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Landing Softly after Skydiving into a Recession

A typical skydiver waits a minute before opening their parachute manually but not before falling 12,000 feet at a rate of 200 per second (Americans fall at 135 miles per hour; Canadians and Europeans fall at 220 kilometres per)!

Humour aside, that’s pretty much how a world in recession feels. Even at the best of times, jumping from a plane strapped to a nylon sheet is scary. One needn’t have lived through the last three recessions — the ‘Carter’ Recession of early Nineties, the post-9/11 recession, and The Great Recession of the ‘Aughts — to know that the current one feels scary and different.

Recessions are usually less like skydiving and more like parachuting in which you jump with your security blanket (aka chute) already deployed. After all, recessions are historically temporary, and the financial and political worlds always take steps to bring about eventual economic recovery.

But the sheer scale of the current human tragedy feels like we’re in a skydive with no stopwatch telling us when our parachute will open. The travel industry, in this time of sheltering-in-place and social distancing, is in the steepest dive of all.

According to a report from the Brookings Institute that looked across multiple sectors, the recession’s impact on the travel, leisure, and hospitality sectors will be five and half times greater than the next two most affected sectors combined (employment services and transportation).

And within our own sector of travel, the eminent research team at Skift could do no better than end their excellent 27-page assessment of COVID-19’s impact with the cryptically nebulous conclusion, “We are uncertain about the future as anyone, but see indicators that this might be a long road to recovery. That the industry will recover, we feel is not in doubt.”

That doesn’t sound like a soft landing anytime soon.

So how does Wallop, friend to dozens of client luxury resorts, boutique hotels, and high-end adventures, respond to ‘this long road to recovery’? What good is it to provide strategic digital direction or to leverage advertising algorithms when hotels are sitting empty?

Wallop decided — to paraphrase the words of a beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning poet — “Our clients won’t remember what we said or did but rather how we made them feel”. Our clients need to know they are not alone, they are supported, and there’s a plan even if the road to recovery is a long one.

We began by looking internally with a clear-eyed assessment of how much client pain we could take on. Upon hearing our proposal, one client’s response was particularly heartening, “…it is gratifying to know that you as a partner understand what we are going through and are taking meaningful steps to support us.“

So far, so good, but with projects on hold, campaigns paused, and belts tightened, the Wallop team has nevertheless endured a handful of painful losses. Unnerving still, ‘the curve’ has yet to show signs of flattening.

Meanwhile, we’ve kept one eye on metrics, the other on results, and our third eye — the Wallop eye of strategy — on macro level indicators. As properties deal with staff furloughs and across-the-board cancellations, we need to be their eyes and ears and keep their digital lights on. Client reports are going out on a weekly basis, some show surprising results while others not. A remote retreat in the wilds of America still hums along for example, while a resort in the heart of an Asian metropolis has fallen dark.

On clients’ behalf, we’re pausing branded advertising campaigns since no sane competitors, under the circumstances, would bid on other’s branded terms. Testing different images and copy is still useful, if only to ensure online ads run crisis-appropriate, were they to run at all. Pandemic or not, keyword topics should remain current. And technical opportunities to improve clients’ organic performance should still be leveraged (the devil is still in the pedantic details such as improving internal linking and redirect chains).

As for the most important macro-trend, the aforementioned Skift report indicates that beyond travel restrictions and reduced spending power, the biggest barrier to returning to a new normal might be psychological, and asks, “When will people feel it’s safe and okay to travel again”?

Once restrictions are ended, will an American traveller’s first order of business be to travel and stay at the homes of family members from whom they’ve been separated? Or when international borders are opened, will they fly to their favourite open-air resort after months of hibernation and isolation?

Current assumptions suggest early travel will be domestic though hampered by post-isolation restrictions. The truth is no one knows what travellers will do and when that day will eventually come. But when it does, Wallop and its clients will have been executing customized Recovery Recommendations in Three Phases. In other words, our clients will hit their action stations with strategies and plans already underway.

Since no one is going anywhere, our clients are in Phase One and will stay there at least until the curve begins to flatten. If they don’t currently have analytics and conversion tracking setup, now’s the time to do it. In other words, prioritize long term benefits over immediate bookings and inquiries. We’re advising next steps, account audits, and deep dives into data — of client history and of industry trends.

Phase Two will initiate with the first flicker of light in the tunnel. For that time, Wallop’s highlighted a series of triggers with appropriate actions and outcomes customized for each client. And Phase Three represents ‘all systems go’ with steps to return hotels, resorts, and adventure businesses to the ‘new normal’ whatever that may be.

You could say Wallop’s Recovery Recommendations are like a skydiver’s reserve parachute, triggered by rate of descent, and deployed to ensure a safe landing in times of crisis.

A publicly available version of the Three Phases of our Recovery Recommendations will be available shortly.

“Places a COVID-19 recession will hit hardest”, The Brookings Institute, April 2nd, 2020
“The Impact of COVID-19 on the Hotel Industry” , Wouter Geerts Skift, April, 2020