Destination leaders around the country faced challenging times in coping with the uncertainty of the most difficult parts of the global COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. But these leaders are no strangers to adversity, and many of them relied on their experience to get through the toughest of times.
“As the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. has faced many crises over the years that Americans have experienced across the country,” says Melissa A. Riley, vice president of convention sales & services for Destination DC. “Recently, we also have dealt with the January 6 [incident], civil unrest, mass shootings and other issues related to public safety that are affecting so many cities in the U.S.”
Rachel Sacco, president & CEO of Experience Scottsdale, says the pandemic has been a unique crisis, but Experience Scottsdale also has had to overcome many other past hurdles. “Though the pandemic has been a crisis unlike any other, our destination marketing organization has navigated past global health crises, a global recession, the 9/11 terrorist attack, and political turmoil at the state level, all of which impacted the tourism industry and meetings sector.”
Stephanie Turner, senior vice president, convention sales and strategies for New Orleans & Company, also ticks off a list of crises New Orleans has had to overcome. “Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 9/11, the BP oil spill and the financial crisis,” were all unexpected disasters that required extraordinary leadership to navigate for the good of the local and travel communities.
As these leaders and their organizations have discovered, a crisis can spotlight previously unresolved matters — remote working, work-life balance, technology power versus human power and time management — as well as highlight the need for a new roadmap to meet the current challenges, says David Whitaker, president & CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “[These organizations] are not only addressing this as employers, but we are also dealing with its impact on the organizers, sponsors and attendees of meetings and events we bid on and host.” The result is a “mix of revisiting and recalibrating just about every job-related or event-related metric used to determine performance metrics, incentives, economic impact or return on investment criteria,” Whitaker says. “We have essentially had to dispose of and re-create our entire playbook regarding performance and accountability. All while needing to remain relevant, productive, and most importantly, competitive.”
In some regards, the type of challenges these organizations have faced in crisis situations are similar. “The pandemic happened to everyone globally, and we all were experiencing solitude during a very uncertain time,” Turner says. Yet, how each organization has felt the impact remains unique to their organizations.
“At the end of the day, our CVB finds itself uniquely striving [and challenged] to find a healthy and productive balance between the internal needs of our staff and resource deployment — and that of the needs of our clients and customers,” Whitaker says.
Riley cites challenges not shared among many major cities. “Washington, D.C.’s overall recovery has been slower than some other rural or beach destinations,” Riley says, singling out Destination DC’s unique intersection of “business, government-related travel and congressional meetings, a segment that has still not recovered.”
John G. Reyes, senior vice president, chief MCI sales officer for the Hawai’i Visitors & Convention Bureau/Meet Hawai’i, also had a uniquely difficult time navigating the hurdles brought on by COVID-19. “Aggregating various COVID-19 restrictions by islands as each island [Kauai, Maui, O’ahu and Hawai’i] had their own specific COVID-19 protocols/restrictions,” he says.
And for Experience Scottsdale, “Nearly 80% of our budget comes from transient lodging taxes — taxes that were essentially nonexistent at the outset of the pandemic,” Sacco says. “So many of our traditional programs — trade shows, sales missions, familiarization tours and client events — were either not occurring or not feasible. Uncertainty about the city’s budget crisis forced us to make difficult choices as an organization.”
Though perhaps not defined as a crisis, Reyes points out another important transformational change confronting all CVBs and DMOs in the future: “The desire by our residents for us to transform and reimagine our strategies and activities to a different model has become stronger,” Reyes says. “The priority now expected is that we have dual responsibilities to market to a respectful visitor, but also a greater responsibility to align with the needs of our community, culture and natural resources through sustainable and regenerative tourism initiatives.”
Once the shock of the pandemic subsided, leaders at DMOs and CVBs in the middle of the crisis focused on recovery plans, relying upon the organization’s track record of previous successes in the face of adversity, not only to stem the pandemic’s devastating impact on tourism, but in the strong belief of brighter times ahead. “After Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” Turner says, “Our motto was, ‘Soul is Waterproof’ and that resolve has guided us through many other disasters. Our team at New Orleans & Company is battle-tested and resilient, ready to partner with our customers through any crisis.”
At New Orleans & Company, connecting with each other virtually became vital to recovery. “We made it a priority to establish consistent team meetings where we were on video calls and could see each other and connect,” Turner says. “Our conversations were more about how to support each other and our member community. We celebrated festivals and events together, which helped us feel hopeful about the return of events we missed. We sent king cakes [a blend of coffee cake and cinnamon roll] to customers and influencers to bring them a taste of New Orleans culture when they could not be in the city. Events and celebrations are an important part of our culture. Ensuring our team and our member partners felt connected was a priority.”
Destination DC’s approach has been to focus on short-term and corporate business to help close the gap, as well as working closely with the associations headquartered in the D.C. area. Whereas, at Experience Scottsdale, “We quickly moved to build a recovery plan grounded in research that would allow us to be flexible as the pandemic evolved,” Sacco says. “We hosted virtual client events and trade shows and built a virtual toolkit to allow meeting planners to tour potential venues from their homes. We focused on reaching local, regional and drive markets, many of which were new markets for our organization.” She adds, “Experience Scottsdale worked with our hotels, resorts and venues to showcase health and safety protocols and hybrid opportunities on a dedicated COVID-19 webpage. We also promoted our offerings for sports tournaments, which were taking place even as other meetings and events faced cancellations and delays. Flexibility and research were critical in our every step. All of this ensured we kept clients inspired and informed about Scottsdale whenever they felt ready to travel and gather again.”
When asked what crisis leadership skills proved critical to leading the GMCVB through the COVID crisis, Whitaker says his position and thoughts on this have continually changed and evolved during the many peaks and valleys. “But, I have found that the common denominator is transparency, honesty, over-communicating, sprinkled with unwavering patience and personal faith.”
Turner says those attributes also helped at New Orleans & Company, plus others: “Hope was incredibly important. It was vital that our team and members knew that we were hopeful for the future, and actively planning for it while we were going through the pandemic,” she says. “Additionally, determination that we could make a difference and help our industry recover was also very important. We worked closely with state and local officials to evolve meeting guidelines and demonstrated that we could successfully host safe meetings and events.”
Riley says flexibility, communication and adaptability were all important leadership tactics at Destination DC as well. “In the earlier days, when rules and regulations were changing so frequently, it was key to be transparent and keep customers up to date with the latest safety guidelines,” Riley says. “We also focused on helping create more purpose-driven events that impact not only the local economy but the organization’s overall mission.”
Sacco also agrees that transparency was paramount during the pandemic. “I was as transparent as possible about the challenges we faced as an organization and industry,” she says. “Businesses and employees in Scottsdale were depending on Experience Scottsdale, and we knew our destination promotion would be crucial. I acknowledged that I was asking so much of our team — to be innovative and work harder than ever for the sake of our organization and industry.” She continues, “Communication also was key. As a membership organization, it was important to keep our nearly 400 members regularly informed of the ever-evolving crisis and act as their voice when advocating for the tourism industry at the city, state and federal level.”
Reyes also leaned on tried and true leadership attributes, such as collaboration, communication and transparency, which proved pivotal to leading the Hawai’i VCB/Meet Hawai’i through the crisis. He explains how each skill manifested. “Collaboration: We ensured that the Hawai’i Visitors & Convention Bureau worked closely with our Hawai’i MCI industry to collectively meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic; Communication: We established ongoing MCI update meetings and written communications to keep our MCI stakeholders and customers constantly informed; and Transparency: We made sure as a VCB we were transparent with critical decisions and asked for feedback prior to making key decisions.”
Reyes says, in retrospect, he and his team would not have done anything differently. “We did the best we could each and every day. Nothing could prepare any of us for what we experienced over these last two years,” he says, adding that another leadership practice also helped. “Admit when you don’t know the answer, ask for help, understand that each team member/stakeholder can contribute, and each team member will step up and lead when needed.”
Whitaker thinks there are some things he would have changed. “What I would have done differently is what I would define as prematurely, and perhaps naively, focusing too soon on what I thought at the time was the horizon to truly getting through this,” he says. “But there is no one prescription for a CVB leader. Like everyone, they are as varied as the organizations and destinations we represent. Though the best tip I could offer is to over-communicate and never over-commit. That, of course, is a proverbial ‘given.’ A tip I have also learned when coaching myself is to fight the notion or the temptation to feel as if you must bravely run into every building you see on fire. The mere scale of this pandemic has resulted in learning to ‘let go’ occasionally.”
Riley says there were many instances where their team was learning on the fly. “We participated in many forums about crisis management as we were living it,” she says, adding that she would now “proactively coordinate with like-minded and similarly challenged destinations on how to manage things such as client communication, staff support and more.” She adds, “And be vulnerable. Leaders are human and need to be relatable. Put people first. Check in regularly with your staff and make sure their feedback is integrated in decision making.”
Turner’s best tip for leaders? “Utilizing technology efficiently and effectively was vital to establishing connections. Continuing to learn and adapt to new technologies is critical as we move forward,” she says. “Be as comfortable as you can with being uncomfortable. See the crisis as sections of time, not one linear event. Plan work for each section that is relevant to that time, and over time, all the blocks of time will add up.” She continues, “As you look back, you will see how the work helped move your team to where you are now. And never forget why you got into this business — unending passion for your destination and to facilitate human connections through face-to-face meetings.”
Sacco, who has 40 years in the industry, says one of the oldest leadership traits was the most helpful. “I have found kindness to be the most important leadership skill. I believe in leading with compassion, openness and trust,” she says. “Also, good leaders need to be surrounded by people they trust and rely upon. They must surround themselves with people who challenge them and elevate them.” She adds, “Throughout my tenure, I’ve sought to foster an environment where team members feel comfortable openly sharing their ideas and opinions. And that’s invaluable. I did not take these steps alone, and I could not have accomplished any of this without the counsel of my top-notch executive team and the creativity of our talented staff, who all bring their own unique knowledge and expertise to the table.”
In a sense, these leaders have undertaken what American writer Joseph Campbell coined, “The hero’s journey” in leading organizations through an unconventional crisis by crossing the threshold into unfamiliar territory that ultimately results in transformation. How, in fact, have these leaders and their organizations changed as a result of the pandemic? “I feel the biggest change is the attitude and priorities of our staff,” Whitaker says. “On a positive side, I strongly feel that the staff knows and fully recognizes just how important and needed they are for us to fulfill our mission. Our organization, now more than ever, must focus on and monitor the needs and expectations of our staff colleagues.”
What has Whitaker personally learned as a leader? “A lot can be written and said here. If there is one change that is evident, it is learning to keep multiple real and perceived crises in some level of appropriate scale. One cannot afford to get too high or too low during circumstances like this. And it cannot be emphasized enough — empathy, empathy, empathy.”
Sacco says Experience Scottsdale has been fortunate to resume many of its traditional programs, once again meeting with clients on the road and in Scottsdale. “Yet, the lessons we learned early in the pandemic have stayed with us, such as the importance of building new connections in secondary and up-and-coming markets and reestablishing relationships with meetings professionals in the local market,” she says. “Since the crisis began, we’ve been diligent about understanding the needs and wants of meetings groups in this new landscape. We’ve convened focus groups with association professionals and incorporated feedback from our customer advisory board, a group of 13 high-caliber planners, into our strategies.”
Riley notes that Destination DC is focused on understanding what the customer needs most and evaluating the organization’s role in that process. “We understand that associations are looking to deliver more purposeful meetings to their membership base, as consumers carefully select which meetings they attend,” she says. “In Washington, D.C., all of our positioning focuses on what the city offers that you can’t find anywhere else, such as thriving industries and access to industry leaders, top speakers and more. Ultimately, Washington, D.C. adds value and content and becomes a more attractive destination to host successful meetings.” In addition, Riley says, “We have placed even more emphasis on our biggest asset: our staff. As an organization, we’ve made a renewed effort to focus on mental health and employee well-being, issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion and work-life balance. A refreshed sales force means they are approaching their work and relationships with customers with a restored sense of energy and purpose.”
Turner says New Orleans & Company has similarly evolved and grown. “We are more technologically savvy, are more flexible in work-from-home opportunities, and have grown closer as a hospitality community. In fact, we are so connected that, in 2021, we launched our first-ever integration destination sales and marketing brand called ‘Built to Host,’ which tells the story of why New Orleans is Built to Host meetings and events.” Personally, she says the pandemic and other crises have taught her to be determined that, together, “we can find a successful way to work through difficulty and uncertainty.”
As for Reyes, he thinks the pandemic made him and his organization “much more nimble,” and he says, “We have learned how to do more with less. We are more appreciative of team members as we endured the loss of co-workers we cared about. Those who remained during the pandemic have learned about the resilience of themselves and others.” Of himself, Reyes says, “I believe I am more resilient and make a greater effort to celebrate the present, because I am more aware of how fragile tomorrow really is.”| AC&F |