Inside Destination BC’s COVID response plan

In a normal year, Destination BC would be in the midst of a major marketing push right now, working hard to attract visitors to the province for their summer holidays.

It’s an incredibly important period, because the B.C. economy relies so much on tourism; it’s a $20 billion industry, employing 167,000 people across 19,000 businesses. About half of all revenue comes in the summer months, and the industry registers about 23 million trips a year—six million of those (about 26%) come from international travellers.

Of course, the best-laid plans are meaningless in the face of a global pandemic, and when the COVID crisis took hold, Destination BC had to stop almost everything. “Obviously, no one’s ever seen anything like this before. And the industry has gone through some difficult times,” says Maya Lange, vice-president of global marketing.

The brand didn’t go completely silent, however. Like any other government operation, Destination BC could help spread the important message about social distancing and staying home, with a reminder that now is not the time to be travelling around the province.

The usual #ExploreBC hashtag was changed to #ExploreBC…Later. And last week saw the release of a new ad called “Dream of Later.” Created by the studio team at Destination BC—including Shawn Parkinson and Behr Safi—along with One Twenty Three West and written by Kate Roland and Rob Sweetman, the spot artfully turns a reminder about the importance of staying home into a lyrical ode to the natural beauty cherished by so many British Columbians.

“Even though we are apart, we are still together,” says the narrator over a slow rolling montage of B.C. beauty shots. “We are all connected. We are all a part of something greater. So for now we pause, stay in, and dream of later. Because the more we do today, the sooner we can return to British Columbia’s natural wonder.”

The Message spoke with Lange about the campaign, and more broadly about how the pandemic has affected Destination BC and where it can go from here.

When did you start to worry about what coronavirus? “We’ve been tracking the issue since December,” says Lange. Bookings started to fall though January, and in February it became apparent this was no longer just a China story—that it would have a global impact. That was followed by the watershed announcement in mid-March that the borders were closing.

“International travel is zero, domestic travel has basically gone down to zero. So it’s a very hard-hit industry that is impacted literally overnight. And the longer that this goes on—and it will go on for months—obviously the industry is going to shrink considerably in a very short period of time,” says Lange.

What did you do when you realized this was going to affect B.C. tourism? For a brief period of time they thought they might still get some domestic travel that would at least partially offset the loss of international visitors.

“We said we’re going to get into a save-our-summer mode,” says Lange. However, it became clear within days that wasn’t going to happen either. “We had to pull that back and retool.”

It quickly changed from “Explore BC” to “Explore BC…Later” in all its social channels. “So still keeping B.C. top of mind in terms of future inspiration, but recognizing that people cannot and should not travel at this time… the agency (One Twenty Three West) was involved in the creation of ‘Okay, how do we bring this to life in a more emotionally impactful way?'”

And aside from that video, you’re doing social posts? “That’s right. Nature has proven scientifically to be good for your health—it boosts creativity [and] reduces stress. And so this is a subtle nod to that.

“Recognizing that we need mental breaks from everything that we’re going through in quarantine… we’re all yearning for the outdoors. And so giving people these, almost mental breaks, with these moments of nature—whether it’s waterfalls, or the sound of wind, or thousands of salmon swimming by underwater. These are mental breaks and also to continue to inspire B.C. for future travel.”

There’s an argument that in a recession brands need to keep spending to ensure they stay strong in the long-term. Have you discussed that? “We’re basically keeping our gunpowder dry for when recovery starts,” says Lange. The organization has developed a three-phase approach: response, recovery and resilience. They’re still in response mode right now, which is basically crisis management to help spread the word about the importance of staying home, while also getting as much information and support to those businesses hurt by the crisis.

“The second phase is recovery. And so we’re busy working on those plans right now… we’ve got significant domestic campaigns planned for British Columbia, Alberta, and across Canada.

“We’ve created a team that is looking at the signals for when various markets will be ready to receive the next layer of content, like travel planning, when are they thinking about that? And what kind of content is suitable.”

Later will come the resiliency stage, a longer-term strategy to promote “iconic areas and experiences, and things to do in B.C.,” she says. “That’ll come when travel resumes back to its normal levels.”

Why not use the campaign you had ready to go?  “The world will be different post-COVID. We recognize that there will be a shift in values, we recognize that there will be a shift in who will be traveling, who’s comfortable traveling, how travel will happen. And so we’ve been doing some intensive work around what is life like in that post COVID world.”

So you’ve cut spending now but you’ll have budget when it’s time to go into the recovery phase? “That’s right. We’re gearing up for a very significant campaign,” she says. “We know that businesses are going to be suffering, communities are going to be suffering and need revenue to be generated as quickly as possible. So we feel we have a significant role to help British Columbia get back to that—to generating revenue from tourism.”

You’re starting to work on that campaign now? “Furiously working on it. We’re working on it day and night, we’ve got some fantastic people in our organization, some unbelievably creative people working on this at One Twenty Three West and Wasserman [for media] and Noise our digital partners.”

You said you have a team looking for signals. Can you share any of those? It is too soon, she says. But what’s happening in China and South Korea seems positive. “Those are going to be the beginning of those signals. We’re going to see the search behaviours of those people, of those markets in particular. And how might that be applied to help us identify the signals in other markets.”

Is there a chance you may be able to save some of the summer season? “The BC Business Council put together two scenarios, one is based on best case, which is July, and then the worst case is September, October [for domestic travel].”

How are you feeling? What has this been like for you? “It’s unbelievable looking back and thinking about what we were hearing in December and how quickly this unravelled,” she says. “But I’m also extremely optimistic because I know that tourism is such a resilient industry. We’ve had 9/11, we had SARS and H1N1. We’ve had the recession; we’ve had wildfires in British Columbia for two years.

“And I know that the industry has the ability to bounce back off of this, and I know tourism and travel will always be something that people seek out.”

What about your teams? How are they doing? “We’re receiving the very troubling and very saddening emails of people whose businesses are going under. And so that, of course, takes a toll,” she says. But the people who work at Destination BC know they have an important mission to grow tourism again because it has a huge impact on the entire province.

“I know that passion for what we do is what drives our team. And I think people feel personally responsible for how we can help turn this around when the time is right.”

David Brown