or 14 days. Most of our clients are too worried about the day-to-day and making up for months of crashed revenue to have worked this out yet. It’s our job to tell them. And to reassure them that the upsides of the new normal far outweigh the downsides.
Sure, things won’t fully revive until at least 2022. Yet, to paraphrase “Bye Bye Birdie,” there’s still a lot of reviving to do now. The travel media are eager for new stories, new angles, not merely to run the tired backlog that’s piled up since early 2020. The new normal is short and sweet. The 10-page story may not be dead, but it’s ailing because few have the time or the attention span to read ten pages anymore. And with so much now being read online, clients’ foot-stamping passion for a “cover” is almost as dated as a Palm Pilot. That’s another message we need our clients to understand.
All of us have clients of a certain age—like this writer—who still want the coffee-table magazine trophy, and yes, we’ll endeavor to give it to them. But I’ll never forget what former National Geographic Editor Carolyn Bennett Patterson, the “Auntie Mame” of travel writers, once told me forty years ago: “Geoffrey, Darlin’, nobody reads those articles: they just read the photo captions.” And if it was true in 1981, it’s even more true now. The reality of 2021 is that the quarter-page photo with an alluring, information-filled caption in magazine X is going to get a lot more of a read than the six pages of single-spaced prose in magazine Z. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that less is more.
Of course, print was beginning to wobble long before COVID. And newspaper travel sections went out with the fidget spinner. But with the exception of the fabulous Departures, the best will survive and their burgeoning online presence will help them flourish. And we’ll happily work with them all. But it’s to social media where we communications specialists are going to have to direct more of our energies. No longer is it good enough for a hotel owner’s nephew to handle their Instagram. We have to step in and have them realize that social media is intrinsic to their overall PR strategy: it’s no longer a cute hobby on the sidelines for those perplexing Millennials. We have to tell our clients that Instagram is the new Facebook, and TikTok is the new Instagram, and in 2022 or 2023, SlamBam may well be the new TikTok. Our clients need our help to figure out what’s happening on that phone in their pocket, lest they figure it out on their own.
Most of our clients have been writhing in agony for close to 18 months, and as the world gradually returns to normal, they may be too busy gearing up their operations and sales to think about PR. So, we’re going to have to be more proactive than ever. We must underscore what we need to do for them to supercharge their return to business-as-usual. We have to push them. We have to create plans, make proposals, be creative and, wherever possible, get the right journalists and the right influencers to visit them as soon as possible.
The elephant in the room is fees. Many of us are going to have to do all this pushing and shoving and creating while we’re still earning a reduced fee because there isn’t an agency that works in the travel and hospitality sphere that hasn’t had to make compromises on fees during the pandemic. (And don’t believe those who claim they haven’t.) And it’s a problem. Once again, we are going to have tread lightly—but firmly. Because many clients have grown accustomed to us working our behinds off for that lower fee. So, we have to aim to get back to 2019 rates by late fall. And, of course, in 2022, 2019 fees won’t be enough; but if we can get back to February 2020 by November 2021, we should all be happy. And then, in 2022, when we’re truly back to normal, we can push for more.
In September 2020, midway through the worst of the lockdown, this writer crossed the Atlantic. I wanted to demonstrate to our clients that we’re still around and that Americans are aching to get back on planes. And, yeah, I wanted to see for myself if Europe still existed and if travel—despite the masks and curfews and tests and nose-swabbing—was still not only possible but pleasurable. And it is. Indeed, I’m writing this article on the train from Venice to Innsbruck, on my fifth trip across the pond to demonstrate to our friends in the media—and especially to our clients—that all isn’t lost.
A week ago, I flew from Newark to Milan on a “COVID-free” flight. If ever PR firms or their clients doubted America’s eagerness to travel again, they should’ve been with me on that Dreamliner, which didn’t have an empty seat. Looking around, I realized maybe five percent of my fellow passengers were on business; the remaining 95 percent were Americans on their way to European vacations. And that felt truly encouraging.
It’s been hell, but we’ve survived. We’ve learned it’s never going to be 2019 again. It’s going to be 2021 and 2022. And we all have to be sure to put all that learning to good use.
Geoffrey Weill is President of New York-based Geoffrey Weill Associates.