U.S Travel & Tourism Today: Vacationers Staying Closer to Home; Industry Combats 'Bunker Mentality'
Skolnik, Rayna, Public Relations Journal
U.S. Travel & Tourism Today
Postcards from public relations professionals involved in U.S. travel and tourism today give mixed impressions. "Bunker mentality" and fear of terrorism, brought to the fore by the Persian Gulf War, have undermined an airline business already besieged by recessionary, financing and labor woes. Fear of flying has had a ripple effect, with cities, resorts and regions highly dependent on fly-in traffic losing business in 1991.
PRJ checked with more than 24 practitioners in hotels, convention bureaus, transportation services, and firms serving T&T clients around the country for this report. Among other factors, they noted these key trends affecting domestic business:
* A coalition of travel-related professional associations is mounting a positive campaign to promote "Travel -- The Perfect Freedom," a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt. Public relations professionals are charged with implementing this crisis management strategy.
* More Americans today are planning to drive to vacation spots this year, rather than fly. This "closer to home" travel will benefit destinations withlots of local traffic potential, such as Philadelphia, while hurting more remote spots like Hawaii.
* Regardless of wartime concerns, recession and other problems, such as the mosquito alert in Florida, are factros hurting tourism levels at some locations.
* After the initial war scare, some businesses, such as cruise lines, rebounded. Above-average cancellations quickly gave way to heavier bookings by the end of January. In fact, a group of cruise lines launched a major promotion after the Gulf War began. (See sidebar, page 18.)
* Before ware broke out, rail travel was on the upswing. Wartime fears about flying have accelerated that trend.
War hurts tourism
Domestic travel and tourism were especially hard hit in the early days of the Gulf War. Some people figured that air travel anywhere was unsafe, and much of what they saw or read fed that fear. Others considered it unpatriotic to take a vacation during wartime. And rising fuel costs added to hardships some consumers faced due to war call-ups or other income loss.
Another factor, especially for world-class hotels and internationally popular destinations, is the sharp decline in international air travel. Japanese business travelers and vactioners, for instance, have been advised not to fly during the Gulf War. In places like Hawaii, such visitors account for as much as 20% of the income from tourism.
While there are definitely bright spots on a war-clouded horizon, many travel and tourism interests are experiencing serious problems. Attendance at Colonial Williamsburg, VA, for instance, is about 10% below normal. Hawaii is hurting too, with mainland traffic down about 10% and business from Japan down nearly twice that amount.
Domestic air travel has declined, although not nearly as much as was rumored or feared. According to the Air Transport Association of America (ATA), which surveys 15 major U.S. carriers, domestic passenger traffic in January 1991 was down .9% from January 1990. International traffic fell 8.8% for the same period.
However, the big drop in air travel did not occur until after Jan. 15, the U.N. deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Thus, the January figures may not give a true picture of the severity of the decline, pointed out Kathleen Henriques, manager, communications, ATA.
Industry faces other problems
Even though the numbers are not disastrous, the airlines industry is under great stress, with bankruptcies and widespread layoffs. The publicity person for one airline declined to be interviewed, saying it was "premature" to discuss how he would cope. "We're making decisions every day. What we decide today, we might change tomorrow," he admitted.
Prospects seem brighter at Delta Air Lines, which recently bought several former Eastern Airline gates in Atlanta and Los Angeles. "We continue to demonstrate that we remain confident. We're adding 64 flights per day in the next three months," said Neil Monroe, manager, public relations. "We are adding aircraft and will publicize that. When people are optimistic about a company, they continue to trade with that company."
There's "a great opportunity for the airlines to be out there with their message," stated Mary Picower, president, Middleton & Picower, Inc., New York City. The firm counsels many travel and hospitality clients. A few years ago, an airline that was the target of terrorism hired the firm on a project basis, she recalled. "We put the senior executives on a media tour, talking about service and about safety. Let's admit that there's a concern and educate the marketplace," Picower advised.
In fact, all the turmoil in T&T today will force public relations experts to be more creative and resourceful. "We no longer have the luxury of just selling a product," explained Kathleen J. Dunlap, APR, president, Dunlap Associates, Bellevue, WA. She's chairman of the Travel and Tourism Section of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). "We must find out what keeps people from buying and resolve some of the questions in their minds."
Travel interests unite
Many people agreed with Dunlap's assessment: "Once the war is over, people will go back to traveling. And destinations that are ready will get their business back." Nevertheless, the travel industry isn't taking a wait-and-see approach.
In early February, industry associations and suppliers that make up the Allid Executive Committee of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) formed a coalition to promote business and leisure travel by addressing the public's concerns head-on. The coalition's slogan is "Travel--The Perfect Freedom." Coalition members have asked their public relations people to develop a strategy to convey that message.
"The slogan won't be used publicly because it would be too self-serving," said June Farrell, director, public relations programs, Marriott Hotels*Resorts. She is one of the public relations professionals developing ASTA's plan. "The message we have to convey is 'business as usual, get back to normal.' Maybe we need to see Barbara Bush getting on a plane to Orlando with her grandchildren," Farrell quipped. Several days after her remark, news broadcasts reported Mrs. Bush taking a regularly scheduled commercial flight.
At press time, the coalition was formulating overall objectives as well as those for individual members. ASTA's magazine informed travel agents of the coalition and also listed several "myths" and "facts" about travel. "We have 20,000 travel agent members," said Anne Marie Powell, senior vice president and general manager, ASTA. "We want them to give out correct information."
If, for example, a travel client voices a concern about security, the agent is advised to point out that airport security is higher than ever, but that passengers can still move through airports without "hassles." Travel agents are also coached in what to tell clients who consider it inappropriate to schedule meetings or conventions. "If we let Saddam Hussein bring the country's economy to a halt, then he has won," ASTA advised, accordint to Powell.
Hawaii suffers decline
The economy has slowed dramatically in Hawaii. "Our visitor business has dropped off substantially," said Roger Coryell, public relations coordinator, Hawaii Visitors Bureau. The bureau predicted that through April, mainland tourism would be down 10% and tourism from Japan would be down as much as a 19.5%.
No less than 20% of Hawaii's tourists come from Japan, noted Sharon R. Weiner, APR, president, Stryker Weiner Associates, Inc., a Honoluly public relations firm. Japanese tourism plummeted after a Japanese government official said that it would be inappropriate for the Japanese to frolic in Hawaii while American soldiers were at war, she explained. "We're trying to communicate to the Japanese that by not coming here, they're doing us more harm than good. We had a 2.7% unemployment rate until the end of last year, and now we're having layoffs."
To combat the tourism decline, Hawaii and its hospitality industry launched "Project Boost." The campaign is urging all people who do business outside Hawaii--and especially those who deal with Japan--to promote Hawaii as "a desirable destination," said Coryell of the HVB. The bureau is seeking emergency funds for ads, editorial material and direct mail, he added. "The West Coast is our big ready market. We must reassure people that we haven't changed, that this is a safe, beautiful and friendly place, and just as much fun as ever."
ITT Sheraton Hotels in Hawaii is also seeking ways to create awareness and interest by "bringing Hawaii to consumers," said Catherine A. Pescaia, vice president, travel accounts at Stryker Weiner. ITT Sheraton is the firm's client. A promotion to bring chefs, hula dancers and craftspeople to department stores or shopping malls on the mainland is under consideration.
Some firms with T&T clients are "absolutely" in a crisis management mode, admitted Truman (Duffy) Myers, vice president, public relations, for the firm of Robinson, Yesawich, & Pepperdine in Maitland, FL. "The positive side is that you turn the energy level up and become more creative," he said.
Mosquito alert bugs Florida
Besides the ravages of wartime fears and economic problems, Florida tourism has been hampered by public concern about disease-bearing mosquitoes. Hotel occupancy in The Sunshine State was down as far back as last July, according to John Rutherford, public relations director, Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc.
Last summer, there was an outbreak of encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can be fatal to humans. The disease is carried by mosquitoes and passed along when they bite. The statewide mosquito alert resulted in health officials issuing travel advisories, which further eroded tourism.
To combat this situation, the tourist bureau sent its health advisory over the PR Newswire, Rutherford said. Mailings were also sent to travel editors and freelance writers. "A fair number of newspapers now run a health box on theri travel pages," he explained. "Our name and our advisory are in those boxes.
"We told people how many illnesses and how many deaths there had been," the tourism official went on. Orlando/Orange Country territory experienced 27 cases of encephalitis and eight deaths from the disease. "But we also outlined precautions for visitors to the state." Tourists were advised to use insect repellent, limit outdoor activity in the evening and wear protective clothing against insect bites.
Some areas doing well
Despite the current problems at some domestic destinatons, overall conditions "bode very well for travel in this country," stated Richard Z. Ward, APR, owner, Ward & Ward Company, Chesterland, OH. He and his wife are the travel editors for Ohio's Sun newspapers. "Anything you want to find in the world markets you'll find in the 50 states," Ward said. "This is an opportunity for our resorts and cities to stimulate travel."
Dolores M. Sanchez, APR, manager, media relations, Holiday Inns, Inc., Memphis, TN, concurred. "We see a tremendous opportunity," although fewer foreign travelers are coming to Holiday Inns' U.S. properties, she said. "People in the United States will look more heartily at our own country. And they'll take a lot of weekend and road trips."
In Texas, Greg Elam, vice president, communications, Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, is looking for regional business, too. "The war is causing us to intentionally change our tourism promotion program. We'll be emphasizing the attractiveness of Dallas to regional markets, to people who can drive here, not fly. Or, people who wouldn't go out of the country can come here," Elam said.
"We're going to scale back promotion overseas," he continued. "We had a growing European market, but that is now greatly complicated by the war." The war did not hurt convention business, however, and Dallas even picked up some conventions that had been scheduled for overseas destinations, Elam concluded.
Attendance falls 10%
At Colonial Williamsburg, attendance has been about 10% below normal since last spring. "We don't expect it to be better in 1991," lamented Albert Louer, APR, director of media relations, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He blamed "general economic conditions" for the downturn. Because advertising funds are limited, Louer is emphasizing media relations. His campaign focused on "areas a little closer in - the publics that are most effective for us to reach," he said. "Most people drive to Williamsburg."
The recession isn't the only thing that's hurt Williamsburg, Louer added. There are huge military bases nearby, and call-ups took several hundred thousand people out of its market. Members of the military have always paid reduced admission. Now, all Desert Storm dependents are admitted free, in the hope that spending at restaurants and shops in the restored area will help compensate for the decline in attendance, he reported.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, is intensifying its focus on the local market as a source for business travelers. "We can't affect the individual business traveler in California who decides not to come here," he explained R.C. Staab, vice president, communications, Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. Instead, a new series of TV ads is aimed at local business people to "make them proud of their city and encourage them to bring in meetings and convention business," he said.
Although Philadelphia attracts visitors from all over the United States, budget limitations make it difficult to advertise to any but the strongest markets. "But public relations reaches them," Staab pointed out. "Over the last year and a half, we've visited 350 magazine and newspaper offices all over the country, taking our message directly to travel editors and writers. That has paid off handsomely, as we get to know more about their individual needs."
Pushing events and patriotism
Staab maintained that his city is "in good position" for tourism because people are focusing on domestic destinations, and Philadelphia is a patriotic site. Promotional events have also paid off in the past, and more events are being planned. Last year, for example, 140 museums and institutions participated in events celebrating 200 years of the genius of Benjamin Franklin. The events generated 9,000 press clips versus 1,800 the preceding year. Moreover, in 1987, the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, advertising alone pulled 90,000 responses. In 1990, event-supported advertising pulled 95,000 responses with only one-third of the 1987 ad budget.
Encouraged by those results, the city this year has scheduled events celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. "We already know what our events will be for the Columbus Quincentenary in 1992," Staab reported.
At the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, Lois E. Smith, manager of tourism promotion, reported being contacted by a Pittsburgh newspaper writer doing an article on vacation destinations reachable by car. Cincinnati is a four-hour drive from either Pittsburgh or St. Louis, Smith pointed out, and four and one-half hours from Chicago.
Some looking abroad
Not everyone has discounted foreign markets, however. Jim Austin, manager of news service, Phoenix & Valley of the Sun Convention & Visitors Bureau, anticipates growth in business from Japan now that American West offers direct air service between Phoenix and Nagoya. Previously, he said, "we didn't target that market because it couldn't reach us. But now we will pursue it. We've already hosted some travel writers. And we're working with tour operators in Los Angeles, who are our bridge to the East."
Don Payne, bureau manager at the Las Vegas News Bureau, said that business "will be maintained by the regional traveler." Still, he stressed that "we'll continue and even increase our promotional efforts abroad. The convention authority has an office in Frankfurt and contemplates opening one in London this year." He has no doubt that the potential is there: "Americans are a bit apprehensive about safety in Paris, Milan, or other places closer to the war. But the European tourist looks at this as a relatively safe destination. We'll also strengthen our efforts in the Pacific Rim," Payne said.
Whoever the targeted buyer is, however, public relations practitioners agree that the key message to communicate these days is value. Anyone who doubts the efficacy of that message need only be reminded of the way consumers who were supposedly terrified to fly snapped up airlines' half-price tickets in February.
And in the third week of January, the very week the war began, Westin Hotels & Resorts got a "fabulous" response to a marketing blitz, said Sue Brush, APR, director of corporate communications for the hotel chain. The four-day blitz, which had been planned last summer, presented corporate clients with specific offers for both individual travelers and meeting groups. "Everyone's looking for added value," said Brush. "But people were impressed that we were even on the streets at that time."
Support for the value message comes from many directions. "The majority of Amtrak's business is discretionary," said Sue S. Martin, APR, senior director, public affairs. "So we must emphasize the benefits of rail travel, especially the value the passenger gets."
In fiscal 1990, which ended Sept. 30, 1990 Amtrak set records for revenue, ridership and passenger miles. For the first quarter of fiscal 1991, ridership was up 3.6%. "Even in a recession, our ridership and revenues continue to grow," Martin reported.
In Hawaii, too, "The big change will come with reduced rates. Our business was already down last December because of the recession; now that's getting masked by the war stuff," Sharon Weiner observed.
"We are not experiencing any loss of business," said Gail MacIntyre, director of public relations, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Corp. The reason? "Some companies have been telling people not to travel. But the CEO still travels, and that's our target market. We aim at the top 5% of the traveling public."
Even Ritz-Carlton, which targets upscale travelers, is sensitive to consumers' new mood. "People shy away from things perceived as expensive or frivolous," said MacIntyre. "But they do want quality." As a result, she said, "We ask our public relations people to choose their words carefully. I made everyone promise not to say 'expensive.' Even the word 'luxury' bothers me. We emphasize quality and value."
Kathleen Dunlap of Dunlap Associates pointed to another significant trend: "You'll see a lot more family travel. People are realizing how near and dear their families are." And public relations professionals, in turn, are realizing the importance of promoting to the family market.
Cincinnati's Smith is one of them. She does two media mailings per year. "One of my fall stories will be aimed at grandparents traveling with grandchildren," Smith said. "A lot of seniors have money and love being with their grandchildren."
In Louisiana, where tourism has continued to grow throughout the recession, the goal is to maintain that growth by focusing on the variety of the state's offerings. "We're moving away from generic ads and trying to show that there's more to Louisiana," said Sharon Calcote, communications supervisor, Louisiana Office of Tourism, Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. The range of cultural influences, of music and of sports activities will all be highlighted. "We're trying to tie editorial and feature material more closely with ads, so the consumer keeps getting the message," she said.
To convey that same message, as well as to correct misconceptions, Louisiana public relations executives are appearing on radio and TV call-in shows nationwide, encouraging callers to try to "stump the interviewer" with questions about the state's attractions. Anyone who does so wins a prize, such as a box of praline candies.
At the Florida Department of Commerce, Sally A. Lane, manager-public relations, Bureau of Domestic Tourism, is "concentrating on the images. Some people think this is only a place where you go with the kids, that we're not exciting enough for singles or childless couples. And travel agents in San Francisco feel that there's no convenient air service to Florida, so why should they sell the destination?" Lane said that media relations and other public relations efforts will focus on conveying information to correct those inaccurate perceptions.
Some Americans going north
Alaska has benefited from diversion of five or six cruise ships from the Mediteranean to southern Alaskan routes, observed Bruce Pozzi, APR, Bruce Pozzi Public Relations, Anchorage.
The perceived threat of terrorism during wartime caused the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau to revise its forecast upward for 1991, according to marketing director Keith D. Fernandez, APR. "Initially, we estimated a flat year, with about 1.1 million visitors. Now a 5-7% increase in visitors seems possible." International traffic only accounts for 2% of visitors to Anchorage, Fernandez added, and cruise passengers account for just 5%.
"We have experienced an increase in inquiries from prospective business and vacation customers," he said. "Some of our member operators have reported 12-40% increases in bookings." The Anchorage C&VB is targeting its sales efforts in the "lower 48," according to Fernandez. His fear is that the current tendency to stick closer to home will keep people from venturing "north to Alaska." The AC&VB is working to convince Americans that, rather than giving up a big high-ticket trip to Europe, for instance, they should stay "home" by venturing to Alaska, he said.
Clearly, the mood of some travel and tourism professionals is distinctly upbeat. "This is not something that is permanent," said Dunlap. "And when it's over, there will be pent-up demand."
Rayna Skolink is a freelance writer in New York City who specializes in travel, tourism, convention and incentive coverage.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: U.S Travel & Tourism Today: Vacationers Staying Closer to Home; Industry Combats 'Bunker Mentality'. Contributors: Skolnik, Rayna - Author. Journal title: Public Relations Journal. Volume: 47. Issue: 3 Publication date: March 1991. Page number: 16+. © 1989 Public Relations Society of America. COPYRIGHT 1991 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.