During the lengthy COVID-19 pandemic that is still upending daily living activities and tourism as we know it, the various convention and visitors bureaus dotting our country’s landscape dug deep to keep things running smoothly. As the country continues to open up and meetings and events of all sizes resume, CVBs are showcasing the work they’ve done over the last several months, and what meetings and events planners and attendees can look forward to when they visit again.
New Orleans was one of the first cities to proactively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and lead the way in preparedness and safety. Aggressive testing, masking and social-distancing policies worked, and now, with a strong vaccine rollout, New Orleans & Company remains laser-focused on the safety of its workers, residents and facilities. The city has also successfully picked itself back up after the brush with Hurricane Ida in late summer. “Every step we took was with safety in mind as we prepared to welcome visitors and meetings back to our city,” says Stephanie Turner, SVP, convention sales & strategies with New Orleans & Company.
Throughout the pandemic, the convention sales team at New Orleans & Company remained in touch with customers — providing consultations, assets for virtual events and any kind of support planners needed. “In order to help our customers understand what to expect in New Orleans, we created a comprehensive resource on our website, NewOrleans.com, with safety plans for many of our hotels, attractions, transportation companies, meeting venues, etc.,” Turner says. “We want to continue encouraging best practices in safety and sanitation, and ease travelers’ minds while they plan to return safely to New Orleans.”
Additionally, members of New Orleans’ hospitality industry created the NOLA Hospitality SAFE program, dedicated to keeping residents and visitors healthy by encouraging operators, business partners and guests to abide by COVID-19 reopening guidelines.
As things are opening up, what is the team at the New Orleans & Company most excited about? “New Orleans is built to host world-class meetings and events. Welcoming visitors is truly part of our culture,” Turner says. “Planning and preparing for meetings and entertaining attendees is our specialty. Our hospitality professionals, community, cultural bearers and musicians create an experience so iconic, that memories of our city stay with visitors and meeting attendees long after they leave.”
New developments in the city continue to elevate the meeting experience. The recent completion of the state-of-the-art airport terminal at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport offers an even higher capacity for handling large groups of passengers in a safe and clean environment. And there is space for social distancing, thanks to more than 100 check-in counters and a consolidated security checkpoint that stretches 17 lanes wide.
In addition, renovations are ongoing at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (NOENMCC), one of America’s largest contiguous exhibit halls with 1.1 million sf of prime exhibit space. A $557 million improvement plan is underway at the NOENMCC, including interior modernizations, renovations to its 140 meeting rooms, restroom renovations and a complete makeover of its exterior experience. In spring 2019, new digital signs were installed for each meeting room. That fall, NOENMCC debuted a new, centrally located transportation center to allow shuttles, taxis and ride-shares to more efficiently move attendees to and from the center. The Shuttle Hub is equipped with digital signage to help attendees easily identify their shuttles. In 2020, wayfinding kiosks were installed throughout the lobbies. And, the new linear park that turned 7.5 acres of Convention Center Boulevard into a lush pedestrian park was completed this year.
Several new hotels also have joined New Orleans’ robust inventory, including the Higgins Hotel & Conference Center at The National World War II Museum, as well as boutique properties, such as Maison de la Luz hotel, a distinctive new luxury guest house, and the Kimpton Hotel Fontenot. Plus, the Four Seasons Hotel + Residences and the Virgin Hotels New Orleans opened this year. “Our team has spent the last [several] months proactively connecting with customers, keeping lines of communication open while we all navigated the constantly changing landscape,” Turner says. “We have been a trusted resource to provide information on industry trends, updates on what was happening within the city, and helping planners make the best decision for each meeting. As we continue to navigate the return to in-person events, we are conducting in-person and virtual site-visits, continuing to provide local and industry updates, and working to accommodate the changing needs of each of our customers and partners.”
Dallas offers all the progress of coastal cities with a unique commitment to the Texan hospitality for which the region has long been known. In addition to the city’s incredible attractions, and world-class hotels and arts, Dallas is very affordable and centrally located for most of the country. In fact, the labor rates for doing business in Dallas are 27% lower than the national average, and with two major airlines based here, the city offers more than 200 affordable direct flights.
During the pandemic, VisitDallas chose to continue its marketing, advertising and sales efforts, knowing it was important to keep Dallas at the forefront of visitors’ and clients’ minds. “Like many, our main challenge was scaling back given funding limitations, but nevertheless, we persisted to accomplish our goals with reduced resources, via new platforms and a little bit of extra elbow grease,” says Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitDallas.
In addition to rebooking lost business to later dates, VisitDallas’ primary focus was the implementation and advocacy of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR accreditation. Early in the pandemic, the employees knew they had to be flexible in the coming months, so VisitDallas led the nation as the first destination to seek the accreditation. “To date, our convention center, both airports, and several dozen hotels and venues, have achieved this stringent accreditation, certifying their facilities as sanitary and safe,” Davis says.
Davis and his team are excited to work with clients in-person and help them host world-class events. “This year has taught us technology cannot fully replace what we do. People crave face-to-face interaction and contact,” Davis says. “We are so fortunate to be able to provide people these experiences again. Our VisitDallas-led research shows that 80% of meeting planners from across all market segments continue to find safety and cleanliness protocols incredibly important as they plan events, so we will continue to focus on safety.”
VisitDallas will also focus on supporting a full recovery for hospitality partners. This includes helping partners rebuild their workforces for a better visitor experience. As Davis explains, nationally, the demand for hospitality workers greatly outweighs the supply. “As time passes, VisitDallas will continue to watch this, and assist our hotel, restaurant and attraction partners, knowing this is a large indicator of full recovery,” Davis says.
For H. Fletch Brunelle, vice president of marketing and sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) and his team, the pandemic was an extremely busy time as they were focused on implementing health and safety precautions at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), including earning the GBAC STAR facility accreditation. “A key priority for our sales team was working diligently with clients to reschedule meetings and assure them that when the time was right for meetings to return, Las Vegas would be ready,” Brunelle says.
One of the biggest challenges throughout the pandemic, in addition to working with limited capacities and crowd sizes, was the fact that guidelines and mandates were different from state to state and city to city. The marketing team at the LVCVA prioritized keeping updated information available on its websites and in toolkits for planners and organizers, so they could more easily communicate with potential exhibitors and attendees about what to expect when they returned to Las Vegas. “Welcoming both our business and leisure guests back to the destination and helping to lead the recovery of the industry is a huge focus for us,” Brunelle says. “Las Vegas is 100% open and back to pre-pandemic guidelines for meetings and events. Organizers no longer have to submit additional plans or applications, and we’re excited to say the convention schedule for the rest of the year is robust. We’re also seeing the return of thriving entertainment, dining, shopping, spa, attraction and outdoor adventure offerings, and we want groups to know they’ll once again find the only-in-Las Vegas experiences they’ve come to expect, both on and off the show floor.”
Indeed, the LVCVA team has gotten “back to the basics” as they work with meeting and event planners and organizers, and regular communication has been key. Since the start of the pandemic, in addition to regular email updates, they’ve been picking up the phone and making calls to keep planners updated about what’s happening in Las Vegas and checking in consistently to see what they can do to assist. “Now that we’re back to business, continued communication is just as important, and there’s a palpable excitement,” Brunelle says.
Throughout the past year and a half, Las Vegas continued its ongoing evolution with the successful construction and opening of three new resorts — Circa Resort & Casino in downtown Las Vegas at the end of 2020; Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, Curio Collection by Hilton in the former site of the Hard Rock Hotel in spring; and Resorts World Las Vegas on the Strip in summer — as well as Allegiant Stadium, which serves as home of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders. The destination also welcomed more than 2 million sf of additional meetings and events space, including the LVCC’s West Hall expansion, CAESARS FORUM, The Expo at World Market Center Las Vegas, AREA15, the expansion of Wynn Las Vegas’ convention space and more. “We have more space and world-class venue options than ever before, and we’ll be able to host more — and bigger — events,” Brunelle says.
As meetings and events were being canceled due to the pandemic, the Visit Phoenix team turned its attention to the needs of meeting planner clients, hotel partners and the Greater Phoenix hospitality community at large.
The sales and services team assisted clients with rebooking their scheduled meetings, many of which had to go into future years. The hotel and resort sales team also aligned with local hotels and resorts that were forced to furlough or lay off staff during the pandemic in order to help them connect with planners and continue booking business as seamlessly as possible. “Our entire organization worked together to stay up-to-date on COVID safety guidelines that our hotels, restaurants, venues and the Phoenix Convention Center (PCC) were observing to ensure a safe return to meetings and conventions,” says Deborah Lahti, director of hotel and resort sales at Visit Phoenix. “We also focused on new ways to bring exposure to the destination, developing a new marketing campaign highlighting Greater Phoenix’s ‘Room to Meet’ safely program in our spacious destination. We also incorporated virtual FAMs, sales calls and mixers — all of which kept Phoenix top-of-mind and on the path to recovery.”
As things are opening up, the Visit Phoenix team is most excited about welcoming back meeting planners, convention attendees and leisure visitors. They are continuing to work closely with meeting planner clients and focusing on the health and safety of their attendees.
“We have continued to keep our meeting planners up-to-date through email newsletters, communication about our statewide COVID guidelines, and also through virtual events that keep Phoenix in mind when considering a future meeting destination,” Lahti says. “Our sales team is gearing up to get back on the road and get face-to-face time at upcoming trade shows and industry events.”
During the height of the pandemic, major resorts in Nevada shut down entirely for more than two months in 2020, before reopening with restrictions that summer. “Like many others, we had to make difficult changes to staffing, partnerships, advertising and every other expense. The focus was on being able to offer the same great service when it was time to open the doors once again,” says Ben McDonaald, director of communications, Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA). “There was no playbook and travel was at a standstill, so we worked with all our clients to make sure their interests were being attended to, first and foremost, ensuring them that this destination would work with them to bring their events back to Reno-Tahoe when it was safe to do so. We were heavily invested in promoting health and safety in a responsible manner, and we worked toward and acquired GBAC certification on all our major meetings facilities.”
Throughout the pandemic, the RSCVA was always in touch with clients in the meetings and events industry, whether individually by phone, or reaching a broader audience of planners via Zoom-based virtual FAMs. Some events had to be rescheduled, some had to be canceled entirely, some had to be conducted in smaller numbers and there were a few that the RSCVA was able bring to Reno-Tahoe, following cancellations in other destinations. “Our team was most excited about being able to welcome people back to the destination, being able to talk about travel again, and mostly, we’re excited for the return of large, in-person events,” McDonald says.
In the early summer, the RSCVA held one of the first in-person customer advisory board meetings in the country. “We all have to relearn what is going to be effective, especially in the near-term, regarding in-person meetings, events and trade shows,” McDonald says. Eighteen industry experts agreed to come to Reno-Tahoe for three days to discuss the destination’s positive, and negative, attributes and perceptions, and those discussions helped the RSCVA get better in a general sense, but also helped provide a road map as they continue working to rebound from the COVID slump.
Luckily, the Reno-Tahoe area has a lot to offer, such as more than 1 million sf of meeting space in Northern Nevada, including the 600,000 sf Reno-Sparks Convention Center (RSCC). There are also large resort hotels with ample meeting space of 50,000 sf to 200,000 sf; a phenomenal brewery and restaurant scene; arts and culture with hundreds of murals around town, as well as Burning Man art displays; and the beautiful Truckee River runs through the heart of downtown. “During the pandemic, we never disconnected. Our sales team was always active, always in touch, and always engaging new and traditional customers,” McDonald says. “While we were busy building on those relationships, it wasn’t always just about booking or moving business, but checking in on friends and clients throughout the industry, and just being human and reminding them, as well as ourselves, that we’re all in this together and that we’re going to get through this together.”
Since the early stages of the pandemic, the role of Visit Orlando has been to unify the Orlando tourism industry, as the organization represents businesses from convention hotels to event service vendors. “We’ve created pioneering new programs — such as partnering with Orlando Health on a medical concierge program for groups — giving them access to experts to help with their safety planning and on-site medical needs,” says Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando.
Visit Orlando hosted a virtual destination FAM trip with hotels, theme parks, the airport and other destination partners to showcase its safety measures, which was well received by clients, with more than 600 attendees. And they’ve also developed a series of virtual site visits for planners looking to host future events to share what’s new, and how they can create a memorable and safe event for their attendees.
This is important as Orlando is home to more than 450 hotels and 127,000 rooms, with hotels offering the meetings industry 5.7 million sf of total meeting space. These numbers continue to grow, despite the pandemic, as new hotels have opened and significant renovations progress. For example, JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa opened in 2020 with 50,000 sf of space, and coming later this year, The Walt Disney World Swan Reserve will open at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort complex, adding nearly 16,000 sf of indoor meeting space, including two new ballrooms and a unique rooftop space, and nearly 14,000 sf of outdoor space. Caribe Royale Orlando has completed a $125 million renovation, including a new, 50,000-sf grand ballroom, and Tru by Hilton Orlando Convention Center Area is a new addition to the convention district, located near the West Concourse of the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC).
“In terms of challenges, new protocols added a layer of complexity to planning, so we focused on increased communication with our clients, supplying accurate destination updates on our restaurants, attractions, hotels and airport,” Matej says. “To help with this, we added a new service by creating marketing content pieces for planners to share with their attendees that inform, and assure a safe and healthy experience in Orlando.”
Visit Orlando worked with one client who had a lot of questions about how to implement safety messaging and strategies to keep attendees safe. As Matej explains, Orlando is home to some of the most respected tourism companies in the world, which moved quickly to implement new safety measures, and therefore, served as perfect examples. “We had planners for this client visit Orlando to see for themselves how other brands even outside of the meetings industry implemented safety measures,” Matej says. “Seeing this in person gave them a better comfort level and served as an inspiration for everything from signage to intercom announcements to communicate to attendees.”
Bookings for the rest of 2021 and the future are strong — and Orlando is outpacing the national average for meetings recovery. However, there is still work to be done, so Visit Orlando’s focus will be on showcasing Orlando’s success as the leader in the recovery of face-to-face meetings, sharing what’s new across the destination and the value of Orlando as an affordable destination for business travel. “While virtual tools have served us well through the pandemic, there is nothing like the power of a face-to-face meeting, so our team is getting back on the road to make those connections once again,” Matej says. “We are excited to have Visit Orlando represented at a variety of major industry events like ASAE and IMEX to share the latest news and developments from Orlando, and hear directly from our clients so we can serve them even better in the future.” | AC&F |