In Australia we have just lived through hell. An estimated one billion animals have been killed in one summer. Then the coronavirus came, and most of the world effectively closed its borders. For a wildlife tour operator, this is a disaster.
We’ve been lucky. My business, Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours, had programs in place, cutting-edge ideas from our team, and networks that have helped us respond positively and keep our staff employed through the bushfire crisis. The result of the virus is yet to be seen.
The fires affected our most-loved extended tour destination: East Gippsland. Affected? No, that is too mild. Fires incinerated most of the mega-diverse, UN Biosphere national park estate in Victoria’s eastern corner. Common species, like Superb Lyrebirds, are now being considered for ‘uplisting’ to Endangered.
Just weeks ago I sat with a group of birdwatchers in a creek in Buchan, East Gippsland. Water in the creek had reduced to a few pools, as it does in summer every year now. It was hot, so the big pool we sat by was visited by scores of birds. We sat on boulders and watched as White-naped & Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, Rose Robins, Crested Shrike-tits, Golden Whistlers, Spotted Pardalotes and a Leaden Flycatcher landed in the huge Kanooka trees. Nearby, Gippsland Water Dragons sat on rocks, a Goanna (Lace Monitor) froze on a tree trunk, and a Swamp Wallaby bounced past. It was a moment from a fairy tale. And now its all gone.
As for koalas… The furry famous animal that is the backbone of our social enterprise has been almost paralysed. The heartland of koala habitat – the Great Dividing Range of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – has been torched in the largest, most destructive forest fires the earth has ever seen.
We’ve been lucky only in the sense that we still have a roof over our heads and a livelihood. For now. After coronavirus, we might not even have that.
Here is a hard-earned Dos and Don’ts Guide, before, during and after a disaster. I hope other operators don’t have to go through what we’ve been through. But I fear it is already happening to many, worldwide.
Before the crisis
- Establish yourself as an authority at the pointy end of your industry. In our case, that’s wildlife conservation travel. Write the blogs, do the public information events, talk to the media.
- Develop cutting-edge conservation programs, even if they run rarely with few passengers and cost you a bit. Once or twice a year is adequate – it will be worth the investment when you need to scale up.
- Talk about ideas for the future with your team. Use the hive-mind. Your team might have ideas that wouldn’t occur to you, and they will be better advocates for it when the crisis comes.
- Create and develop your digital platform and learn how to use it yourself. The last thing you need is for your web designer to be on holiday when a disaster strikes. Luckily, I had spent the two years prior to the disaster on search optimisation and regular blogging. It paid off – one of my blogs during the fire crisis received 7000 views. One day we had 1400 users, where our average is 200-300 per day. Our site stats have doubled.
- Think how you would use support – either financial or people-power – if it was offered. If you’ve created your brand well, you will receive a flood of offers of support during a crisis. Donations are harder to manage than you might think – you are best to have a not-for-profit or charity to send donations to. Volunteers need training before they can be useful, and a business/charity that is not prepared rarely reaps the benefits.
- Think: “it won’t happen to me”. It will. Natural disasters are becoming more common, and the tourism industry is often first to feel the impact.
During the crisis
- Communicate with your network often.
- Trade, government & media: let them know you are available for comment.
- Past clients & trade: outline the situation, availability, changes to itineraries. If some of your products are not affected, and have availability to take last-minute bookings tell them – many travellers will have to cancel bookings and will need alternatives.
- Past clients and partners will be worried about the effect on the places and animals they grew to love through you. We emailed our whole database during the crisis, and received dozens of relieved replies, some from people who had not been in touch for years.
- Acknowledge the disaster quickly on your platforms, and continue to talk about it. It is the only issue people are interested in.
- Some useful resources include free tips for communicating during a crisis and Crisis Communication and Recovery for the Tourism Industry
- Publish informative content (eg. blogs, press releases, social media) acknowledging and explaining what the disaster means for your area of expertise. If you have expert knowledge, publish it. If you have suggestions of how to help, publish them. Also write about what your business is doing to address the crisis.
- Be prepared to modify itineraries, both to respond to closures, and to respond to travellers’ need to help.
- Implement or increase your cutting-edge conservation programs. This is no longer optional – this might be survival. The media, trade, government and public need something positive to focus on, and you might be one of few offering new and positive angles. Your country needs you.
- You will be flooded with offers of support. People want to help, and they see you as an authority. Get them doing something – this is where your Before The Crisis planning helps. Examples include: Road Trip For Good, It’s My Shout.
- Our not for profit, Koala Clancy Foundation runs an annual seed-sowing afternoon in early January. We usually have around 20 people show up and we sow about 2000 trees. This year we posted the event and 25 tickets booked out in days. We increased the capacity to 50, it booked out within days. Nearly 2000 people clicked interested. For a month we were receiving emails to go on wait list – with increasing levels of desperation as the fires worsened. Some unsuccessful volunteers were bitterly disappointed, others were angry. We wished we had run another three such events.
- Rush things. It is important to act quickly, but really good projects take time. A great program will benefit you in the long and short term, and will help you maintain pressure after the crisis.
- Think “its too late to do anything now” . It’s never too late. When it comes to climate change, this is not going away.
- Don’t proceed with business-as-usual social media posting. It’s annoying, irrelevant, and could make your organisation appear callous. If you have social media pre-scheduled, pause it.
- Don’t use the disaster as a marketing opportunity. If you’re rushing around desperately grabbing at anything to make your company look good, you’re doing it for the wrong reason.
After the crisis
- Maintain your leadership status by continuing to work on cutting-edge programs. Disasters upset the status quo – new leaders emerge during the crisis, but as soon as its over the old school will try to return to business-as-usual. Don’t let them. We need change in the travel industry. Regularly remind the industry about your new programs, the disaster and what it meant for you, post updates on the recovery.
- Forget. A climate change disaster does not have to be a negative message. Anyway, the billion animals we lost in the summer of 2019-2020 deserves more than our forgetfulness.
In Australia the bushfire crisis has passed for the moment. Rains and cool weather have doused the raging fire monster, and communities are picking up the pieces, academics are collating the reports, advisory committees are being convened (and ignored) by governments. Media attention has bounced onto coronavirus. The travel industry is in shock, facing a future of months without income.
When I wrote this I had no idea that I would have to use this plan again so soon.
I want change. Painful as this year has been, it is a sign that change might come soon. I welcome that.