Communicating with your customers during a flood event

Once you have assessed your situation and contacted your local tourism organisation to find out what information they have and what communications they are developing, you can set about developing your own communications programme.

If you are unable to access your website, or have no internet connection, speak to your IT suppliers and where possible to your local Destination Management Organisation, who will help you to find a way to communicate.

In putting together a communications programme you will need to consider and address the following issues.

1. What are your customers thinking?

News travels fast – and it isn’t always accurate.  Again, the widespread media coverage of the weather can have a significant effect on how customers and potential visitors perceive a destination or feel about making a visit. Even if you, or your area, have not been affected, always assume that major storm or flood events will trigger significant concerns with customers that you need to address.

Their concerns can be both immediate and longer term:

  • Is your business still open?
  • Can they access your business?
  • Is it safe to visit?
  • Are there still things to do when they visit?
  • Will the quality and enjoyment of their visit be negatively affected?

Having identified what issues are likely to concern your visitors, the rest of this section will cover how you can communicate with them to help address these concerns.

2. What should you say?

Base your messages and responses around those of the local DMO or trade association, but tailor them to your business and customers.

If your business is closed, develop a factual statement about the situation. In addition to a brief explanation of what has happened and what it means for visitors, this could include:

  • How long you might be closed (if you know)
  • Alternative options (can you recommend an alternative business or activity to your customers?)
  • Your cancellation policy
  • Opportunities to postpone visits and rearrange at a future time.

If your business is open but the wider area is affected by weather, develop a factual statement reassuring visitors/potential visitors that you are open for business and include details such as:

  • Any travel/transport issues
  • Attractions, facilities and activities that are available – focus on the positive elements, but be realistic about any restrictions if they are significant.

If you are providing transport advice or updates on your website, keep them in the same place and make them easy to find.  Make sure the links are simple (and that they work) and keep the information up to date.

It is probably better to provide your customers with too much, rather than too little, information - but make sure that you are getting your own information from a reliable source. 

Using a ‘Question and Answer’ format is an easy way to order the information that you are providing to customers. Just make sure you keep it positive and stay on message.

3. How should you say it?

Be honest and transparent: Customers expect an honest appraisal of the situation. Know the facts – be aware of the latest information and never attempt to bluff – you will be found out.

If you don’t know what the current situation is, let your customers know this and get back to them with the facts from a reliable source.

Be clear: Use everyday language and be clear and concise.  Don’t assume that other people have the same level of knowledge about your business or destination that you have. They probably don’t know alternative routes to reach you - something that you may take for granted.

Be positive: You may feel angry about the situation, let down and unhappy about how it is being handled, but your priority now is to communicate a clear and positive message externally.  Sharing your frustrations with your customers is not going to reassure them that they will have a positive experience when they visit you.

In all your communications it is important to stay on message, stay focused and stay authentic.

4. Contact your customers

The majority of customers/potential customers will be both sympathetic and understanding of your situation, as long as you maintain a dialogue. Inform them immediately of any issues, closures or restrictions and also as soon as roads re-open or other services resume.  Handled sensitively, this is an opportunity to develop goodwill for your business and enhance your relationship with customers. This is where a personal approach can make all the difference.

Contact any customers (whether individuals or group operators) who have made a booking with you to let them know the facts; follow this up with a phone call if possible. 

If you are closed, try to provide alternative arrangements or new dates. A hotel may be able to offer rooms in a different hotel; an attraction could offer a different venue for a function.

It is important to ensure that you offer a good alternative to the customer so that they feel that they are getting good service and not being ‘shunted around’.

If you are open, assure them that there is still plenty to see and do and provide details of alternative activities, but be honest about any restrictions or facilities and activities that may be closed. If travel is a potential issue, make sure you have the latest information to hand.

It is important that the person making the call is well informed about what is open/closed and is comfortable in handling potentially tricky conversations. If your customers wish to re-book for later in the season, be as accommodating as possible and make sure you can make that decision and booking there and then.
Keep customers updated on a regular basis, helping to reassure them that they will still be able to have an enjoyable experience.

Focus on your immediate bookings in the first instance but don’t forget to keep other customers informed about the situation – they may not be immediately affected, but they could still be concerned about a future visit. 

5. Contact your potential customers

Contact with pre-booked customers is relatively easy to undertake, but you also need to think about future customers – people who may have been considering a visit but are being swayed by media coverage and are looking for reassurance.

Your website, social media channels and media activity should all feature in your communications plan. (See our Digital Marketing Toolkit for help with using social media). This is your opportunity to showcase your business, so no matter how you respond or how you interact, imagine how this will look to your customers. Remember, word of mouth is now ‘social word of mouth’ – ask your customers to post on Facebook or tweet about their excellent stay with you or the fact that they are coming to visit. 

Update your website/social media regularly. The situation can change quickly, so you must make sure that all information you provide is regularly updated to ensure it is accurate and timely.  This will build confidence in your potential customers that you are in control of the situation.

Be proactive on social media.   It’s an opportunity to share updates widely and posting images can help to counteract any extreme images that may be shown by the media – helping to reassure potential visitors that while the situation is serious, it is not as widespread as people imagine. 

You can also use social media to push out the messages relevant to your situation (for example, by highlighting activities and events still taking place or promoting any offers) and you may want to add links to local weather or travel sites. It is also a good way to develop conversations with supporters and potential customers and respond to any immediate concerns. Visitors can tweet that they have booked, that they will be booking, that they are in a specific area and that they are having a great time, despite the weather!

If you have a local Destination Management Organisation or trade association find out what #hashtag they are using for a specific event or incident and tag your tweets, so that you are very much a part of the conversation. Keep your updates light and informative; do not get into long conversations with people about the rights or wrongs of a situation.  Think about what you want to say and even have some messages prepared for both Facebook and twitter – use it to talk not only about your business, but also businesses in your area, to show potential visitors that there is an active community and a community worth visiting.

6. Working with the press

The media is a good way for sharing messages and information with visitors, potential visitors and the wider community. It isn’t a substitute for communicating directly with customers, but it can certainly add value.

A press release provides the opportunity to present your messages about the situation and key information in a clear and considered way.  When speaking to the press directly, make sure you have your key messages prepared so that you are comfortable with what is reported. 

The content of media releases will vary depending on your situation, but they should:

  • Be factual – don’t speculate
  • Provide a contact name and number for further enquiries
  • Be calm, reassuring and positive (avoid terms such as “crisis” and “emergency”)
  • Acknowledge responsibility to visitors and the community
  • Indicate that further information will be released as soon as it becomes available.

You may also consider:

  • Providing practical advice on travel/accommodation
  • Emphasising areas that are unaffected
  • Including expected recovery time
  • Promoting activities not impacted.

The media will inevitably be more interested in the bigger, more dramatic stories, but will cover other more positive stories if they are newsworthy – angles could include:

  • Bucking the trend
  • Human interest stories, such as the community working together
  • Adapting your offer to the situation (one hotel offers ‘storm watching’ breaks to drive business in the winter)
  • What your current position is in terms of bookings and what you expect in the future.  If you have plenty of forward bookings that have been unaffected by this crisis, make sure you tell the media and your local Destination Management Organisation- it all helps in maintaining a positive outlook.

You may find that your local media would be only too happy to get behind some positive messages or campaigns, as it is in their interest to be supporting the local community.
Avoid writing any releases which look like you are taking advantage of problems in other parts of the country.