When Travel Goes Wrong: What We Can Learn From 3 PR Mistakes

Travel is an industry of unknowns and unpredictability. Over the course of a single trip, one traveller might be dealing with or served by countless different operators. Whether it’s booking a trip through a travel marketplace, getting an Uber to the airport or complaining about your hotel, there are always opportunities for an established brand to slip up. PR mistakes occur, by definition, in the public domain. Here are a few of the most high profile in recent times, along with what travel operators can hope to learn from them.

British Airways’ Computer System Failure

Back in May 2017, British Airways had the nightmare of all nightmares, the situation that no airline ever wants to deal with: a power outage that left its IT system crippled. The result was thousands of stranded passengers, hundreds of cancelled flights and an embarrassing ordeal for a brand that prides itself on quality and reliability.

Rumours began to circulate that it was some kind of cyber attack, that BA’s systems had been compromised. The company was understandably cautious about giving too much detail over what had happened. On the ground, airport staff struggled to deal with the hordes of frustrated holidaymakers. It was a recipe for a PR disaster.

The Lesson: Apologise, front-up and reassure

There is only so much that an operator can do when fundamental systems, such as those handling bookings, are wiped out. Although staff on the ground were reportedly less than informed about what was going on, British Airways was relatively quick to issue the following statement on its Twitter account, from CEO Alex Cruz.

With a problem this unavoidable, the only possible PR move was to issue a public statement like this and front up to the problem. The message had clear instructions, an apology, reassurance concerning refunds and a partial explanation. There wasn’t much more that British Airways could do given the circumstances.

United Airlines: The Perils of Social Media, Greed & Repeating the Same Mistakes

In the first example, British Airways used social media to their advantage. They quickly spread a clear message to worried travellers, reassuring them, apologising and going some way to explaining what was happening. The company was able to do this because of the popularity of platforms just like Twitter – Once it’s on Twitter, it’s open to the world.

Read more: Social Media Tips for Travel Industry Professionals

That same level of transparency and potential virility can also be the fuel for a total PR nightmare. That much was confirmed after this disgraceful incident was caught on camera before the departure of a United Airlines flight…

The video shows a paying passenger being forcibly removed from flight 3411 on April 9th, because United Airlines deliberately overbooked its flight and needed to make room for cabin crew. Staff asked for volunteers to leave the plane, and when nobody stepped forward, one unfortunate gentleman was dragged off, literally kicking and screaming.

Understandably, this outrageous treatment caused a stir online and rapidly became a global story. In itself, a complete PR disaster, highlighting all of the traits that travellers despise in industry giants: greed, indifference, disregard and a total lack of empathy.

But the blunders didn’t stop there. In the following days, everybody involved with the airline, from the social media team to its CEO, appeared to make things worse with poorly thought out statements. These only added fuel to the fire. CEO Oscar Munoz referred to the clear assault that had taken place aboard one of his airline’s planes as ‘re-accommodating a customer’.

And it got worse. The social media team appeared to be doing everything possible to keep the fire burning. Here they are explaining how a lack of volunteers justified the passenger in question being forcibly removed:

The Lesson: Sincere PR is the best way to brace for impact when things go wrong

Aside from the initial incident, which was always going to be impossible to explain away, the United Airlines saga went from bad to worse because of how the emerging situation was mishandled. Everyone from the social media team to the CEO badly misread public sentiment and failed to respond accordingly.

Eventually, Oscar Munoz did issue a strong apology. But because this came long after the event and after other statements had served to fan the flames to the extent that United’s stock was plummeting, it wasn’t taken as sincere by the public.

Travel operators need to accept that when things go wrong, they can go viral quickly. As such, teams (particularly on social media) need to be prepared to respond quickly, appropriately and with empathy. Social media teams should also understand that their responses are completely public, and craft messages carefully to avoid further damage to their reputations.

It doesn’t take a genius to see why the footage from that United Airlines flight was so controversial. The company’s inability to see it from the same perspective is what helped the situation escalate to a global news story.

Thomas Cook: What Not to Do When Tragedy Strikes

Often PR situations can escalate because it’s not clear who is to blame, and the parties involved appear unwilling to accept responsibility. This is sometimes the case when a terrible tragedy has unfolded. One example of this is the sad passing of two young children while on holiday with their father in Corfu in 2006. The boy and girl died because of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a boiler leak at their accommodation, which was provided by Thomas Cook through a third party.

Thomas Cook took legal action against the hotel in Greece where the boys died and protested against inquests into the children’s deaths taking place in the UK. The popular tour operator then received £3 million in damages from the hotel and was heavily criticised after the children’s parents were awarded just over 10% of that figure.

It was not until 9 years later after the event that the company’s CEO agreed to meet with the family and issue a formal apology for how the situation had been dealt with. It donated £1.5m to charity and went on to be found guilty after an inquest jury reached a verdict of unlawful killing. The ruling stated that Thomas Cook had breached its duty of care.

The Lesson: Respond to tragedy like a human, not a company

No gesture or words could ever replace the lives lost in a tragic event such as that which occurred in Corfu in 2006.

But in mishandling the situation and its aftermath, Thomas Cook quickly developed a reputation for prioritising the financial cost of the event over the human, lacking empathy and being indifferent to the family and their loss.

For a travel operator whose business is almost exclusively dedicated to family holidays, coming across as a faceless corporation at a time of crisis was the last thing it should have been doing.

When tragedies such as this do occur, instead of shying away from responsibility, travel operators would do well to embrace the situation first and ask question later. Mistakes can be forgiven. Even negligence can be forgiven. But the emotional impact and the damage caused by indifference can linger for years.

Why B2B Travel Technology is Vital to the Industry

Depending on who you speak to, there are different definitions of what constitutes travel technology. As a travel marketplace provider, we certainly see that definition in a different light to a transport company like Uber or an OTA like Expedia. Our job as a (mostly) B2B service is to enable operators to reach as many travellers as possible. We provide the travel technology and work in the space in between operators and customers.

But it makes sense that, as technology becomes more of a feature in our daily lives, travel companies of one sort or another will utilise different aspects and become a part of the ‘travel technology’ family. A case in point is Skift’s Travel Tech 250, which includes everything from deal sites like GroupOn to rental platforms and price comparison websites.

Travel Technology Now Comes In Many Forms

From looking through Skift’s map of ‘250 travel tech companies’ shaping the modern day travel experience, it’s clear to see that travel tech has an extremely broad meaning. It spans marketplaces for travel, transport and accommodation. There are also B2B services covering distribution, booking engines and even travel industry marketing specialists.

As Skift writes, “We recognize that the travel industry is in constant flux, with new brands and disruptors coming on line all of the time. The design we chose for this visualization is exactly that – a snapshot of what the industry looks like today.”

Sure, we might be biased, but we think we deserve a little more recognition here. Not in terms of being included, although that would be nice. But in terms of the significance of what we and other booking engines do. The Skift image is just a snapshot of the industry as a whole, so let’s try to explain why what we do is so vital.

As more and more travellers research and organise their trips online, having a web presence is becoming a prerequisite to winning bookings from international tourists.

But that’s putting it mildly. Having an online presence is a pre-condition to attracting tourists in the same way that having a warm pair of socks is needed if you’re going to climb Mt Everest. There’s a lot more to it than that. There are some serious marketing challenges facing small travel operators that we’ve outlined again and again.

The first – and most important – is being discovered. An online presence is worth nothing unless people can find it. Only once your products are found can you begin actually selling them. This is getting harder by the day for two reasons. First, a small number of B2C travel industry giants dominate search engine results. And by dominate, we mean that you’ll be lucky to get a look in. They’ve got more content than you, more backlinks than you, and you can bet that their marketing budgets far exceed your own.

The second challenge to getting noticed is increased competition from other smaller operators. As they fight to take traffic from the big guys, many smaller travel startups are making life harder for each other.

But it’s not all bad…

But there is a silver lining. There are two, in fact. The first is that once they get over the hurdle of being heard, smaller operators are in a unique position to concentrate on a single niche. They can then easily build brand awareness and customer loyalty around that target market. By definition, smaller travel operators can be lean, more flexible and highly specialised. That’s the personal touch that many travellers want, not a mass tourism package trip churned out by an industry giant.

With specialised knowledge comes a specialised service. And with that comes a trip that travellers remember for all the right reasons.

travel technology - our marketplace platform

Why True Travel Technology is an Enabler

In our view, true B2B travel technology is tech that helps startups in the industry overcome the challenges mentioned above. True travel technology is empowering, breaks down conventional barriers and gives the small guys a fighting chance against established dominance.

Sure: all of the companies listed above under ‘Travel technology’ are, according to Skift, “shaping the modern-day travel experience”. We don’t deny that Uber, Secret Escapes and Trivago are all offering valuable services that the industry couldn’t do without. Yet the key word for us in that Skift definition is ‘experience’.

Shaping the Travel Experience for the Better

Here at Travelshift, we firmly believe that smaller operators are in a much better position to give 21st century travellers the immersive trips and personalised service they’re looking for.

As we’ve mentioned before, there is a fear that the combining forces of big data and seamless integration will leave the largest technology companies in the best position to dominate the travel industry – even more so than the current industry giants. There is no telling what kind of impact even more dominance in the hands of a few major players will have on the traveller experience.

That’s why we are remaining firmly in the corner of the little guys, enabling them to compete with travel industry giants with our unique, feature-packed marketplace software. We hope that the result will be a greater number of specialised marketplaces, catering to their chosen niche and providing the best possible experience to travellers – right the way through from booking to returning home.

Our Travel Technology Gives Smaller Operators The Platform They Deserve

As we’ve mentioned, setting up in the travel industry and offering your expertise to tourists is only the first step on a long, difficult journey. Many fall at the opening hurdles, and many more follow suit soon after that.

That’s why we put our heads together before launching our first platform in 2014 to produce the perfect solution: A travel marketplace that brings together small operators and allows them to reach a larger audience than they could ever imagine when working as individual suppliers.

Take a look at the impact our platform had in its opening few years when combined with the Iceland tourism boom.

Guide to Iceland growth timeline, proving our travel technologyThis goes to show that a small but dedicated (and talented) team can achieve great things with the right travel technology in place. Our aim is for the same platform solution and techniques to be used to develop partnerships and niche marketplaces all over the world.

The result will be the growth of smaller travel operators, as they each benefit from the support and association of a marketplace that’s purpose-built to drive traffic and sales for niche travel sectors. More success among smaller operators promises to shift the travel landscape, provide tourists with more authentic experiences and bring back the concept of ‘loyalty’ to an industry that has lost its personal touch.

All of this takes us back to the title of this post. So why are B2B travel technology suppliers so vital to the industry? Simply put, we support startups and breed innovation. We make things happen.

More Than Just Another Booking Engine

Earlier in this post we compared having an online presence in the travel industry to having a pair of socks at the base of Mount Everest: It’s only the beginning. And the same can be said for having a travel marketplace that aggregates operators in your chosen niche.

Building a marketplace is only half of the challenge. You still need to market it properly, to streamline its systems and drive as many sales as possible.

That’s where Travelshift’s technology comes in. Our marketplace solution has been honed over time and proven in practice. It’s complete with localisation features, built-in SEO tools, flexible inventory systems and much more besides. Most important of all, the Travelshift platform was built and designed to bring in as much relevant traffic as possible.

To do that, we’ve combined a smart, flexible SaaS travel marketplace solution with unparalleled content marketing capabilities. But the key is where that content comes from: The community. By encouraging locals and tour guides to contribute article and blog posts, our platform allows you to amass a huge social media following and drive significantly more traffic into the marketplace than operators can manage independently. With our tools and no shortage of hard work, you can quickly become the leading producer of content in your field.

Community-driven content is a foundation of our success, and we’re convinced that the model can be applied to any number of travel niches.

Trvaelshift marketplace software

Feeling Inspired?

We’re always on the lookout for new partners, exciting startups and talented individuals to work with. If you’d like to be considered, all we need from you is a discovery letter. In the letter, you should indicate as concisely as possible the following elements of your proposal:

  • Define the market. What are you trying to aggregate?
  • How do you plan to bring in suppliers and/or access inventory?
  • What is your preferred form of partnership (joint venture, revenue sharing agreement, etc)?

You can send your discovery letters to info@travelshift.com.

The travel industry is an exciting and thriving sector with a seemingly endless amount of business opportunities and prospective ventures. We love to team up with intelligent and creative people and enjoy receiving new proposals. Get in touch with us today!

The Challenges of Mass Tourism in the 21st Century

Working in the travel industry, it can be easy to forget that our responsibility extends further than just the people and businesses we sell services and products to. The bigger picture stretches beyond travellers, encompassing residents of popular destinations, natural ecosystems and, of course, the sustainability of the industry in general.

That’s where the challenge of mass tourism rears its head. In our increasingly connected world, access to certain destinations is easier than it has ever been. Budget airlines, currency fluctuations and the sharing economy have made trips more accessible to more people. Countries like Iceland and cities such as Barcelona have effectively gone viral. There are no secrets anymore.

A recent Skift documentary took a closer look at the escalating situation in Barcelona, where locals are growing increasingly frustrated at the quantity of tourists flocking to the city. The Catalan capital has become the third most popular city in Europe, after London and Paris.

A growing number of residents are concerned that the high concentration of tourists is pushing up house prices, negatively impacting their lives and well-being and rendering parts of the city overcrowded and uninhabitable.

skift documentary challenges of 21st century tourism

Skift’s latest documentary: Barcelona and the Trials of 21st Century Over-Tourism

And this feeling is coming to the surface all over Spain, which has traditionally been one of Europe’s most popular destinations. The number of visitors to Spain hit a record high in 2016 of 75.3 million, according to the Minister for Energy and Tourism, Alvaro Nadal. Last year was the fourth consecutive record year, as tourist numbers were boosted by security concerns in the Mediterranean from Turkey to north Africa.

Frustration with tourism has not come out of the blue. In a protest in Barcelona in June, one demonstrator held a banner that read: “Tourist flats displace families”.

Protest group Arran has carried out events in Valencia and the Balearic Islands in recent weeks. In Palma de Mallorca, protesters smashed windows at a restaurant and set off smoke bombs before raising a banner declaring in English that, “Tourism is killing Mallorca”.

anti tourism protests in barcelona

Lluis Gene, AFP | Protesters at a demonstration in Barcelona on June 10, 2017 against what they claim is a lack of control by the city’s tourism management.

A similar demonstration is planned in foodie capital San Sebastian on 17 August, due to how tourism represents “precariousness” and “exploitation” for the young.

Are these mass tourism numbers sustainable?

Although mass tourism has come to represent a significant amount of income for cities like Barcelona, there is little doubt that its detriments are felt by locals. Areas such as the iconic Las Ramblas and the Sagrada Familia are no longer what they used to be; years of culture are being crowded and eroded by tourists eager for a quick selfie, by those looking for entertainment rather than something to appreciate.

Read more: In Depth With Barcelona’s Foodie&Tours

Aside from overcrowded public areas and pressures on transport and infrastructure, accommodation is arguably the single biggest concern for residents in cities like Barcelona. A thriving rental market for short term accommodations has led to gentrification and higher long-term rents for residents.

The concern was so grave that in 2012, residents in Barcelona voted in a mayor whose main promise was to curb the rise in tourism. Whereas before there was little regulation regarding the set up of tourist accommodation, Ada Colau introduced a register and required online platforms such as Airbnb and Booking.com to sign up their apartments.

The key is to find a sustainable solution. The Skift documentary speaks to one boutique hotel owner who set up a hotel but opened the ground floor as a bar and restaurant, effectively redeveloping public space for locals at the same time as opening new rooms for tourists.

Could more community-focused travel companies like this be a solution?

Iceland: Another Example of Over-Tourism?

Much closer to home for us, Skift has also conducted investigations into the Icelandic travel scene, particularly looking at the growing number of visitors to Iceland and the sustainability of its booming tourism industry.

Just like in Spain, the boom in tourism to Iceland was predicated by the global financial crisis, which made visiting the land of ice and fire a lot cheaper than it once would have been and resulted in a surge of visitors keen to take advantage.

“Tourism is the factor that got us out of the recession and placed us where we are now,” said Ólöf Ýrr Atladóttir, director general of the Icelandic Tourist Board. “We couldn’t foresee this tremendous growth in interest for Iceland. That is also coupled with the fact that, in the last five years, the world has gone out of a recession. People are travelling more and more.”

There are also parallels in terms of the public reaction to increased numbers of tourists in Iceland and Spain. Both countries can partly attribute their recoveries from the economic crash to tourism, but locals are beginning to worry whether or not the benefits of the influx are being felt by all. Or if the detriments are worth it.

Increased tourism has led to a high demand for short term rentals, to the point where capacity is not enough. The result will be as familiar to locals in Reykjavik as it is to residents in the Catalan capital:

“There is a massive shortage of housing, There is a massive shortage of hotels,” said Sölvi Melax, founder of Icelandic car share startup Cario. “Renting long-term is getting more and more expensive. And that’s because people are going [with] short-term rentals.”

Of Iceland's three main industries, only tourism has increased in value over the last five years.

Iceland’s rising tourism, from Skift’s report into travel in Iceland

Huge changes over a relatively short period of time have perhaps caught city officials on the back foot. After all, it’s hard to encourage a blossoming industry at the same time as keeping things sustainable and under control.

Read more: In Depth With Zen Resort Bali

The public’s perception is partly because tourism is an industry like no other. It’s brash and in your face; there’s no escaping it. “We are just realizing what tourism is. It’s a totally different industry from all others,” said Atladóttir, comparing tourism to fishing:

“You can go out and fish, and you go and get your fish, and then come back. There’s somebody in the factory that prepares it, and then it’s sold. That, of course, is a tremendous economic impact, but then everybody goes home. The fish aren’t bothering you out in the streets asking where the restaurants are, and aren’t using your buses or utilizing a lot of the public goods. They aren’t sitting in your swimming pools.”

Just as in Barcelona, creaking infrastructure is struggling to meet the demands of rising numbers of tourists. To the point where government officials are considering airport entry fees, road tolls, and other types of taxes to fund improvements.

There could eventually be a cap on the number of visitors per year. While that may seem like a dramatic move, part of the allure for visitors to Iceland is the opportunity to see the natural world at its finest. Instead of being known for cathedrals (although Reykjavik has a spectacular one) and architecture, Iceland’s popular sights include glaciers, the northern lights and volcanic landscapes.

Preserving these for future destinations of tourists and residents is understandably a priority. Keeping Iceland’s nature intact is vital to any tourism going forwards, not just an ethical necessity.

Read more: Our Deep Dive into Sustainable Travel

Changes are required at a national level to deal with mass tourism

If there’s one thing we can take from the situations in Spain and Iceland, it’s that this kind of problem requires solutions at a national level.

Despite the fact that increasing tourism has brought with it prosperity and development to both countries, there is a lingering sense that residents’ best interests are being overlooked in the pursuit of industry growth. This is reflected in rising costs of living, rapid changes to what were once established communities and iconic sights being overrun with tourists.

The challenge is to develop sustainable tourism practices that bring the same benefits but welcome international travellers in a more harmonious way: putting in place sensible sustainability measures without putting off tourists. Finding the right balance is vital, especially in countries that have quickly seen tourism grow to be a crucial part of the economy.

Taxes on tourists in the form of entry visas; caps on visitor numbers every year; quotas and ticketing on certain landmarks; more investment in under-pressure infrastructure… all of these are steps that local authorities could take to effectively deal with the problems that come with high levels of tourism.

There’s also a need to keep residents onside by educating them about the benefits that tourism brings and giving them tangible access to those benefits.

Perhaps putting limits or taxes on tourism in the short term is the best way to solve problems around infrastructure, capacity and resident’s concerns. Just as fishing quotas in the 1980s helped return Iceland’s fish stock to sustainable levels, maybe something similar could be done with the booming travel industry. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back and readjust your path to move forwards in the right way.

sustainable tourism in barcelona and iceland

Some of Iceland’s most enticing sights could be at risk as mass tourism becomes the norm.

But what can travel operators do in the face of mass tourism?

Let’s not kid ourselves: the primary motive for the majority of travel service providers is to make a profit from tourism. That can lead to a situation where short term growth and dollar signs are put ahead of sustainability.

However, travel operators would do well to take a step back and think about the long-term impact of mass tourism. In cities like Barcelona, excessive tourism threatens to overrun the local culture that makes it such an enticing destination in the first place. But this point is perhaps more significant to destinations popular because of nature. In countries like Iceland, sheer footfall could have a detrimental effect on the natural sights that make it so popular.

With that in mind, perhaps operators can shift to focus on smaller, more upscale tour groups with more focused itineraries. That way the heavy footfall of budget tourism can be reduced without necessarily hitting operators’ bottom lines.

It’s up to governments and travel operators to work together to ensure that tourism remains sustainable. Without progressive measures, some of our mose treasured destinations could lose the heart and soul that made them popular in the first place.