“How you conduct yourself during a crisis leaves a lasting impression.” 

Sarah Prud’homme, Senior Strategic Consultant at Destination Think

The symbolic actions you take during a crisis will shape how people perceive your destination. Sometimes destination marketing organizations (DMOs) have been at the helm as, in many places, COVID-19 motivates citizens to come together to mitigate some of the pandemic’s worst effects. You may remember this from Virtual Forum, where we discussed how to lead your destination’s tourism industry and the tangible steps you can take to support your community. 

When locals adopt specific behaviours that galvanize civic pride, they are carrying out symbolic actions. These actions bring joy and levity into an impossible situation and reveal your place’s true identity. There are countless examples of symbolic actions during the COVID-19 pandemic: nightly applause for healthcare workers in Vancouver, Italians in lockdown in playing music on their balconies, chalk drawings etched on sidewalks or window scavenger hunts for kids. “What these [actions] really stand for is hope, resilience and unity, and this is eliciting strong psychological benefits for communities,” says Sarah. 

Stay true to your destination’s identity 

Symbolic behaviours will communicate what your destination is made of, but the most meaningful tactics are rooted in your place’s DNA. For example, Ireland in the 1960s decided to embrace its creative identity. The nation could have easily communicated this through common advertising practices: purchasing billboards in airports or full-page ads in travel magazines that showcased themselves as an island for artists. Instead, they harnessed this notion by updating fiscal policies to provide tax breaks to artists who meet certain criteria, a move that solidified their commitment to the arts and expression.  

Embrace the combination of all these elements that give your destination its unique footprint.
Embrace the combination of all these elements that give your destination its unique footprint.

Standing out in a saturated media environment

As tourism boards prepare campaigns to welcome back visitors, there is a risk of overcrowding the media landscape with repetitive messages about reopening and togetherness. “Everybody in the industry will play the same game,” says Senior Strategist Frank Cuypers. He cautions that “there is always a huge risk of overpromising after a crisis, and as a consequence, under-delivering.” Standing out during the restart phase will involve going beyond commonly-used refrains, and taking symbolic actions to demonstrate the truth of your place. 

For example, when the island of Lesvos in Greece provided refuge to thousands of people coming by sea from Turkey in 2015, tourism dropped by 90%. There was a specific story of Lesvos emerging in the media: an island in crisis, strewn with life jackets, tents and rubbish – and local industry was suffering as a consequence. The solution? A year later, residents and visitors took to social media to show the authentic island experience, posting positive messages and photos that showed the island was safe and ready for travel. 

The benefits of symbolic actions during periods of uncertainty are two-fold: for one, they solidify your destination’s identity by communicating the authentic spirit of your place and what your locals stand for. Symbolic actions also develop a sense of belonging for locals, mobilizing them to support their neighbours and contribute to the rebuilding process. 

Get the support your DMO needs during uncertain times

You’re not in this alone. Join our COVID-19 support network to access tools, insights, and expertise from our international team. 

Feature image credit: Manuel Peris Tirado, via Unsplash 

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