Long read: VFS Global's Sukanya Chakraborty shared her experience on communicating with the evolving, post-COVID traveller

As an industry that depends on people coming together and exploring the unknown, staying at unfamiliar destinations, discovering exotic new places - it wasn’t a surprise that the travel sector bore a significant brunt of the pandemic.

Though expected, the blow to the industry was one of unprecedented proportions and impacted everyone down the travel and hospitality value chain, across the globe. 

As the travel eco-system grappled with the drastic changes, slowdowns and even shutdowns in business operations, they had to simultaneously deal with establishing strong communication channels with all their stakeholders. 

Even as the sector came to a standstill - it became even more important to keep consumers, employees, partners, investors, and other stakeholders apprised of all developments. This, however, needed to be done in a way that was both transparent and reassuring- the kind that could help reinstate the faith to #travelagain.

This decisive time for companies pushed many of them to rethink their communication strategies through a layer of healthcare and safety for all involved, and Empathy-Engage-Educate became our communication approach.

For most companies, the first step has been keeping customers apprised of the latest developments - ensuring they remain connected to the brand and feel reassured. Likewise, for VFS Global, the first step of communication was to inform and educate customers about the suspension or resuming of visa services, and how operations would progress during the COVID-19 induced lockdown.

Given VFS Global’s network across 144 countries and serving 64 governments, this in itself is no mean task, given the speed at which information was required to be communicated for each of those governments in various countries of operation.

From a specially set-up dedicated advisory page on the corporate website to important updates proactively shared on social media pages to a strong follower base of 200,000, VFS Global leveraged all its channels to ensure customers were kept aware of our operations every step of the way, while using its blog page and social media again, to share upbeat content on the future of travel and safety measures in place.

Informing and supporting through communication 

At VFS Global, we owned a two-pronged approach - sensitizing (focusing on information sharing and fact clarifications) and upholding optimism (reassuring travellers on how the industry is gearing up to help them have a safe journey).

The former was driven by consistent rounds of information sharing with the media community across all the key markets, in multiple languages. Right from educating them on the resumption of VFS Global’s operations, to destination government related updates and the measures that we were taking as a responsible travel enabler, we ensured all those who reached our customers (visa applicants) had all the information right.

This unswerving effort that began right from the day travel saw a stop, was also a strong reassurance to our client governments and partners as they looked to mitigate uncertainty. Through co-created information channels, we are now reaching our curious audiences with conversations that engage with the travel aficionados inside them, while keeping them abreast.

Uphold hope in safe travel 

As crucial as it was to keep the community sensitized, it was also imperative to uphold the hope in travel. Given the general anxiety and apprehension among consumers regarding travel - we shifted our brand communications to focus on the promising future of travel, how healthcare and technology will now see a stronger integration with travel, and how travellers will have something to look forward to at the end of this long tunnel. Beyond just delivering trends and next-gen technology talks, VFS Global took all the visa-related questions head-on through an education effort through FAQ-response format for easy understanding. This answered all visa related doubts and assured people the safety of their documents.

On the strength of innovative, optional services, VFS Global was furthermore able to cater to asks and needs that allowed people to apply for visas and COVID testing from the comfort of their homes. Continued outreach on this also helped travellers make informed travel planning decisions that were safer and hassle-free. We continue to engage with both, our client and customers, to address all concerns and questions around visas, while making certain that their hope in travel prevails.

Keeping the employees informed

Not only client governments and customers, we also kept our employees abreast and communicated with them on a timely basis on any update or advisory pertaining to the spread, prevention, guidelines on COVID-19, change in organisational structure and staffing needs. All employees had to undergo a mandatory module on COVID-19 awareness. We also introduced an easy-reference employee handbook for a safe restart, with all the guidelines, information, and protocols to help employees in transitioning back into their workplace in a safe, smooth, and efficient manner.

Like our other communication channels, we utilised our key social media handles of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to communicate with our customers efficiently and promptly. By reorienting messaging to ensure greater sensitivity and relevance, we provided verified facts and updates on new solutions, alternate arrangements, services, and offers. We reinforced informative and educational messages around resilience, future readiness, and efficiency and reassured our customers on their safety and hygiene through physical evidence of process improvements and safety standards at our visa application centres (VAC).

Communications were also focused around guidance and sensitising customers on how and what they need to prepare before visiting the VAC for a visa application using an empathetic tone and addressed the common queries most of them had shared on the process through our digital touchpoints. On the other hand it was sometimes concerning to see some external pressures to open businesses at the risk of health and safety and other people’s lives. This part of the society had to be educated on and on about facts why and when business resume or not. And some would still not listen.

Leveraging VFS Global’s expertise and experience in the online domain, Facebook live sessions were also hosted, addressing current topics such as data privacy, phishing, and digital learning, in addition to press coverage on the technology that is now gaining traction, focused on Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, etc.

Growing social  media presence 

Responsible travel and fraud awareness were among the other topics VFS Global addressed as a leader in the space. User-generated content by encouraging followers and employees to contribute ensured greater engagement during the lockdown period through multiple themes. The end result was a strong and exponential growth in our follower base on social media platforms during this period considering the extensive operations updates shared around 64 of our client governments across the world which reinforced our platforms as a credible and leading information source for travel and visa related news in the digital space.

Last but not least, with the travel trade still being an important partner for VFS Global in most countries, the organisation maintained a constant line of communication with trade partners, sending out periodical mailers updating them on the local operations, safety measures at the centres, and information on any changes in the visa application process for each client destination country.

Undoubtedly, in these trying times, establishing and maintaining a strong rapport with customers will be paramount. This is an opportunity for brands to remodel their communication strategies to make it more empathetic and less transactional.

Even though travel hasn’t resumed completely yet, the industry, and VFS Global, by extension, is using this time to adapt to evolving consumer preferences and reboot itself into a more flexible and customizable space for them.

As we come out at the other end of this long road, those who managed to build a loyal customer base on the sheer strength of their communications will emerge as a stronger voice in the marketplace.

Sukanya Chakraborty, Head – Corporate Communications & CSR, VFS Global

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