“It’s nice to be casually reminded that there’s something to look forward to,” says Marshall, a finance professor who lives in New York City. “It really puts things in perspective.”
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to pummel the travel industry — grounding flights, shuttering hotels and cultural institutions, canceling events and sports games — plans are on hold. Indefinitely. Tourism experiences have been downgraded to virtual tours of museums, zoos, castles, national parks and forests as destination marketing organizations aim to stay on people’s radars. But a few tourism bureaus have taken a radical approach, completely upending the message that every destination tries to communicate creatively. As a sign of our unprecedented times, they’re saying — rather, insisting: Don’t come here. Forget about FOMO and don’t even think about trying to score a deal on a plane ticket. Stay home. Please, for the love of all that’s holy.
“It’s a weird situation. Tourism marketers’ reason for being is to get people to come visit,” said Rosie Spinks, global tourism reporter for Skift, a travel news and intelligence website. “It’s an interesting time for tourism marketing. Not only is there the challenge of figuring out how to market tourism when everyone is scared to travel, but almost reinventing what the market is.”
And so travel companies have been compelled to pivot into community health awareness vehicles and promote safety and social distancing. It’s a tricky maneuver because if it isn’t done just right, it risks sounding tone-deaf or, worse, opportunistic. Perhaps the most widely seen examples of how to play it right is the Hotels.com television commercial featuring its distinguished mascot, Captain Obvious. Sitting in a chair, he slathers his hands with sanitizer before eating from a bowl of popcorn on his lap as text flashes on the screen: “This is Captain Obvious.” “He’s going to be social distancing for a while.” “You should too.” Then “Just stay home” appears under the Hotels.com logo.
But just because it’s off-limits right now doesn’t mean that destination you long for should be out of mind. In fact, longing is exactly what you should be doing.
“It’s about inspiration, giving people room to dream,” Leah Chandler, chief marketing officer of Discover Puerto Rico, said of the “All in good time” campaign that helped Marshall cancel her plans. “At the moment, with everyone in their homes, it feels like all we have is time. Time’s passing slowly in lockdown, people have time to think what they miss — being connected with people they love, and seeing the world.”
These slogans serve as a call to action, and in the age of covid-19, the most important move you can make is, well, to not move anywhere. In a sly trick of inversion, these companies are telling you: Don’t act now, but consider us when you want to act later. We’re not going anywhere.
Costa Rica is sounding a note of understanding. Visit Costa Rica’s “We’ll be here” campaign assures you that it gets you, it identifies with the widespread anxiety that everyone feels personally. “We understand the uncertainty that you may be feeling now,” reads the caption on social media accompanying the spot, which features breathtaking imagery of the coastal nation’s beaches and rainforests. “While we know that now is not the time for travel, we will continue to provide you with travel inspiration. So while you recharge from home, know that when it’s time for you to travel again, we’ll be here to welcome you.” Similar commentary runs throughout Visit Costa Rica’s website.
“We were looking for a way to turn the situation into something positive,” said Brent Anderson, creative director at MMGY Global, the agency of record for the Costa Rica Tourism Board. “The lifestyle that Costa Rica represents is what people are craving while they’re stuck at home. We want to provide inspiration as everyone’s lives are turned upside down. We see [the PSA] less as an advertisement than a response to the way people are feeling. We wanted to be inspirational and give people something to look forward to.”
And therein might lie the most valuable gift a destination can offer.
“Sometimes anticipation can be better than the experience itself. An experience can be whatever it is — it can vary — but usually the anticipation is universally positive,” said Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of “The Happiness Lab” podcast, a spinoff of her class the Science of Well-Being, Yale’s most popular course ever. As of May 1, the class’s online version logged over 30 million views and 2.4 million enrollees.
“Every vacation you go on, you remember well and you can describe it. Sometimes it forms a part of your identity,” she says. “There’s a temporal extended happiness that continues before and after in ways we often don’t realize. Booking super-far in advance, even for 2023 when this is hopefully all over, allows people anticipation and positivity about what’s to come.”
What happens in Vegas will presumably continue to stay in Vegas, but it’ll just have to happen at a to-be-determined future date. The slot machines are unplugged, kitchens are dark, and the stripteases have screeched to a halt. A contemplative mood pervades, as evidenced by the video on its website, which also aired as a commercial on national television. “In Las Vegas, there’s something more important than the shows and the neon, and there’s something bigger than our hotels and our bravado,” a soothing voice-over intones. “That something is you and your safety. That is everything. That is the only thing.” It goes on to promise that “when it’s time, we’ll be ready.”
“Communicating with our visitors is an awful lot like how you’d communicate with a friend,” said Steve Hill, chief executive and president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It’s like the conversation you’d have if you called a friend you’re not able to see. You just want to say: ‘How are you doing? We miss you and can’t wait to see you again, but for now we just want to stay in touch.’ ”
Estonia tourism has also made a hairpin turn and adapted “Visit Estonia” to “Visit Estonia . . . later,” with a corresponding hashtag.
“It’s such a sensitive topic. You think maybe it’s better not to say anything because it can go wrong, but from all I’ve seen, you can’t go wrong if you tell people you care about them,” said Shardee Rebas, campaign manager for Visit Estonia. “That’s true in any relationship, even destinations and brands. People care more if you show that you don’t just talk about yourself, that you think about them in the long term. If you can make them feel good today, they’re more likely to think about you in the future.”
In addition to using the universally popular #stayhome consistently, in one of the tweets Rebas included a modified trending version of the hashtag that drives home the message with spicier language not fit for reprinting here. It had over 3 million impressions, and Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid retweeted it. And judging by the positive reactions, Estonia rocketed to the top of many bucket lists.
Weisstuch is a writer based in New York. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @livingtheproof.