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Crisis Management in Tourism – When Tragedy Strikes

22nd January 2020 – Contributors: Briony Morgan, Senior Manager and Jessica Petersen, Manager.

The tourism industry has experienced exponential increase in global travel in recent decades, but with this comes new challenges. Organisations conducting travel, such as travel companies, schools or universities, are facing growing pressures to efficiently manage natural disasters or man-made catastrophes around the globe.

Last year was no exception, with several events creating enormous challenges in crisis management for the industry, their staff, the local population and the travelling public.

Human intervention caused traveller chaos in many popular destinations including:

  • Civil unrest in Paris
  • Protest activity in Hong Kong
  • The Christchurch mosque shootings
  • Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka
  • London Bridge stabbing attack


Meanwhile mother nature didn’t make it any easier:

  • The ongoing eruptions of Mt Agung on Bali and Mt Sinabung on Sumatra
  • The Mt White eruption in New Zealand
  • One of the deadliest climbing seasons on Mt Everest
  • The typhoon in Japan that cancelled Rugby World Cup matches
  • Hurricane Barry on the Gulf Coast of USA
  • Hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas

And of course, domestically Australia faced the worst bushfire season on record.

These events in popular destinations are a sobering reminder of how a happy holiday, or group tour, can quickly and unexpectedly turn into a tragic nightmare.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

With every incident that occurs, the question is raised as to how this will impact the travel industry.

“Such events can turn people away from a particular area. They also place greater crisis response expectations on travel companies, tour operators, or even school and university groups,” says Briony Morgan, Senior Manager of RiskLogic’s Resilience Services. “It’s imperative that organisations are properly prepared for a worst-case scenario.”

As well as completing a risk assessment, companies need to invest time, money and resources into developing a comprehensive crisis management plan. At a minimum, the plan should include:

  • Assessment and decision-making tools
  • Communications plan including stakeholder map, key messages for various scenarios, roles and responsibilities, agreed approval processes and checklists to ensure all channels and tactics are considered.
  • Resources available
  • Escalation and notification processes.

“A crisis management plan that sits on a shelf gathering dust is next to useless,” says Jessica Petersen – Manager, Resilience Services at RiskLogic. “The crisis management plan has to be practical. Staff must be trained and rehearsed using scenario exercises so that everyone in the organisation is confident and capable of executing the plan if an incident strikes. A generic plan won’t suit every organisation as it needs to be tailored. It must clearly define duty of care as well as identify responsibilities from on-the-ground tour leaders right through to the strategic and executive teams making decisions on behalf of the organisation.”

Communication is a critical component

Not receiving accurate and timely information in a crisis creates anxiety and frustration for those involved in the disaster and their loved ones who are desperate for news.

Although social media has the potential to spread news quickly, there can be limitations around accuracy, including the potential for uncorrected misinformation to morph into myths that are believed to be fact.

Emergency services and government authorities such as Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) may also have limitations as to what information they can or can’t confirm in a crisis, particularly if the next of kin have not yet been informed.

“In the absence of information, people always assume the worst,” confirms Briony Morgan . “A slow or poor communications response has the potential to exacerbate the negative impact to stakeholders. Media and armchair experts can start criticising the company for mismanaging the situation, adding fuel to the fire.”

“Tour and travel companies need a comprehensive Crisis Communications Plan to ensure they can reach all their stakeholders quickly and accurately.”

A ‘hub and spoke’ model of communication is very effective in a crisis, where you place all your public information in the hub. Your website is often the best hub, but Twitter can also be used as your ‘single source of truth’ to communicate a rapidly changing issue. You then use your spokes, which are all your available communication channels (owned, earned and paid), to deliver your message to the wide circle of stakeholders around you.

Global travel will continue to rise

People have been roaming the planet for centuries whether on pilgrimages, to experience different cultures or see new sights. Despite the increasing risks from a number of natural and man-made events, many people will continue to seek adventure and new experiences. To help protect people when disaster does strike, travel companies must be prepared with a robust crisis management plan, the latest tools and a well-rehearsed team that can effectively manage any critical incident.

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