How to continue engaging with your customers during COVID-19

Social media marketing and target audience concept. Isometric vector of customers men and women making their product choice

COVID-19 has devastated the Australian tourism industry. With our country and state borders closed and Australians being urged to stay home, tourism operators have been left high and dry – with no income, no certainty about when people will be allowed to move around, and genuine concerns about whether they can hold out until people travel again.

JobKeeper and bank loans are providing some relief, but they are meant to be short-term measures and only last six months.

Given these circumstances, what can you do now to engage with potential customers? And how can you make your establishment front of mind when people begin booking holidays in the future?

Pivot to the Australian traveller

Over the last 10 years, increasing numbers of international tourists have been a mainstay of Australia’s economy. In FY19, Australia welcomed more than nine million international tourists – the highest number ever recorded – but today they are history. International tourists will not be back for some time, and tourism operators will need to figure out how to live without them – at least for the foreseeable future. It’s highly unlikely that Australia’s borders will open any time soon to tourists from countries that have had large numbers of COVID-19 cases. And it’s difficult to imagine that international tourists would be willing to spend the first two weeks of their trip to Australia in quarantine, at their own expense – they would definitely need their own insurance in case they had to go to the hospital.

The good news is that trans-Tasman flights between Australia and New Zealand are likely to begin in the very near future. The bad news is that every man, woman and child in New Zealand would need to make two trips a year to Australia to equal the numbers of international tourists we had last year. But Aussies are travellers, and as soon as the social distancing regulations are relaxed, they are going to want to go somewhere – in a plane, a train, a car, or campervan. Now is the time to challenge and excite Australians to discover the wonders of their own country! Forget marketing to international tourists – develop PR plans focused on marketing to Australians.

Think hard about what assets you have to offer, who your competitors are and which tourists would be your ideal customers. What do you have that’s unique and different?  How do you create messages about your differences and get to people who are looking for those kinds of differences? Do you have great vistas, hiking trails, a farm where people can spend a weekend and watch dogs round up the sheep, steams for fishing, beaches for surfing, or perhaps a cottage in the vineyards? Those different vacation experiences will appeal to different market segments, and your job is to figure out how to get to the segment that wants what you have to offer.

Once you have figured that out, spend time translating your differences into a set of marketing messages that can be shared through low-cost social media channels, such as Facebook or Instagram. Engage with past customers to amplify the message with others they know who might also appreciate your differences.

Reinvent business procedures

Spend time looking at customer touchpoints. How can you streamline and re-invent what you do? Which products do customers like and buy? The manager of a boutique vacation hotel told me that although suites with a kitchen and a view were more expensive, more people wanted them than the less expensive single rooms with a view. I suggested using this downtime to turn those single rooms into suites which customers obviously valued and reminded her that less is often more: fewer rooms that are full all the time are better than more rooms that sit vacant most of the time. Focus your time and attention delivering what customers have indicated they want, need and value.

And stop procrastinating or thinking about it – now is the time to do, to act and execute.  Organise that storeroom, revamp the registration or check-out processes, and analyse traffic patterns in the kitchen. Install touch screens for check-in and check-out. Go cashless and calculate how much time you will save by not having to reconcile your cash accounts. Right now, people want value for money and are buying what they know and can depend on – value, not variety, is king.

Plan for the future

Would customers value your help planning their next trip? Begin by helping customers re-live past vacations to places they loved but are not likely to visit in the near future. After listening carefully to what they valued about those past vacations, suggest some places in Australia or New Zealand that might provide the same kinds of experiences they enjoyed so much.

Figure out who your ideal customer is and what that customer needs, wants and values. If a key customer segment is families, consider hosting an online family travel planning activity where families look at a curated set of places you have identified, and work together to plan their next vacation. Consider sponsoring a TV or Facebook travel show to stimulate interest in driving holidays around certain states or territories.

Tantalise them with some amazing vacation ideas they have never thought about – or maybe even didn’t know were possible, People don’t know what they don’t know, and if you don’t market to them, they will never know about your restaurant, your hotel, amusement park, animal park, state park, or campervan park.

CEOs who find ways to remain relevant and offer customers what they value, who use this downtime to reinvent their companies, will have a much greater chance of surviving this pandemic. Those involved in tourism need to help Australians discover what those nine million international tourists knew – that Australia is one of the most amazing places in the world. Now is the time to introduce Aussies to what’s right here, on their doorstep.

Dr Jana Matthews is the director of the Australian Centre for Business Growth at the University of South Australia’s Business School.

Featured image: iStock/Feodora Chiosea

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