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Crisis Management in the Tourism Industry

July 21, 2020

Yosemite Mountains and Trees

Jonathan Farrington’s Background:

Jonathan Farrington was raised in the extremely rural Santa Lucia mountain range between Big Sur and the Salinas Valley. His first experience with crisis management was being evacuated from his home for three weeks due to The Marble Cone Fire – one of the largest wildfires at the time in California’s history. In many ways, this experience prepared him to become a seasoned veteran of crisis management in the tourism industry.

During his career, Jonathan has faced fires, floods, Yosemite rockfalls, Yosemite Hantavirus, SARS, H1N1, more fires, economic downturns and even more fires. And then COVID-19.

In 1997, after the Yosemite floods closed the park for over 40 days, Jonathan began keeping an email file at each job labeled “Feast or Famine” containing a file for each crisis. Each crisis contains subfolders with organized correspondence. These include public information or affairs updates, separate county, state and federal orders or guidelines, Office of Emergency Services directives, or updates, which would include Incident Command orders and information updates for fires. Also, staff, employment and HR issues specific to the incident. There are always communications from the community, staff or concerned customers, all of which should be responded to after the incident in a final way, thanking them for their concern. That data file is the ultimate resource for each challenge he has faced and is always one of his largest on his computer.

With all of the crises that Jonathan has successfully guided organizations through, his insights are particularly poignant. In the Q&A below, Jonathan covers the leadership skills, planning and mental mindset necessary to navigate an organization following a crisis situation.

Of the crises you’ve faced in your role, which one posed the most significant challenge to you, your team and the organization? Why?

Crisis situations that impact people, your neighbors and the community you live in, not just economically driven, are the hardest emotionally to navigate and resolve. But the economy and displacement normally go hand in hand. Seeing people, you care about suffer loss emotionally, economically is not an easy thing, so you have to stay focused and moving forward to help the recovery process.

The Basin Complex Fire in Big Sur in 2008 was probably the most difficult crisis I’ve helped manage. The large number of people it displaced to evacuation shelters for a long period of time, as well as the huge financial impacts for businesses and the local economy with just one road, coastal Highway 1, to access the region.

As the GM ran Ventana Inn & Spa, watching neighbors lose their homes to the fire, forests and hotel damage was just devastating. Also, 264 employees and their families lived in the hotel which provided housing on property. All were evacuated, displaced and affected by the fire, so the decisions we made not only impacted the business, it also impacted the tight-knit employee and larger Big Sur community, as well as the local economy. Our employees could not return to their homes until the inn made repairs and had water, power and septic services restored, roads fixed, and trees and other hazardous fire damage were taken away. We needed the staff back in our employee housing to reopen the business. Simultaneously, we had to restore our significantly damaged property and prepare for the return of our once thriving inn, spa and restaurant business after several months of closure.

Lastly, we had to convince guests to return to visit again. That the experience of staying at the Ventana Inn & Spa would not be completely diminished, as the news and television coverage made the area seem post-apocalyptic. Anytime there is a major fire, there will be danger come winter with flooding and debris flows. All of which happened, so the whole process started again.

This is one of many crisis situations I have worked through. Each was complex, equally hard, impactful and had its own unique challenges.

How do you and your team decide an event has turned from a perceived threat to an actual threat?

That decision is normally made by the county, state or federal agency in the region the crisis occurs. But not always. A hotel, restaurant or business can have issues where the market has to make that critical decision itself. As an example, if a Norovirus outbreak is made public, it could close a restaurant and ruin its reputation forever. It’s much better to close if there is an obvious issue before the situation becomes public or the restaurant is forced to close by the health department. This is often a heated debate between management, owners, and stakeholders. But there is really only one right decision of course: close, clean and reopen. Don’t put the employees and the public at risk. If the situation does become public, good open communications and easy access to public-facing management and great PR and PA support are imperative.

Is it easier in a way to deal with something like COVID that every destination is having to deal with, rather than say a fire that is specific to your destination?

I think that question can only be answered in hindsight. The bigger the crisis, the less control or impact we feel we have. From a personal experience perspective, I feel like the resolved localized crisis situations feel more rewarding. When you’re a neighbor helping a neighbor, or we can help an individual or group of local businesses recover, it’s more tangible and therefore rewarding. That said, with COVID-19, we have made some BIG impacts at a federal level with the Yosemite reopening plan. Even with COVID-19 being a worldwide pandemic, our crisis management effort is making a positive impact in our community at a local level.

Preparing a Crisis Management Plan

In your experience, what are the core components of a crisis marketing strategy?

Pause, Listen, Learn and then React. Stay ADAPTIVE, and be willing to change at all times. Empathy is vital. Be willing to accept being wrong, all the time, and change decisions on pin-point. Always work on communication. Always work on possible messaging. Always look for ways to appeal to the public and consumers to support the effort, the business and the community at the end of the crisis.

Extraordinary crises are a challenge to plan for simply because they are unimaginable and unforeseeable. For example, 9/11 or the Coronavirus Pandemic. How does your team imagine the unimaginable?

Triage all actions. We always have a crisis communication plan and plan of action. A checklist of steps to deal with the emerging situation. Everyone has a role, and tasks are reviewed in communications meetings three times daily. Marketing organizations are adept at communications. If you can’t advertise, shift to becoming a communications organization on steroids!

Which crisis were you best prepared for? How did you prepare?

As an organization, when I worked with the Delaware North Company, Hantavirus was one of the more daunting but highly organized crises I had a small part in. The National Park Service has an amazing, highly trained leadership team, and access to the world’s best experts. Communication was “turned on” at all levels. It was an active situation, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving and departing. The point was that both the NPS and Delaware North were prepared as companies for a crisis. Openly communicating what we did and did not know. We openly allowed cancellations, returned huge deposits for visitors’ reservations, meetings, groups and weddings, and allowed any changes from a consumer standpoint.

Taking Action During a Crisis

How has technology played a role in how your team has addressed a crisis?

Email (a bit old school), earned and social media are game-changers for crisis management. They have endless possibilities. Protecting your digital brand is so important. The public comment areas can also destroy a business’s or region’s reputation, so they have to be managed or they will manage themselves, in a bad way. Many apps can be helpful too in communicating vital info. Non-tech traditional media, radio was incredibly helpful in recovering in post-fire situations. Again, appealing to the public to support an impacted region through their return visitation.

How do you unite stakeholders in the middle of stressful situations or events?

Communication. “Information Voids” are the biggest opportunity for a communications organization to fill and SHINE in a crisis. Daily conference calls, email updates, social media posts and videos. Videos of public updates, live feeds and acting as a news organization during the first hours or days of a crisis should be made. In almost all crisis situations I’ve navigated, there is never enough critical information available in the beginning. Then there is too much. You can distill down all of the information and continue to communicate a very helpful digest version to your stakeholders. The end of a crisis is also an important time to support your community, by communicating means of economic support, loan programs, or all available assistance programs for individuals or businesses. During and after a crisis.

Were your crisis management plans useful during the crisis? Was there a moment where you and your team decided the crisis plan was not relevant and forged a different direction? What happened? What was the outcome?

I arrived at Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau (YMCTB) 10 days before the Ferguson Fire. The crisis plan was in place but mostly focused on post-crisis media, not the crisis itself. We updated that plan in 2019, and it was invaluable during the first weeks of the stay-home portion of COVID-19.

The Mental Mindset Necessary for Crisis Managers

What techniques have helped you personally and professionally manage the mental pressure of a crisis?

You must learn how to triage and prioritize the most important tasks. It is a trained ability. You have to sleep…anywhere you can, for a few hours, or whenever you can, get some rest. In many cases, you must tell yourself, you’re doing the best you can, you’re not God, and you, in most cases, are not responsible for what is happening. BUT, you can make a difference. Staying focused and making decisions as best you can is imperative to moving forward.

What books, articles or other resources have influenced you in addressing a crisis?

I have a lot of training. I was a wildland firefighter, EMT, drove an ambulance, volunteered with American Red Cross and I’m trained in setting up and running evacuation shelters. So, triage and crisis situations are like walking into battle, somewhat, for me. You have to listen, learn, delegate and make decisions. Communication is most of the effort and battle, so to speak. I do read articles on PR and crisis communications, take seminars at conferences and stay up-to-date as best I can. We also stay connected, year-round with the county’s Office of Emergency Services and public affairs officers from most regional agencies. Relationships are key to getting and giving information.

What qualities are essential for leaders and teams to manage a crisis successfully?

Leave your ego at the door. Do not worry about titles, assign work and tasks based on ability, knowledge and knowhow. Empathy, honesty, listening skills are some of the most important traits / skills needed in a crisis situation.

Crisis Messaging & Marketing

Messaging can play a critical role before, during and after a crisis. How do you determine the right tone and voice in messaging for each phase?

This strategy should be set in the crisis communication plan. As a business, we write campaign briefs for each marketing effort or seasonal period. The voice or tone should be established for each phase of the crisis. Most marketing organizations created a brief for COVID-19.

Empathy should always be foremost. Concern for the safety of all involved must be paramount. At the end of a crisis, it’s okay to be overt in asking for the public’s help in returning to use your product, service or visiting a tourism region. The public’s natural reaction is to not visit a tourism region, assuming the people or place needs time to heal and to repair. Messaging can ask for people to return to a tourism-based region. That their visit is needed economically to help get people back to work, recovering and getting their minds back to being productive. Just ask people for help, in a soft and reassuring way.

What types of messaging have been most effective in addressing visitors, media and other stakeholders? Are there common qualities in messaging?

“We need your help to recover.” It’s ok to ask people to visit, but hard-selling is not appropriate after a crisis. Communicate if some resources were damaged. For COVID-19 as an example, what safety measures have been put in place for the public, businesses and governments. Provide educational information, itineraries of the best places or things to do. Calm, factual conversational copy, blogs and dialog are best with visitors, media and stakeholders. An assuring, soft tone is best.

When exiting a crisis, what types of messages are most effective in stimulating demand? Is discounting or promotional offers effective in a recovery?

Discounting is not the best approach, in my opinion. Focusing on the experience and value of spending time with loved ones is. In a pandemic like COVID-19, people are taking stock of what is important in life, making life-based choices. These happened after 9/11, the dot-com bust, 2008 economic collapse. Most people were not thinking, “Hey, great crisis, I can get some deals!” People are asking themselves what’s really important to them, and always, spending quality time with people they love comes first. So “selling” the experience is more important. Demonstrating how people can be “present” in each other’s company will be the motivator.

What is the distinct advantage that digital marketing offers in crisis situations? Are there certain digital marketing strategies or tactics better suited for crisis marketing?

Getting visitors to flow back in after a crisis ends is very important, so it’s vital to know your customer first. If you have excellent profiles, then digital media will be served right to them, at a reasonable cost. The agility of digital marketing has certainly helped us with recovery – targeting specific audiences by age or location, starting, stopping, pausing and tweaking messaging. As soon as it ends, we can develop a paid marketing strategy after a crisis to our core audience almost instantaneously.

Learning From a Crisis

Crises, disasters and emergencies can have a powerful effect on how markets operate. Will you share an example of a major business or marketing opportunity that arose from a crisis?

Asking for visitors to return after Ferguson Fire was a huge success. We learned this from knowledge Sonoma County experienced after it’s large fire six months before. They did not advertise, and no one came. People stayed away, afraid to visit, thinking the region needed to heal. They needed visitors to help heal the community with tourism so residents could return to being active, working and getting back to normal. YMCTB increased spending above plan after Ferguson Fire and the region experienced an exceptional fall visitation period. Well above expectations by business, the county and YMCTB. People told shopkeepers and innkeepers they were here visiting because they heard our cry for help… and they came. It was almost overwhelming, hearing the stories of shopkeepers and patrons crying together with gratitude. For real!

Do you record or revisit the decisions your team made during a crisis? If you do, in what ways do you leverage the insights?

After each fire or crisis situation, we have met to update our crisis communications plan and how we responded, both good and bad. We also modify our internal and external communications meetings in progress, adjusting from three meetings a day, to two and then one until the crisis is over. The same process takes place with our external communications. Daily, to twice weekly to weekly.

Jonathan FarringtonJonathan Farrington has had a 40-year career in hospitality, serving as a general manager in renowned luxury hotels and in various corporate leadership roles. He has overseen lodging operations, restaurants, and multi-unit sales and marketing efforts. A native of rural Monterey County, Jonathan has maintained a home in Madera and Mariposa County since 1997. After finishing college and spending four years with the National Park Service, he moved into a career in hospitality, including formative years overseeing special events at Pebble Beach while in his early 20s.

Ultimately, his career led to destination resort management. In 1997, he worked at Tenaya Lodge, where he became the director of sales and marketing and was eventually promoted to general manager in 1999. He later went on to become general manager at the Inverness Hotel in Denver, The Stanford Park Hotel in Menlo Park, and the world-renowned Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur. In 2008, Jonathan returned to the Yosemite region as Delaware North’s corporate regional director of sales and marketing for California, overseeing ten hotels, including the Yosemite hotels, Tenaya Lodge, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Asilomar Conference Center, and the Queen Mary. After spending two years as Harris Ranch’s vice president of hospitality, Jonathan now serves as executive director of the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau.

Jonathan serves on many boards, including Yosemite Gateway Partners, Mariposa County EDC and YARTS AAC and Visit California’s Rural Tourism Committee.

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