How can hotels prepare for impacts like Zika?
When a disease makes as big an impact as the Zika virus did, you can bet it will affect vacationers’ travel plans. In 2016, there were 1,115 cases reported in Florida. The disease also flourished throughout the American South, in Puerto Rico, and in the Caribbean. At its peak, vacationers who typically headed to Florida sought safer destinations: California, Hawaii, Bermuda, and other locations that didn’t get hit. Hotels in areas affected by Zika lost out. Hotels in unaffected destinations saw more visitors than the norm.
So far this year, just over a dozen cases have been reported in Florida. Despite the dramatic decrease, the destinations that vacationers chose last year may have gained lasting traction. Zika is also certainly not the last disease—mosquito-borne or otherwise—that will affect travelers’ plans. The question is: what exactly were Zika’s effects on travel, and how can a hotel prepare for the impact of a disease like the Zika virus?
Cancellations and Changed Plans
First, a disease scare always presents a major concern for hotels. Travelers canceled longstanding plans in light of the Zika virus. In particular, honeymooners and potential mothers avoided areas affected by Zika, as the virus can cause severe birth defects. In rare cases, the disease can cause death: a reason for any traveler to consider canceling even a highly anticipated vacation. As a result, hotels in the affected areas saw far less bookings than in a typical year. In Puerto Rico, during the peak of the Zika virus, the average hotel occupancy rate dropped to 67 percent. Some hotels lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.
Travelers avoiding Florida and the Caribbean instead flocked to locations such as Bermuda or southern California—places that boasted sunny beaches without the threat of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Las Vegas, Arizona, and other areas also saw an increase. In general, the Zika virus widened the range of locations that travelers considered. It’s unclear whether many will return to the vacation spots they visited in 2016, but it’s not unlikely. This would create a more competitive market overall for vacation destinations.
Today, hotels in the areas that were affected by the Zika virus are going on the offensive. Aggressive marketing is one way to try and make up for the blemish that Zika placed on certain locations. There are other challenges, too. Beyond travelers exploring new vacation destinations, there are simply more hotels being built in areas that rely on the tourism industry. That means more options for travelers—and tougher work for a hotel to do, convincing travelers that it’s not only the best location, but also the best hotel in that location.
Even while the hype about Zika has died down, mosquito-borne illnesses remain a concern in many popular vacation destinations. A hotel can’t change that fact, but it can educate potential guests. During the Zika scare, hotels, airports and travel companies took it upon themselves to keep their clientele informed and aware. By educating the public about how to stay safe, some hotels may have retained bookings that otherwise would have been lost. Since it was a matter of safety, most travel companies didn’t think twice about issuing refunds.
The Zika virus and its aftereffects provided a wealth of information about the response to a crisis. First, an outbreak of disease will affect bookings—but not in as straightforward a fashion as one might think. Certain demographics may avoid a destination, such as pregnant women traveling during the Zika scare. Other demographics—for instance, international travelers who weren’t exposed to domestic media hype—might be less deterred from changing their vacation plans. A person’s overall risk of contracting the disease, media coverage, hotel rates, how well educated someone is about a disease, and countless other factors will influence whether a traveler decides to choose a new destination or stick to their plans.
Another takeaway from the Zika scare is that the popularity of vacation destinations is a constantly shifting landscape. There are relatively constant factors: times at which more people travel, what they’re willing to pay, and what type of experience they are seeking. But the unexpected is a constant, too. The introduction of one new variable such as Zika introduces a host of new variables alongside it. Media coverage differs across regions, certain demographics have more to lose than others, etc.
Luckily, there are ways for hotels to prepare for the unexpected. Educating travelers is one such approach. In locations where mosquito-borne illnesses are a problem, informing travelers about how to avoid getting bit might influence them to keep their travel plans, despite an outbreak. The goal isn’t to convince travelers to place themselves in danger. For instance, the CDC recommends that women in any stage of pregnancy avoid traveling to areas where Zika is a risk. Instead, vacationers should make an informed decision based on personal risk—not on media sensationalism.
Hotels can also subscribe to data based prediction platforms that monitor and analyze a combination of variables, like Neirbi Hotel Solutions, to help get ahead of impacts, such as Zika, and be proactive about mitigating the risk or optimizing the opportunity.
Overall, the biggest threat to hotels that base their profits on the tourism industry isn’t a disease like Zika. Instead, it’s the competition. With more and more hotels cropping up every day in Florida, the Caribbean, and other highly coveted spots, their proprietors have more to keep their eye on than a disease that’s here one year, then gone the next in a blitz of media sensationalism.