Travel could feel repercussions from the refund situation for years, warns Digital Drums chief executive Steve Dunne

As a young public relations executive, I was once given some very sage advice. After a series of challenging issues in a campaign I was running, a more experienced colleague took me to one side, looked me in the eyes and said: “When you’re in a hole, son, learn to stop digging.”

I was reminded of that advice, very early on in this pandemic, as I witnessed an almost constant daily stream of travel PR professionals on social media announcing their departures from cruise lines, airlines, agencies and tour operators.

Colleagues in travel PR agencies too were telling me how they were losing clients or seeing their budgets cut so drastically that there was little PR they could do.

Obviously, many of those actions, while sad, were perfectly understandable. With no revenues coming in, costs have to be managed down significantly. And overheads, such as PR and marketing, for a sector that has little short-term prospect of sales activity, seems to be an obvious area to start.

But since those early days, I have been astonished at how the industry has, with some notable exceptions, all but abandoned its PR machines. I’ve attended, and moderated, a number of virtual conferences and seminars during lockdown and find myself surprised every week at how few feature travel PR or marketing workshops – or even debate the subject.

Weak messaging

And I can’t help feeling that this abandonment of the discipline by large swathes of the travel sector is not only a harbinger of tough times ahead but also explains why the sector is struggling to get its message across to government and mainstream media in the way other sectors successfully have.

Given that I’m a PR man at heart, you could be justified in thinking ‘well he would say that’. But increasingly I’m hearing rallying cries from travel leaders who talk of pent-up holiday demand – demand that will see a big return of consumers as times get better. And perhaps there is? I know I want a holiday.

Some I’ve talked to say price incentives will repair the damage done by Covid-19 – as long as their businesses can survive this period. And that too may be true.

Fundamental difference

However, I’m struck by the fact that, unlike after previous big crises – such as 9/11 or the credit crunch, where pricing was a key component to getting people back flying and on holiday, and when demand had never really gone away – this time I sense it could be different.

The fundamental difference this time, for me, boils down to trust.

It could be said that the refund situation, which impacted the industry earlier this year, and still persists in many parts, damaged not just the reputation of the industry but the consumer’s trust in it too.

It could also be said that consumer demand to travel again, even in a limited way, will depend on trust: trust in how money will be looked after, trust in how consumers will be treated, and trust in the hygiene standards of airlines, operators, hotels and destinations.

Of course, it will include trust in government advice too, but also in the advice that travel agents and operators give.

And trust is the business of PR. Will a pent-up demand for holidays work its way through to a sector that may have lost its way in the area of trust? Will pricing initiatives overcome a fundamental trust issue? Perhaps they will, among certain demographics. But for other groups, particularly the ones with the money and the time to travel, trust is a massive issue.

There is still time for trust to be won back by the sector, but action is needed now.

Fire up your PR machines and start the quest to build trust first thing in the morning.

For if the industry doesn’t, it could be in a deep hole for a good few years to come.