How Soon is “Too Soon?”

How soon is “too soon” for promoting tourism after a terror event? Three weeks seems to be the norm.

While it may feel unseemly to talk of commerce in the wake of a murderous event, the question bears asking. For one, tourism drives the economies of many cities, meaning that people depend on it to make a living. For another, terror attacks show no sign of stopping.

Sadly, it pays to be prepared.  I would argue that a tourism-dependent business not thinking about this issue would be like an citrus grower not having a contingency for frost.

Times Square, Veteran’s Day 2014

This week’s cowardly attacks about five miles from my home and hard by my nephew’s high school (he graduated in 2016) prompted an article in the New York Times about how terror attacks have affected New York.

However, I also happen to have my own experience with this grim calculus.

On a recent assignment for a client who conducts large-scale event marketing, I had to ask–and answer–the “how soon?” question. The client had planned an event in a large U.S. city that they would promote in email and other digital channels.  It’s telling that I can maintain client anonymity due to the prevalence of terror activity.  So, while police combed the crime scene, I felt a duty to advise the client on the go/no-go decision.

In the absence of a social listening tool to measure consumer sentiment,  I used Google Trends.  If you’re unfamiliar, Google Trends tracks the popularity of a search term according to an index where 100 is the high water mark.  Researchers can filter results by location down to the city, by time and by other factors.

Specifically, I looked at search trends for terms that included “[city name] travel” and “what to do in [city name] this weekend” for several large worldwide cities over the past several years, before and after terror attacks.  I found some interesting things:

  1. Travel interest drops after an attack but returns to seasonal normal after about three weeks on the outside.  While the number of terror attacks hasn’t reached a robust sample size, I feel confident saying that the length of time before returning to normal roughly reflects the severity of the attack.  Interest in London travel rebounded more quickly after the Westminster and London Bridge attacks than interest in Paris travel after the Bataclan attacks.  As the kids say, YMMV.
  2. Counter-intuitively, interest in travel searches increases during and immediately after the attack.  I suspect the spike comes from people en route or about to travel who want to change plans or simply determine prosaic details such as whether the airport remains open.  I would call this more of a “huh” than a marketing opportunity, of course.
  3. Locals rebound faster.  Again, sample sizes preclude me from making broad promises, but weekend-related search terms get back up to normal within a week or so.  Speaking as a jaded New Yorker, I suspect that after the initial shock wears off, people still gotta get out of the house.

In the end, I recommended that the client go ahead with the promotion as the earliest mail date would come a month after the attack.  Without a doubt, I’ve never made a sobering recommendation.

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