Hotel marketing must focus less on the hard facts of Covid-19 policies and more on the emotional story behind them, if they are to encourage tourists to return after the pandemic, according to a new study.

The findings show that crisis communication that emphasises shared emotional responses to risks enables tourists to ‘humanise’ the hotel brand, creating an emotional attachment and increasing their intention to book up once the crisis ends.

Most research on the impact of crisis communication in a sustained global crisis has focused on the recovery period: this study provides unique real-time insights for the tourism sector.

Researchers from the Universities of Bath, East Anglia (UEA), and the University of the West of England (UWE) say their findings challenge the approach that dominates many hotels’ current Covid-19 communication, which is to focus on commitment to cleanliness and the hotel’s cancellation policy.

Hotel groups such as Four Seasons and Hilton all emphasise their commitment to cleanliness to reduce tourist’s perceptions of the risk to health. The researchers argue that this approach ignores the all-important emotional response to risk, focusing only on the cognitive, or rational, aspects of risk perceptions.

“During Covid-19, fear and anxiety are the most common emotions among both tourists and the hotel sector. Tourists experience fear and anxiety towards the health risks of Covid-19, while the hotel sector feels fear and anxiety about the uncertainty it faces,” Dr Haiming Hang from the University of Bath’s School of Management, said.

“In practical terms, hotels should highlight that their commitment to cleanliness is fuelled by the same fears that tourists experience: hotel employees and their families face the same risks to coronavirus as they do. They can also talk about the anxiety and worry of the impact of the pandemic on bookings and an uncertain future.”

Dr Lukman Aroean, of UEA’s Norwich Business School, added: “Understandably hotels wish to reassure customers about the practical precautions they are taking. However, we argue that crisis communication focusing on shared emotions during the current coronavirus pandemic is very important, as it can establish emotional attachment with tourists better than rational statements can. This can be crucial for tourism recovery, because emotional attachment can increase tourists’ intentions to visit when the outbreak ends.”

Published in the Annals of Tourism Research the study, entitled Building emotional attachment during covid-19, was based on 405 American participants whose travel plans were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The researchers collected details about their plans (purpose and destination), and perceived severity, susceptibility and emotions (fear, anxiety, worry, unease) towards the coronavirus pandemic.

Participants were then randomly allocated to one of the three experimental conditions. In all conditions they were exposed to the same experimental stimulus: a fictitious middle-market international hotel chain.

Participants in the control group were not exposed to any crisis communication message. In the other two groups, the hotel’s crisis communication focused on the same areas: commitment to cleanliness and cancellation policy, but they differed on why the hotel wanted to do this.

In the cognitive (rational) group, consistent with many hotels’ current response, the crisis communication explained the hotel’s commitment to cleanliness was to reduce health risk.

In the shared emotions group the crisis communication explained the emotional drive behind the commitment to cleanliness, around protecting the health of staff and their families, as well as tourists. It also highlighted the anxiety for the hotel caused by the uncertainty of the impact of the pandemic on the hotel’s future.