Dealing with Disasters

Head of Research and Insights
Published 7/3/18
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New Research on the Impact of Natural and Man-made Disasters on Travel Intentions Over Time

The last few years have seen an accelerating number of both natural and man-made disasters impacting destinations around the world. 

In the U.S., increasing wild fires across the west and flooding events in the east and south have increased and become more severe.  Recent fires in California and Colorado follow the pattern of earlier and more damaging fires as well as the continual “fire season”.  In storms and other wet weather occurences, the trend is the same.  For example in late May, Ellicott City in Maryland just outside Baltimore suffered its second “1,000 year flood” in the last two years.

This is no longer an unusual event.  A recent New York Times investigation, “Places in the U.S. where Disaster Strikes Again and Again,” highlighted the large number of destinations (see image below) in the U.S. where major natural disasters have hit repeatedly. These are concentrated in western and southern states where increasing periods of drought, record heat and extreme weather events are occurring constantly (orange). These are even more frequent (red) in a large number of destinations throughout California, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, including many communities where tourism is a major part of the economy. 

Climate change is no longer some vague challenge that may occur in the future for destinations. The science is settled and its impacts on are real, accelerating and happening now. 

Sadly, man-made disasters are adding to the challenges for destinations, whether civil unrest, terrorism or mass shootings. 

To better understand the impact of these disasters, Destination Analysts, with the support of Miles Partnership, added custom questions to The State of the American Traveler research study to better understand the awareness and impact on travel planning by U.S. leisure travelers. This research was conducted in late 2017 and then again in early 2018 to see the impact over 3-6 months on 7 different travel destinations which have suffered natural or man-made disasters.

The research highlighted an immediate and significant impact on travel intentions in the month or two after the disaster with 32-38% of travelers indicating they were “less interested” or “much less interested” in visiting the destination. Fortunately, this impact declined as the immediate news faded but even 3-6 months later 14-28% of travelers indicated lower levels of interest in visiting. This is illustrated in the below graph and featured in the spotlight webinar with Dave Bratton of Destination Analysts. There were surprisingly similar impacts across this wide range of destinations regardless of the location, type of visitor experience offered, nature of the disaster or the level of news coverage. 

The research highlights that a committed and flexible communication and marketing program after a disaster is critical. This communication is both to update potential travelers on the recovery and to stimulate renewed interest in the destination. This is particularly important for when the news cycle moves on to other events and potential travelers may be left with a lingering, out of date or false impression of a destination.  Changes in the news media landscape have made this a bigger problem today. In the highly competitive and fragmented media landscape of 2018, the news about your destination may not be well researched, clear or comprehensive. 

To assess your readiness in tackling this challenge, ask yourself 4 critical questions: 

1.  Does your DMO have a current crisis communication and disaster recovery plan for your destination? 

2.  Does your crisis communication plan adequately cover the period beyond a disaster? – 3, 6, 12 or additional months after the event? 

3.  Is your communication plan current to 2018 and beyond considering UGC, influencers and social media are a far more important for sharing messages?  

4.  Do you have adequate resources, skills and capabilities to execute this plan? 

Helping manage disasters and handling crisis communication has long been an important role and responsibility of DMOs with support of other government agencies. In today’s more uncertain and risky world, these skills, capabilities and resources have never been more important. 

Additional Resources: 

Spotlight Segment: Disasters and Destinations, webinar with Dave Bratton from Destination Analysts featuring research on the impact of disasters on 7 U.S. destination

New York Times Article, May 2018: Places in the U.S. where Disaster Strikes Again and Again 

United National World Travel Organization UNWTO: Resources on Crisis Communication