Marketing a Tourist Destination in a COVID-19 World

Dr. Mark Johnston shares his thoughts on how companies and organizations in the tourist-centric economy of Central Florida will have to adapt, adjust and innovate with the emergence of COVID-19.

It’s no secret that the rapid spread of COVID-19 is causing a major disruption for marketers in virtually every field.

Here in Central Florida – an economy built on tourism—and industry at odds with the concept of social distancing—sweeping unprecedented changes will be happening in our backyards.

Decisions made by major entertainment companies like Disney and Universal on how their operations move forward will undoubtedly cause ripple effects across the entire Central Florida economy.


In a region where we see over 75 million visitors annually, hotels, restaurants, transportation and other entertainment options will all have to adjust their messaging to keep a number even close to that coming back to visit Central Florida.

Dr. Mark Johnston, Alan and Sandra Gerry Professor of Marketing and Ethics, has decades of experience and research in topics such as ethical business strategy, consumer behavior, retailing, advertising and more.

He says in order to make sense of our ‘new normal’ through the lens of marketing, it is easiest to distill it down into what is happening right now, in the medium-term and in the long-term.

Right Now

At the moment, most companies have abandoned their normal marketing/communications campaigns and switched to COVID-19 response messaging while also reducing their overall advertising spending.

“In terms of advertising, similar to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, most companies have shut down their marketing/communications with the exception of messaging centered around COVID-19,” said Dr. Johnston.

For example, in a time where brands want to show their compassionate and philanthropic side, Hotels.com is urging everyone to stay home, restaurants like Olive Garden are promoting their buy-one, take-one to go deal to enjoy at home, and Angel Soft is telling the world they are working overtime to get toilet paper to you and your family.

According to Dr. Johnston, while Florida has started to “open for business” companies and brands are in a buying-time phase right now as they work through strategies to reopen for business within government guidelines.

Here in Central Florida, that buying-time phase is more painful than a lot of other regions that aren’t as reliant on tourism. Many families have already been forced to cancel trips to Orlando and are considering whether to keep reservations booked for late-May, early June and the rest of the summer to the theme parks once school lets out for the kids. Hotels, restaurants and the like will all unfortunately suffer.

The Governor has laid out a plan for reopening Florida and the leaders at the major entertainment parks are making decisions that they have not had to make before.

“There’s the external factor that needs to happen, but since the state has started opening up, theme park marketers are faced with a very significant challenge,” said Dr. Johnston.

“They have dealt with weather events or terrorism, and I am sure theme parks have had concerns about biological threats, but this is the first time they are putting something into action at this magnitude,” said Dr. Johnston.

The Medium Term

Once there is a clearer path to reopening, the companies and brands will shift out of the buying-time phase and into a more actionable phase.

Dr. Johnston says in the medium-term, expect messaging all around safety – and it has to be very clear messaging.

“The theme parks first have to say we are open,” said Dr. Johnston. “Two, they have to say that they are safe, and then they have to say ’we want you to have fun, and here’s how we’re going do that.’”

For an entertainment economy like Central Florida, he says the fun part has to be worked in there very clearly.

“It’s a very fine line,” he said. “You don’t want to sound too onerous. People have to know they can have fun while feeling safe, but they need to know how the company is going to keep them safe.”

Of course, internal communications will be just as critical.

At companies like Disney and Universal, which employ over 100,000 people combined in Central Florida, they will need to have their team feeling safe and on board with the reopening plans. The same goes for any other major company in the region.

“Ultimately, the employees have to feel safe. The employees have to feel like they can go to work, interact with people and feel OK,” said Dr. Johnston.

Future Effects

When envisioning the future in a post-COVID-19 world, Dr. Johnston looks at the consumer trends already happening and sees them accelerating.

“I believe there will be long-term fundamental changes. Changes in work behavior, how people shop, and entertain themselves,” said Dr. Johnston. “These changes were already happening, but this has accelerated that.”

Demographic groups, like senior citizens, that were moving slower in areas like online shopping have sped up due to this pandemic. Grocery delivery, which was already growing, is now making more sense for people, as well as working from home more often.

A society that was already becoming tech-savvy is shifting even more in that direction.

“People have been forced to transition into this lifestyle, and many are saying this is not so bad,” said Dr. Johnston.

For a tourist-centric economy, marketers will have to take this shift into account.

Dr. Johnston says there will be companies unable to navigate this shift and fail; however, there will also be new opportunities created.

“This is an event that can radically shift consumer behavior,” he said. “Entrepreneurs and innovators will find, adapt, and adjust, and we will see, in one sense, our ‘new normal’.”