Boston Strong: Travel Marketers, Not So Much

At 2:50 p.m. on Monday, April 15, the first bomb exploded at the Boston Marathon, just two short blocks from my Boylston Street office.

Our city was instantly plunged into a situation filled with tragedy, anger, confusion and sadness, and we became the latest destination to be jolted by the misguided acts of others.

As everyone’s attention shifted to the horror that was unfolding, it was startling to experience how marketers continued to sell to me, despite the crisis that engulfed me and my city.

Mixed in with the immediate avalanche of emails I got from family, friends and colleagues wanting to insure that my staff and I were safe and unharmed were numerous marketing messages that couldn’t have shown less concern.

Just two hours after the explosion, Delta decided it was a good time to send an email alerting me that I could add 40,000 bonus miles if I signed up for their Gold SkyMiles Credit Card.



Less than three hours after the bombing, a resort in Colorado, where I had once stayed, decided it was the ideal opportunity to email and ask that I stuff the ballot box by voting for them in the Condé Nast Reader’s Choice Awards. A request that even in the best of times feels a bit like cheating.

That same night, just eight hours into the tragedy, Fairmont Hotels wanted me to know that “The Early Bird Catches the Worm.” Its email featured the smiling, happy face of a young child (in stark contrast to the devastating news that one of the bombs’ early victims was an 8-year old) and invited me to enjoy up to 25% off or a free night if I took advantage of their special summer offerings.

Of course, this complete lack of awareness wasn’t reserved for just travel advertisers. Five hours after the bombing, Amazon thought I might like to shift my attention from that day’s horror and rate my experience buying some items that now seemed even more trivial and meaningless in the wake of what we were experiencing.

All of us in Boston were reeling from what had transpired, yet many marketers appeared oblivious -- a pattern that didn’t improve as the ensuing days turned into more tragedy, culminating with a complete lockdown of the city as authorities pursued and captured the suspects.

Throughout this ordeal, the emails came. One after another. All ignoring the extraordinary crisis and marketing to me as if it was just another ordinary day.

It was disappointing to see how incredibly impersonal and unsophisticated marketing remains, despite the abundance of technology and the hordes of data that should make personalization and relevance the norm. All of these brands had my home address in downtown Boston or my office address on Boylston Street, but it mattered little. 

Although I am a repeat customer of all these brands, the truth is that I’m just another record in their massive database. And not a well-managed database, at that.

In the midst of the crisis, the only brand that I regularly do business with that seemed to grasp the enormity and importance of what was transpiring was JetBlue. In a simply worded email, sent Monday night less than six hours after the bombing, JetBlue wanted me to know, “Our thoughts and hearts are with all of our customers and crew members in the Boston area, especially those who have family or friends affected by today’s events. Our No. 1 concern is your safety, and we are waiving any change fees for travel. If you are planning to travel please check for the latest information.”

With one simple gesture, JetBlue signaled that they know me. It had some empathy and concern for what all of us in Boston were going through. Just as important, it was prepared to stand by us and immediately assist in a way that was important as we all struggled to get our lives and city back to “normal.”

Nothing can ever fully prepare you for this kind of tragedy—but you must have some kind of crisis communications plan in place to deal with the impact it has, not only on your business, but on the lives of your customers. Here are some initial things to consider—and I encourage others to post their experience and advice as well:

  • Be aware of all the impacted areas—make sure your plan can be instantly triggered so you’re not sending insensitive marketing messages to those who live in the affected geographies. In many instances, it might make sense to simply not send the email or message to anyone as the mood and attention of the public, regardless of where they live, may well be focused on more important things.

  • Be ready to provide help and support. If guests are in impacted markets, traveling to those markets or otherwise need help, be prepared to offer understanding and assistance. Waiving cancellation and change fees is certainly one way to acknowledge that what’s happening is impacting people’s lives and therefore may impact their travels.

  • Be human in your communication. Show you care about your guests as people and not just customers.

  • Consider what you are communicating across all channels. Posts on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and others can come across as equally insensitive and need to be monitored and managed with care during any crisis.

Boston Strong has become a rallying cry for our city, and we’re proud of the incredible way everyone here has pulled together.

Unfortunately, there will be other tragedies that we’ll all need to deal with—both natural and man-made—and the need will always be there for our country, our cities and our citizens to be fully prepared to prevent and deal with the inevitable crisis. 

So, too, must your marketing.

4 comments about "Boston Strong: Travel Marketers, Not So Much".
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  1. Henry Harteveldt from Atmosphere Research Group, May 6, 2013 at 10:31 a.m.

    A well-written column, Gary, with some important advice. Your comments highlight the importance "little data" and, well, just plain old common sense.

    The example you cite of JetBlue is a fine one; the airline handled its communications with grace and dignity. Hotels with properties in a city affected by tragedy -- such as Fairmont, whose historic Boston hotel is located in Copley Place, close to where the bombings occurred -- must also be sensitive, since guests or families of guests may be concerned about safety and seeking information.

  2. Gary Leopold from CP Travel - Connelly Partners, May 6, 2013 at 11:06 a.m.

    Thanks Henry. As you point out, an essential consideration for hotel companies confronted by a crisis is to quickly coordinate between the corporate office and the individual properties, so that all communications can be properly aligned and working in tandem, so there is no disconnect within the brand. As the individual property -- like the Fairmont Copley -- is reaching out to impacted guests, the last thing it needs is for a generic marketing message from the corporate office to hit those same people.

  3. Steven Morris from MORRIS, May 6, 2013 at 12:08 p.m.

    Well said, Gary. As the rest of the nation had it's eyes on Boston over the last couple of weeks, it's surprising how many marketers seem somewhat insensitive to the pulse of the country. The "always on" marketing of today must pay close attention and act accordingly to these real life situations. All the best - Steve M.

  4. Juliette Cowall from Godwin Plumbing & Hardware, May 7, 2013 at 7:58 a.m.

    My heart goes out to everyone affected. And we'll never know who the marketers are who "got it right" by suspending their campaigns - either to Boston recipients or to a larger audience.

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