When disaster strikes a destination, one of the major casualties is often the image of the area in the eyes of national media viewers for years to come. Whether it is hurricane, earthquake, volcano or fire, the pictures of devastation are everywhere—but that negative news could have an upside.
As an owner of a corporate destination management franchise in New Orleans, I saw the reality of ground zero as I worked to rebuild my business after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But as I regained footing, I watched a different story unfolded on the news and I learned some important lessons.
Welcome Empathy Tourism
In the years post-Katrina, areas in recovery mode were still being featured in ongoing, relentless press coverage, even though they were out of the path of typical visitors. I was surprised to find that this “bad press” is not necessarily a bad thing. People are naturally curious and may accept your request for appointments simply because they know what you’ve been through. Use this to your advantage.
Other players in the hospitality industry were also working hard to shift the narrative from one of devastation to one of renewal. Hotels, destination management companies, tourism-dependent restaurants and New Orleans & Company issued press releases, contributed articles and leveraged every conceivable marketing channels to tell the story of a reborn city. It didn’t matter who got the business, as long as we got business to New Orleans. In the long run, we knew that would lead to more business overall, and everyone would eventually get their share. To some extent, that feeling carries on to this day and I think we are all better for it.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. I will attest that it also takes a village to uplift an industry after natural disaster. I am proud of my colleagues in the hospitality industry—even my otherwise competitors—who remain committed to rebuilding and sustaining the jewel that is our beloved city. New Orleans is our city, but the hospitality industry is my village.
Go Tell the Story
Of course, as anyone in the hospitality industry knows, at no point were we able to coast. We still had to be out in front of potential customers, meeting them face-to-face. Often, companies facing difficult financial times cut back on travel, as they somehow view it as a discretionary expense. The reality is quite the opposite. We chose to meet potential clients at trade shows or at their office. We saw this as an investment in building a lasting relationship. The alternative may save you money in the short-term, but in the long-term, you’ll likely have fewer sales, and less money to spend on sales activities. So, even though we had very little available cash, I was on the road visiting potential customers.
I hope that no disaster ever befalls your own city, but if it does, my advice is to seek out your village. They’re the ones who are working hard, not waiting for a path to be cleared for them, taking every difficult boulder and finding a better place to put it. Join them and you’ll find that the path just gets smoother and better for everyone.
Jeff O’Hara, author of Have Fun, Fight Back and Keep the Party Going: Lessons from a New Orleans Entrepreneur’s Journey to the Inc. 5000 (Greenleaf, 2018), is president of PRA New Orleans, a business event management firm creating unique experiences for corporate groups. Formerly an angel investor, Jeff has backed several startups in the fields of technology, biotech, consumer staples and alternative energy. Jeff currently serves on the Board of Directors of Society of Hosts at Florida State University, which named him Alumnus of the Year in 2004. He received a BS in Hospitality Administration from Florida State University and an MBA from Tulane University.