CVB UpdateJanuary 20, 2023

CVBs Continue to Rebound Strongly From the COVID-19 Pandemic By
January 20, 2023

CVB Update

CVBs Continue to Rebound Strongly From the COVID-19 Pandemic
Leonard Hoops, President & CEO of Visit Indy, says the city hosts “something pretty much every week that is a borderline citywide event or full citywide.” Courtesy Photo

Leonard Hoops, President & CEO of Visit Indy, says the city hosts “something pretty much every week that is a borderline citywide event or full citywide.” Courtesy Photo

Challenges faced by convention and visitors bureaus across the U.S. since March 2020 have been unprecedented. While the COVID-19 pandemic’s most crushing blows increasingly appear to fill the meetings and events industry’s rear-view mirror, the impediments for a full-scale revival of meeting and convention business continue to percolate.

“With air and hotel rates up, pricing is becoming a barrier to bringing back meetings and conventions,” says Graeme Hughes, CTA, executive vice president of sales, Visit Tucson. “There’s global unrest with the war [in Ukraine], and if you’re a publicly traded company and your stock is taking a hit, you’re going to take a look at things. We live at the bottom of the stack when it comes to discretionary spend.”

Gateway destinations, such as Miami and Los Angeles, at times have struggled with overseas pandemic protocols that have made it difficult for international visitors to attend events that historically draw a large foreign contingent. Although, things have continued to tick upward since the Centers for Disease Control eased the vaccine requirements early last year.

Claude Molinari, president & CEO of Visit Detroit, expresses a concern shared by many: How will CVBs be able to service the city’s meetings and conventions in the best possible way? “There’s a labor shortage across the board, and it especially hit the hospitality industry,” Molinari says. “It’s not unique to the city of Detroit, but some of these companies are hosting their first show in … years, and they want to have a positive event.”

And yet, when one looks at individual facets of the industry, it’s clear meeting, incentive and convention business is on the road to recovery. Key findings from recent industry surveys reveal that the vast majority of business travelers soon expect to take at least one trip to attend conferences, conventions or trade shows. These surveys also generally find that economic uncertainty and corporate policies restricting business travel are making things difficult.

The return of in-person meetings and events — and business travel in general — is a welcome sight after more than two years of pandemic-related uncertainty, experts say. They add that there is simply no substitute for a face-to-face meeting, which is proven to lead to more fruitful business opportunities and can help power an economic and jobs recovery in communities across America.

New Revenue Streams

Tucson is among the many cities that are seeing a light at the end of a long tunnel, albeit with revenue streams coursing through new channels. “Like so many destinations, we were on the precipice of breaking a lot of records before the pandemic,” Hughes says. “[Now], I’m looking at occupancy levels getting very close to where we were in 2019.”

Hughes notes that his team lobbied Visit Tucson’s Board of Directors to keep the sales department open. “We benefitted from astute oversight, and by not shuttering our sales organization, it served as a vital link for communications as hotels went offline. The demand we’re fielding right now is extraordinary. We do a robust series of FAM trips and individual site tours, and we’ve found planners are eager to travel. We’ve hosted [hundreds of] individual site visits and [continue to welcome] new planners through FAMs … so I see that as a real positive trend.”

Molinari says the reason for the uptick in face-to-face meetings is because the virus continues to abate. “Our team booked [hundreds of] pieces of business in the last year, including eight citywides [last year and into] 2023. Two really strong pieces of business included Automate, a manufacturing show we wrestled away from Chicago that was put on by the Association for Advancing Automation. [They had] 20,000 attendees in June, and that [was] a huge event with robotic displays that filled up almost the entirety of Huntington Place. And [last] May, [we hosted] RAPID + TCT, a 3D technology printing show put on by SME. It’s a monster that brought in an incredible number of attendees. Because of our ability to land those events, it helps us get trade shows like the Silicone Expo and Injection Molding Show. Detroit is still a major manufacturing hub, and this is proof positive.”

Motley says Miami is also seeking to continue building back its international market. Carol Motley/GMCVB

Motley says Miami is also seeking to continue building back its international market. Carol Motley/GMCVB

New Business Models

Some destinations were able to thrive modestly during the pandemic by pivoting their business models. Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy, says Indianapolis has hosted a wide variety of events since July 2020, when the convention center was first reopened and groups of up to 250 attendees could come in with an approved health plan. The city has gone back to its roots and hosted a bevy of sports events, which helped make up for the absence of trade shows. “With 12 hotels and 4,700 rooms connected to the convention center by climate-controlled skywalk, we can create a quasi-bubble,” Hoops says. “They like the campus feel, and they like not having to take shuttles from downtown. Those tournaments had an immediate impact, and allowed a number of hotels to stay open for business. Now, we have something pretty much every week … that’s either a borderline citywide event or full citywide.” The big show for last year was the recent Gen Con, the longest-running and largest tabletop gaming convention, which has taken place in Indianapolis since 2003.

Like Detroit, Indianapolis also has picked up some business from Chicago, which was closed through the pandemic longer than most Midwest cities. The Sweets and Snacks Expo has been an annual event in Chicago for 23 years, but Indianapolis hosted it for the first time in 2021. Early last spring, the National Confectioners Association announced they’ll be alternating Indianapolis and Las Vegas for the Expo over the next decade, starting in 2024.

Miami was able to rely on leisure travelers to fill much of the gap left by canceled events. “When Omicron hit [last] January, I remember getting a call from several of our hotels saying, ‘Oh boy, what are we going to do?’” says Carol Motley, senior vice president, convention sales & services with the Greater Miami Conventions & Visitors Bureau. “They ended up having a stronger first quarter than they imagined. They were thinking Omicron was going to be a big deterrent, but they are pleasantly surprised at how well they did.”

Miami bounced back in mid-spring with what is now being called Tech Month. “The NFT meeting was held in Wynwood,” Motley says. “eMerge had an extremely successful show at the Miami Beach Convention Center, as well as Bitcoin, which brought over 20,000 people to the convention center.” Motley says convention center bookings are continuing to move along robustly.

Motley continues: “We want to build on that momentum, because corporate is a big push of mine. There’s West Coast fatigue, and we want that business to come here. On the association side, everyone still wants to be in San Francisco and San Diego, and those convention centers will continue to draw that kind of business. But … I want people to know about the intellectual capital we have — we’re not just beaches here.”

As the major gateway between the U.S. and Latin America, Miami’s tourism depends on international traffic, and although leisure traffic is back at the airport, Motley says international meeting business continues to rebound. “The biggest difficulty is the border,” Motley says. “We’re driving the Florida market in terms of rate, and a lot of international visitors are going to Orlando, because the rates are less and they love the outlet shopping. So our biggest challenge is bringing the international market back.”

VISIT Milwaukee kicked off its 2023 marketing efforts with a 35-by-23-foot billboard in New York City’s Times Square that ran from December 26 to January 1. It capitalized on National Geographic naming Milwaukee to its “Best of the World” list as one of the best destinations for travel in 2023 — one of only 25 such destinations. The 15-second video ran four times every hour, and the billboard — at 1540 Broadway — introduced Milwaukee’s stunning lakefront, James Beard award-winning cuisine and diverse attractions to tens of millions of viewers.

“Milwaukee’s incredible moment in the spotlight, thanks to publications like National Geographic, is monumental, but we want to keep that momentum building through 2024,” says Josh Albrecht, vice president of marketing and communications for VISIT Milwaukee, in a news release. “What better way to do that than with a billboard in one of the busiest intersections in the world over New Year’s Eve?”

This marketing initiative is just one of many that will increase awareness of Milwaukee in new markets and build on the momentum of a city adding new reasons to book meetings and conventions.

Graeme Hughes, CTA, Executive Vice President of Sales at Visit Tucson, says Tucson is hosting hundreds of FAM trips as things improve. Courtesy Photo

Graeme Hughes, CTA, Executive Vice President of Sales at Visit Tucson, says Tucson is hosting hundreds of FAM trips as things improve. Courtesy Photo

Attendee Confidence Grows

A former executive at Visit Anaheim says attendee confidence is starting to come back, but concurs that regaining the international sector is the destination’s top challenge. “Asia-Pacific is one of the biggest feeder markets for Southern California — [destinations] from Seattle to San Diego are impacted by Asia-Pacific,” the former executive says. One of Anaheim’s biggest draws is the Natural Products Expo West, and in March 2020, it was the first major event to cancel as the pandemic bore down. The expo was also the first large event to stage a return, last March, drawing 57,000 attendees to the Anaheim Convention Center.

The period going into last summer was very busy for Anaheim. Leading the list was the annual National Association of Music Merchants show, which had 45,000 attendees. The estimated economic impact to the area was $164.9 million.

The Asia-Pacific market is one reason Bryan Churchill, senior vice president, hotel sales for the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, was looking forward to hosting Anime Expo, a Japanese animation event [that drew] 120,000 attendees the first weekend of July. “That’s our most notable … convention event, representing a true return to normal,” says Churchill, who thought international visitors made up 15% to 20% of the attendees for Anime Expo. “The event impacts 26 hotels, and the 18-34 age demographic is perfect.” He adds, “I’ve never been more encouraged than now. It feels about as normal as it has been. We’ve been able to remain hyper engaged with our main customers. Now we’re in a business development mode, where things are reaching, and in some cases, eclipsing 2019 levels.”

Churchill says the tech sector is showing the strongest demand and reached 2019 levels early last year, and that the destination will meet or exceed 2019 levels at some point this year.

Whether for its entertainment, fashion or tech industries, Los Angeles has long been globally recognized as a creative hub. The city is prepared to exit the pandemic with 2,100 new hotel rooms, including Hyatt’s Thompson Hollywood and the five-year, $2.5 billion makeover of the Fairmont Century Plaza. The $484 million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened in fall 2021, and LAX, the city’s congestion-plagued airport, is undergoing a $1.62 billion modernization project in preparation to host the 2028 Olympic Games.

New Projects Come Online

Around the country, destinations are excited to emerge from the pandemic with projects to tout. In Tucson, the city’s convention center has undergone a $65 million renovation, and added two much-needed downtown hotel properties — a 170-room DoubleTree and a dual-branded Hampton Inn and Home2 Suites with 200 rooms.

Detroit’s Molinari reports 11 cranes are building some of Michigan’s tallest buildings today, with prospects for two 750- to 800-room upscale hotel properties on the drawing board. And in Indianapolis, in mid-pandemic, the City Council unanimously approved a $155 million expansion of the convention center. The expansion will share ballroom space with a new 800-room Signia by Hilton.

Clearly, in ways large and small, cities and CVBs across the country are preparing to exit the pandemic with new wares and new flair. C&IT

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