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By Skip King, Reputation Strategies
COVID-19 has upended business plans for everyone. In the short term, everyone has been focused on shutting down and handling inquiries. Here are a couple more things to think about, if you haven't started already: policy changes and staffing need, both short and medium term.
Policy changes. Let's take the policy aspect first. How many of your products and services are pre-booked? We presume that you're already getting a pretty steady stream of calls and emails asking about cancellations.
It's your business to run as you see fit. But we do think it's worth looking at what the airlines and major hotel chains are doing. Nearly all of them have enormously relaxed their policies with regard to cancellation and change fees. If you haven't already done so, think about it.
Bear this in mind: There is a point in every crisis in which it's time to stop thinking about "what do my customers think of me NOW?" and start thinking about "What do I want my customers to think about me once this is all over?"
Staff concerns. The same can be said about staff, so let's talk about them. Your staff is likely to be thinking about a number of things right now, such as, "How am I going to put food on the table?" and "Am I at risk myself?" We need to be cognizant of the uncertainty out there.
We think it's reasonable—even necessary—to convey cautious optimism about summer and fall operations. We should have a clearer picture within a month or so, and at least in theory, that could give us SOME time to ramp up staffing for the summer season. But be really careful about over-promising; stay on top of the guidance from the CDC and state health authorities.
Many resorts rely at least partly on seasonal staffers, which potentially affords a little more flexibility. But to the extent you can, we encourage those who have full-timers to keep them on, if only with a partial schedule. They're the linchpins for making things happen. Same thing for your senior-most seasonal help. Losing them can be seriously damaging.
Send The Message
Now, let's talk about messaging. We think you need to communicate with your clientele and your staff regularly. Don't over-saturate them; people are getting staggering amounts of information these days from the news media and organizations with which they've got some form of relationship. But do pick a reasonable schedule, like every two or three weeks or so, just to stay in touch.
As of today, and depending upon your product or service, we think it's reasonable to suggest that you DO plan to operate this summer (as long as you really do, of course), but that you don't know quite what that's going to look like yet. And that's entirely fair, because nobody else does, either.
Share info regularly. As things become clearer, share that information, too, good or bad. Remember, we need to think about how people will think of us when this is over.
Be candid. Tell people what you THINK things will look like, based upon what you know now. Acknowledge that things could change. Update them when and if it does. Tell them what you're doing with operational changes and pricing or cancellation policies. Be up front.
Tailor the message. So how to actually do those communications? Think in terms of stakeholder groups—groups of people who are interested in you and your business. The way to communicate with each group is dependent upon who they are.
• For example, if you need to communicate with the Forest Service or another permitting organization, well, how do you NORMALLY communicate? We'd start with that one.
• Key stakeholders like chambers of commerce, tourism promotional groups, key lodging partners, group leaders: we'd probably do that by phone if we could. Key staff, definitely by phone. Seasonal staff? Depends on numbers. Phone if possible. If not, email.
• Customer base? Again, how do you normally stay in touch? Email lists are a great tool for this, and sending out reasonable messaging via social media can be a good choice, too.
• One caveat on that last part: Be careful not to invite blowback by promoting too aggressively. As evidence, we note that the vast majority of the U.S. ski industry is now closed due to the virus, but a handful of resorts are still open. We've watched their social streams. Half of the commenters are appreciative. The other half are irate, both at the resorts and at the people still skiing.
So use caution. Be cognizant of the angst out there. Think about what you need to change with operations. Think about what to say, and how to say it. Let us know what we can do to help.
We'll get through this, but it's going to be a rough ride. We wish you all the very best of luck with it.
This article is adapted from the Reputation Strategies enewsletter. You can sign up for the enewsletter here.