A month into the coronavirus outbreak, the global tourism industry is braced for the loss of the world’s largest and most lucrative traveler group. Amid the disruption, many have inevitably turned to 2003’s SARS epidemic for guidance. But this is an inadequate comparison given the prominence and integration of China within the world economy today. For perspective, consider the following: In 2000, 4.5 million outbound Chinese travelers spent $14.1 billion, by 2018, that number had risen to 150 million travelers spending $277 billion.
While the longevity and potential damage of the coronavirus remain uncertain, DMOs and cultural institutions should focus on handling the situation in a sensitive, timely, and consistent manner. Jing Travel spoke with numerous industry experts to get their advice on the topic.
During this global health crisis, the business world’s priority should rest with expressing heartfelt concern and support for Chinese citizens worldwide. DMOs and museums must suspend all marketing campaigns across social media channels, says Sienna Parulis-Cook from Dragon Trail, a travel-focused digital marketing agency. They should closely monitor developments and offer practical advice to Chinese travelers on local medical resources, Chinese consular services, and, where applicable, how to best change bookings.
Be sure to establish a welcoming and non-alarmist tone across all messaging. The coronavirus has already generated a wave of anti-China sentiment, and institutions must avoid fear-mongering. PingPong Digital’s director, Jimmy Robinson, advises using social media to express support for China and outline any measures that should be taken. Further steps include offering preventative measures (such as ensuring the accuracy of information), double-checking communications with mainland Chinese, and “preparing statements to respond to negative sentiment… educating non-Chinese staff on this to avoid any internal insensitivities.” A xenophobic misstep could damage your organization for a period of time beyond the coronavirus.
As international airlines cancel flights and Chinese cities enter a virtual lockdown, tour operators have been dealing with a deluge of cancellations. It’s good to remember that offering support and unconditional refunds can create long-term goodwill.
Although travel expos and roadshows scheduled over the coming months will be canceled, China’s citizens continue to work, albeit remotely, and digital alternatives should be considered. Chinese workers are currently using DingTalk, WeChat Work, and Lark in what has certainly become the world’s largest work-from-home experiment. “Using these platforms makes sure you stay present and relevant,” says Dragon Trail’s Managing Director, Roy Graff, in a travel industry webinar. “[They are] delivered as a live presentation, contain videos, text, and you can interact with a Q&A session.” While none of these should be considered a substitute for a face-to-face meeting, Chinese professionals are available to engage with, and they will appreciate any help and support you can offer in the interim.
At present, offline engagements aren’t feasible, so attention should shift to social media. For museums and cultural institutions, the difficulty rests in balancing informative and supportive virus-related content with a wider range of subjects.
Articles centered on itineraries and exhibition information for Chinese visitors risk being irrelevant and insensitive. In their place, more timeless content is advised. “We are pivoting to a storytelling angle,” says China Luxury Advisors’ Jessica Dai, who handles a range of museum accounts for the consultancy. “[We’re] showing behind-the-scenes stories, taking readers behind the artworks, and using art to be empathetic in this time.”
For inspiration and guidance, look to Chinese museums and cultural institutions. Despite having closed to the public, many continue to share their collections on social media. Notably, the Palace Museum and the Suzhou Museum are highlighting virtual tours and, when applicable, Western institutions should follow suit.
It’s tempting to suspend posting indefinitely since culture is certainly not at the forefront of public attention during a time of crisis. But Chinese institutions are demonstrating the role art can play in offering both support and a welcome distraction.
While the coronavirus timeline is still unclear, “it’s a real possibility that summertime and October travel from China could come back stronger than ever,” says Parulis-Cook. With July through October typically the strongest months for Chinese travel in North America and Europe, “it’s essential to communicate support and prepare for post-epidemic campaigns,” as Caroline Paul of Talents Travel notes.
Ultimately, organizations should prioritize being supportive of Chinese citizens, engage them with content sensitive to the present situation, and plan for the eventual bounce back.