As the meetings and events industry continues its recovery from the economic slump of the last two years, CVBs around the country have shown not only resilience in the face of adversity, but actually CVBs have determinedly led the way in overall recovery efforts.
To put matters into perspective, consider the impact that the loss of tourism dollars had on local communities from those who witnessed the devastation firsthand. “Economically speaking, the COVID-19 impact was nine times worse than 9/11,” says Craig Davis, president & CEO of Visit Dallas. “Unlike an economic slowdown, the sudden and steep drop in travel due to the COVID-19 was a natural disaster that essentially shutdown the entire travel economy. We saw what Dallas looks like without tourism and meetings, and it’s devastating.” In terms of numbers, Davis adds, “In the first year of the pandemic, Visit Dallas recorded a loss of more than 550 group bookings, resulting in almost a billion dollars in lost economic impact.”
No state, county or city was spared the devastation. “The COVID-19 pandemic was as devastating to Columbus’ hospitality industry as it was for destinations around the U.S. and the world,” says Dan Williams, chief sales officer for Experience Columbus, reminding industry insiders that “Meetings and conventions halted for a period, and many businesses had to temporarily close or adjust their business model to survive.”
Jeff Hewitt, executive vice president of sales & services for Visit Savannah, shares his city’s experience: “Similarly to all businesses everywhere, the impact on travel-related commerce has been incredibly challenging during the pandemic,” Hewitt says, citing that, for Visit Savannah, “Business declined 20% in the 2019-20 period.”
Once the abrupt disruption to tourism began to settle in, CVBs wasted no time addressing two immediate concerns: helping local businesses survive, and in some cases, even thrive; and addressing the concerns for health and sanitation standards that would enable a safe return to live business meetings. For the Dallas hospitality community, this meant “earning Global Biorisk Advisory Council STAR accreditation,” Davis says. Additionally, “We were recently named a Diamond Destination. This designation is accomplished by a widespread adoption of the GBAC STAR Facility and Service Provider Accreditations within our community’s key infrastructure and attractions.”
Visit Savannah moved forward by being flexible, but responsible, Hewitt says. “We worked diligently to address customers’ primary needs and found innovative solutions to continue to host meetings in a safe manner.” So, too, did Visit Detroit, which “helped lead the Safe Meetings in Michigan report and action plan, working with our small- and large-scale partners to ensure that meeting, convention, restaurant and attraction sites were ready to host people safely,” says Chris Moyer, senior director of communications for Visit Detroit. “Event properties in the region quickly retrofitted air filters, redesigned spaces for more spacing and airflow, and enhanced personal protective equipment for workers and attendees alike.”
Williams relates the upside of the last two years: “Throughout the pandemic, we saw our community come together in truly inspirational and creative ways, from distilleries and retailers pivoting their business models to produce vital PPE and hand sanitizer early on, to attractions creating virtual and take-home experiences,” Williams says. “At Experience Columbus, we shifted our focus from overnight visitors to residents and day-trippers, and put an emphasis on health and safety.”
In citing examples of the CVB’s new approach, Williams says: “We created the Live Forward Pledge, committed to by many businesses, restaurants and attractions, to assure residents and potential visitors that it was safe to patronize their locations.” And, like Visit Dallas, “many of our largest visitor touchpoints pursued third-party validation through GBAC STAR Accreditation. The community came together to get through the crisis.” Beyond implementing comprehensive health and safety protocols to offer assurance to event organizers and meeting attendees, “During this time, we also debuted a new website and new Columbus Gift Guide for the holidays [featuring local products and experiences from businesses in our vibrant communities and neighborhoods],” Williams says.
In Fort Myers – Islands, Beaches and Neighborhoods, the area south of Tampa on Florida’s southwest coast abutting the Gulf of Mexico, officials are seeing a much-welcomed resurgence in meetings. Direct visitor spending generated more than $3.7 billion in 2021, up 41.7% from 2020. Also, visitors generated nearly 6.4 million room nights in 2021, up 44.9% over 2020.
The area is home to an array of islands, as well as the cities of Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Bonita Springs. Here, meeting planners will find more than 13,000 hotel rooms, ranging from limited-service to full-service resort properties, 290,000 total sf of meeting space and 50 miles of white-sand beaches. There are also spectacular natural attractions, as well as historical and cultural gems that provide unique entertainment options for meeting attendees. For example, when it’s time to take a break from meetings, attendees can experience guided wildlife, sunset and shelling eco-tours, or explore the more than 90 golf courses dotting the region.
A top-to-bottom conversion of the former Hotel Indigo is underway, as it is transformed into the Banyan Hotel Fort Myers, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, featuring new meeting and event options located a mere two blocks from the Caloosa Sound Convention Center & Amphitheater. For an interesting meeting and event space, the new Topgolf in Fort Myers features 70 climate-controlled hitting bays, full-service restaurant and bars, 200 HDTVs, rooftop terrace, meeting rooms and private event space.
The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau has implemented the Meetings Incentive Grant Program to generate a positive economic impact for the destination post-COVID through increased occupancy with small to mid-sized group meeting business. The offer does not apply to existing contracts, meetings moved/rebooked due to cancellation, or to social groups such as weddings, reunions, or other social events, sporting events or group tours. To qualify for the grant, the group must book a minimum of 10 rooms on peak night and a minimum of 50 total room nights. For more information, visit visitfortmyers.com, select Meetings, then Meeting Incentive Offers.
The Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department (OTRD) cited their focus on local travel as well when the pandemic first hit, says Rylie Mansuetti, research & communications specialist for OTRD. “We launched our #OKHereWeGO campaign that encouraged Oklahomans to travel, shop, dine, cruise, stay and play local as they start to venture out. Billboards went up around the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas featuring the #OKHereWeGO hashtag.” Mansuetti continues, “Television spots highlighting Oklahoma museums, restaurants, shops and other popular tourism businesses aired in the Oklahoma City, Lawton, Sherman/Ada and Tulsa markets. Then, as time went on, we moved on to cautiously encouraging folks to travel as they felt safe doing so.”
Currently, Mansuetti notes that “Our #OKHereWeGO campaign has moved into a phase we’re calling TravelOK Your Way, where we’re emphasizing that everyone has their different travel styles and interests,” Mansuetti says. “As part of it, we’ve got TravelOK Your Way ad spots. The Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department has different decals for people to order to show what they love to do in Oklahoma.”
Davis responds optimistically when asked what lies ahead for the meetings industry in his region. “Dallas’ future is exceedingly bright, with almost 20,000 hotel rooms in the works in the area,” he says. “The most exciting news on our horizon: Dallas has approved plans for an updated 2.5 million-sf convention center located adjacent to the current Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas. Construction on the $2 billion center is expected to begin in 2024 with completion in 2029.” Davis views the convention update as “a game-changer for Dallas, which will put our city on the map as the preeminent large-city convention and meeting destination in the nation. The center will be the anchor for a lively new Convention Center District that will excite convention-goers and revitalize southern Downtown Dallas, making it a place for locals to enjoy alongside our convention attendees.”
Among the outstanding features Davis notes are “large, elevated ballrooms with outdoor event terraces boasting views of the Trinity River and Downtown Dallas.” In addition, “The surrounding Convention Center District will connect Downtown Dallas with neighboring entertainment districts, like Cedars and the planned Rail District, creating a walkable destination designed to attract both locals and visitors,” Davis says. “The Convention Center District will be an authentic Dallas urban experience that will include restaurants, retail, lodging and entertainment options.”
While “Dallas is already a great meetings and conventions destination, with the accessibility of two major airports, affordable labor and an outstanding hotel product,” Davis says, “The new center and Convention Center District will enhance Dallas’ competitive position and put us on par with other destinations that have already invested in their buildings.”
Hewitt says Visit Savannah’s primary initiative is the development of a water-facing convention center. “We are in the middle of an expansion that will double the size of the current convention center,” he says. “When complete in 2023, this expansion will have a 200,000-sf Exhibition hall, a new 40,000-sf ballroom — in addition to the existing 25,000-sf one — 36 breakout rooms, and a beautiful rooftop patio overlooking the historic Savannah River.” Where there are new developments in convention centers, lodging updates can’t be far behind.
According to the 2022 State of the Industry Report released by Experience Columbus and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, “within the first three months of 2022, the city hosted a total of 63 conventions, trade shows and sporting events, up from 27 during the same time frame last year,” Williams says. In the news release, Brian Ross, president and CEO of Experience Columbus, notes: “With six city-wides held in the first quarter and 82 events, including five city-wides, booked for the future, it’s clear that the strong recovery we hoped for and anticipated is underway.”
After hosting ASAE in 2019, Williams says the city “looks ahead to January 2023 when we will host the PCMA Convening Leaders Conference. Later, in June 2023, we will host the U.S. Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting. These two events will bring a total of approximately 8,000 attendees to Columbus and $8 million in direct visitor spend with the potential to reach hundreds of millions over the next 10 years.”
Also, Columbus recently hosted the American Public Transportation Association event, which brought in almost 1,400 attendees and $2.4 million in estimated direct visitor spend. Later this summer will bring in the National Guard Association of the United States, with just more than 10,000 rooms, 4,500 attendees and $3.5 million in estimated direct visitor spend; and in the fall, the American Health Information Management Association will come in with almost 11,000 hotel rooms, 5,000 attendees and $5.3 million in estimated direct visitor spend,” Williams says.
In hotel news, “We’re looking forward to Columbus becoming home to the state’s largest hotel, the Hilton Columbus Downtown, when it expands with a new tower opening this fall, Williams says. “The new 28-story building will house a total of 1,000 rooms and provide 75,000 sf of space for meetings, including a 15,000-sf ballroom, plus a new signature restaurant on High Street, and a rooftop bar with stunning aerial views of Downtown Columbus.” Another plus, he says, is that “The Hilton Columbus Downtown is attached to the convention center, making it a short elevator ride away from conferences and meetings for hotel guests.” In addition to the Hilton Columbus Downtown expansion, he adds, “New hotels in the city’s core include the AC Hotel by Marriott, with 154 rooms and a popular rooftop bar and the 152-room Hyatt House in the University District.”
Meanwhile, Moyer notes, “In addition to being the home of two premier large convention centers, Huntington Place and the Suburban Collection Showplace, the Detroit region has seen a significant increase in high-end boutique hotels in the past five years to compliment attractions that emphasize our rich cultural history of design and innovation.” He adds, “Locations like the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village and the Picquet Plant are fantastic venues that provide visitors a front-row seat to the story of America’s spirit. Detroit is focused on activating indoor and outdoor spaces that allow events and visitors to experience the variety, and enjoy a connection to our city’s beautiful skyline and nature. Whether it is new rooftop locations like the One Campus Martius or Chroma, or the Beach at Valade Park on the Detroit Riverwalk, there are opportunities to get the best of indoor and outdoor spaces at an event.”
Mansuetti points out a number of “new and exciting ventures” in the Oklahoma area that cater to locals and visitors. For starters, music takes center stage at the three-story, 29,000-sf state-of-the-art showcase, The Bob Dylan Center, “a one-of-a-kind museum dedicated to the study and appreciation of Bob Dylan and his cultural significance,” and The Church Studio, “a recording studio, audio engineering school, events center and entertainment network “all wrapped into one location.” In addition, the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture (OKPOP) is expected to open in the Tulsa Arts District next year. Also, opening next year, the WOKA Whitewater Rafting Park featuring watersport activities.
Despite CVB efforts to regain lost ground in hosting meetings and events, challenges remain. “Columbus, along with CVBs across the country, must work to regain the momentum we had prior to the pandemic,” Williams says. “For Columbus, 2019 was a record-breaking year for the tourism industry, and we are working toward recovery. Our forecast for this year is at 89% of our 2019 levels with a full recovery by 2024.”
Yet, as Hewitt points out, “Due to the high volume and demands of the leisure travelers, it is not always easy to find available dates that align with the meeting organization’s preferences.”
Moyer recognizes that with renewed interest in hosting in-person events, Detroit, too, faces challenges in meeting the demands of planners. “There is so much interest in hosting events in Detroit right now because we are a diverse, welcoming and authentic destination,” he says. “Our region is working on expanding our hotel capacity to meet that demand.”
Events organizers can help destinations in recovery efforts by planning events as far in advance as possible to secure preferred meeting sites and services. Davis acknowledges, “We are immensely grateful for the groups that returned first, and there was really positive energy in the air, on both sides. It has become clear that screens will never replace the magic of connecting face-to-face,” Davis says. “People want to meet in person, and there is optimism in the community right now.” He adds: “Travel is inspiring, and people can’t go for long without experiencing it. The same things that are attractive to leisure travelers are good for meeting planners and attendees, too. A diversified mix of travel type gives Dallas the greatest potential to maximize revenue for the city. Leisure primarily fills hotels on the weekends, and it’s seasonal. Convention business fills weeknights and the off-season. Dallas won’t achieve full recovery without both.”
Moyer says he thinks, “The best way meeting planners and event organizers can help our region is by finding ways to support local businesses. Detroiters are builders and doers, and we have so many entrepreneurs in our area that have built fantastic restaurants, bars and other retail that help connect visitors to our community in a welcoming, authentic manner.”
Planners can help, Hewitt says, “By sourcing us and taking advantage of services we provide,” adding, “Our mission is to elevate their experience in every way possible. We have the facilities and the services needed to accommodate their needs.”
As travel opens up to attendees around the country once again, world-class destinations are rolling out the welcome mats. CVBs offer events organizers a collaborative relationship and recovery roadmap to their meeting needs, whether they are seeking “historic, but hip; classy, but cool” in Visit Savannah; “the best of indoor and outdoor spaces at an event” at Visit Detroit; “Oklahoma’s natural assets and cultural amenities” at the OTRD; a “smart, open and welcoming community with a dynamic convention package that can fit the needs of any group” at Experience Columbus or a “diversity of people, diversity of neighborhoods, diversity of experiences” at Visit Dallas. | AC&F |