Well, it looks like the vaccine is on its way and there just might finally be some light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. While the full recovery timing might not be certain, one thing is – the way you’ve chosen to market your business during this time could either set you up for stagnation or position you to thrive. Lessons from history have shown over and over again that those that proactively market in times of economic slowdown reap the benefits of improved business performance.

Those who don’t may be forgotten.

As they say in show business, “the show must go on.” Something that rings true for hospitality companies today during this current pandemic. But the notion of spending on marketing tends to go against the common wisdom of many companies. Often marketing efforts are scaled back during unknown times in hopes of outpacing competitors when things bounce back. It’s understandable. The math isn’t terribly complicated – when less is coming in, less can go out.

Unfortunately, marketing is one of the first on the chopping block. While a big part of marketing’s role is driving immediate “sales today” revenue, the sometimes overlooked and arguably larger benefit is its ability to demonstrate a brand’s value and long-term “sales tomorrow” revenue.

Your prospective guests have needs. They have values. And they are experiencing and adapting to this crisis too. They’re looking for brands that align with their values. And if you’re not taking part in that conversation you’ll be overlooked or even forgotten. No different than the guy or girl in meetings that never says a word.

Consumers remain loyal to brands that speak to their values.

In marketing, perception is reality. What you say leaves an impression. And what you don’t say can leave an impression too. Brands that cut back on marketing, or neglect speaking up during downtimes may end up saying something whether they like it or not. When prospective or once-loyal guests don’t hear from you, they may start to question your brand’s stability “are they still open?” “I wonder if they’re doing ok.” Or worse, “I think they might have closed.”

Since the 1900s, this country has experienced a recession on average about every four years. And despite those economic slowdowns, consumers kept spending. They may have looked for better deals, or for companies that provided better offerings, but one thing remained, they tended to remain loyal to brands that stayed connected with their customer base with clear, strong messaging. And the brands that do it well continue to increase loyalty when things pick back up.

Take Starbucks for example. During the 2008 recession, consumers began turning away from the coffee giant and questioned whether a $5.00 dollar cup of coffee was worth it. Especially given that other coffee shops and even fast-food chains were beginning to offer better-quality coffee at lower prices.

The brand launched the “My Starbucks Idea,” marketing campaign. The effort was entirely focused on customers and the community. It shifted focus from the commodity of a coffee and homed in on relatable human values. The campaign gave customers a direct line of communication with the brand, encouraging them to share ideas about what they wanted from their Starbucks experience. The campaign helped Starbucks build and maintain a loyal fan base. The community-centric experience helped them survive during that difficult time and maintain customer loyalty even after things bounced back.

Guests want to hear from you.

It’s no doubt after nearly a year of being cooped up, people are ready to get out and travel. You’ve likely heard the term “revenge travel.” Well, with COVID-19 revenge seems imminent. According to a recent report from PwC, 90 percent of consumers expect to travel again in the 12 months after COVID restrictions have eased. Nearly a third of those who did not travel 2019 plan to take at least one round-trip leisure flight.

So, how well have you been communicating with these pent-up guests, who are out-for-revenge travel?

Perhaps you’re wondering “don’t people hate being marketed to?” Turns out they tend to prefer it. In fact, during this pandemic, they even believe advertising should make a positive contribution to society. A recent report from Kantar Media, a global data consulting company, surveyed more than 25,000 consumers globally and found that only 8% of people think companies shouldn’t stop advertising due to the pandemic.

In fact, consumer sentiment towards brand communication during the coronavirus pandemic has been pretty positive overall. Another report from 4A’s found that 43% of consumers find it reassuring to hear from brands they know and trust during these uncertain times. Another 40% want to hear how brands are responding to the COVID-19.

Turns out marketing now may be more important than ever. And not just for your business’s sake for your guest’s sake.

They want communications to feel authentic.

There is a big difference between talking to a person and talking at a person. As mentioned earlier, businesses aren’t the only ones affected by this pandemic. Your prospective guests are too. And they want to hear from you. But those communications need to feel authentic. Are you simply asking for a booking or are you demonstrating a mutual understanding of what they’re going through? Demonstrating a sincere interest in their expectations and emotions entails empathy and the ability to imagine yourself in their shoes. Those are the building blocks for valuable and authentic communications.

Authenticity is perhaps more important now than ever before. Imagine your mindset taking a trip a year ago. What were your concerns? What were your interests? How does that compare to your mindset if you were to travel today?  The brands that will excel during this time are the ones who empathize with COVID concerns, remaining true to their brand, and successfully demonstrate their shared values. And the good news? According to the Kantar COVID-19 barometer report, 64% of consumers want brands to communicate their values through their messaging.

So, what are your values? What are your guest’s values?  How well are you aligning with them? Perhaps reassurance about your property’s cleaning protocols, initiatives to limit contact, or efforts to support affected employees or even the community. Or perhaps it has less to do with how you’re responding to the pandemic and more about simply reinforcing your key shared values. After all, your prospective guests could use a little break from the constant reminder of the pandemic. Dream Inn Santa Cruz is a great example. Their values are rooted in embodying the quintessential Santa Cruz sun and surf lifestyle. “For surfers, sun lovers and sweethearts.” At their core, the messaging is about preserving and delivering an authentic Santa Cruz experience – values that are clear, differentiated, and align with specific customer values.

Leverage segmentation to inform new strategies and messaging.

Your messaging isn’t the only thing guests expect you to dial-in. Your segmentation and targeting need to be honed as well. While prospective guests will be hungry to travel once this whole thing subsides, it may be a while before they’re comfortable boarding a plane – at least in pre-pandemic numbers. So, consider what prospects make the most sense to communicate with. If your audience is too broad, consider ways you can segment further based on inputs like zip code and drive time. Or, psychographics to help tune your message to specific behaviors, like the newly coined travel behavior term by VRBO  “Flexcation” mixing work and play (read more on the Flexcation guest profile on our recent blog Bye, Bleisure. Hello, Flexcation).

Now is a great time to dig into your guest data. A first step might be to simply monitor your web analytics. Take note of how guest behavior may have shifted. For example, you may notice more people from a specific region are viewing your site. Or perhaps prospective guests are looking for answers and support rather than jumping straight to the booking engine. Take note of these new behaviors, segment your users accordingly (see how tools such as NAVIS Marketing Suite can help), and adapt your strategy, your communications, and your landing pages to tighten your targeting from all angles and provide prospective guests the information they’re looking for, clearly and readily, for a better guest experience.

This too will end. Prepare today for tomorrow’s new normal.

PwC predicts hospitality will rebound presumably by H2 2021. While it will take some time for vaccines to become readily available, some analysts are anticipating that the impact of these new vaccines will kick in significantly early next summer of 2021 and life should be back to “normal” sooner than later. We may have lost some faith in predictions, but as they say, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.  

Sales remain relatively even for companies before a recession, but they vary sharply during and after it. Those that cut marketing and advertising during the past recessionary years dipped or maintained flat sales during the period and only maintained modest sales growth in the following two years. In contrast, the companies that continued or increased their advertising experienced significant sales growth in the subsequent years. This presents a strategic opportunity to out voice competitors who scaled back and lead the conversation.

Joining the conversation and demonstrating your brand’s value shouldn’t be taken for granted. Cutting marketing spend can come at the expense of losing your share of voice. Losing your brand’s share of voice can mean losing “share of mind” with potential guests (and possibly future “sales tomorrow” bookings). An increase in “share of voice” typically leads to an increase in “share of market.” And an increase in market share tends to result in an increase in bookings.

When marketing goes dark, you lose the ability to reinforce your brand’s value and build brand equity. Times of uncertainty present an opportunity to build and reinforce your brand’s relationship with your past guests and prospects. Don’t wait and cross your fingers hoping for the best. Today is the day and now is the time to set your brand up for tomorrow’s success. Make sure you understand your guest’s values and you’re successfully aligning with them. Who knows, maybe this thing will recover sooner than we think.