Since the pandemic shutdown hit in early spring, there were nearly no corporate and incentive travel meetings, and corporate and incentive travel continues to be suppressed. In addition, the few people who are traveling, and may have previously stayed in downtown for the hustle and bustle of exploring a city, are now typically staying closer to an outlying headquarters where they are closer to their key clients and are less apt to explore.
This is causing havoc on convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) and destination marketing organizations (DMOs), as the tourism organizations are finding fewer people coming into their cities and fewer meetings and events being planned. As the primary revenue stream for CVBs and DMOs are hotel bed taxes, these organizations have taken a severe hit. That’s why many are doing what they can to ensure they remain strong.
When the Meet Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association (MMCVA) saw that COVID-19 was impacting its industry, leadership decided to do a “practice run” of everyone telecommuting. Now, many weeks later, staff members are fortunate enough to be able to work as a team remotely as they look to transition back to the office in late 2020. “From a broader perspective, we saw immediate postponement or cancellation of all meetings and events,” says Courtney Ries, senior vice president of destination branding and strategy for Meet Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association. “We immediately shifted to consultations with all of our meetings and events clients with proactive outreach, working with the most immediate ones first.” On the consumer leisure side, MMCVA created a campaign to help encourage community and support, and then an opportunity for people to explore Minneapolis from the safety of their home.
George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, notes like many CVBs across the country, the company responded with a temporary restructuring of its organization. “We remain focused on enhanced communication efforts on the destination’s current recovery status and keeping Orlando top of mind for future business,” says Aguel, who recently announced his retirement. “This includes hosting webinars to speak on industry trends, virtual tours and site visits, and regular planner communication through our e-newsletters and LinkedIn posts.”
Stephanie Turner, senior vice president of convention sales & strategies for New Orleans & Company, says they have been impacted in similar ways that many businesses across the U.S. have and, while staff is working from home, they have successfully learned to adapt to new technologies that allow everyone to work collaboratively with colleagues, customers and the hospitality community. “We understand the COVID-19 landscape is ever changing, which requires adaptability and a strong resolve to remain focused on planning and preparation for the return of the meetings industry on a large scale,” she says. “We have pivoted from primarily sales and services efforts to a consultative team approach that is laser-focused on providing our customers and hospitality partners with continual updates regarding the current state of the meetings industry in New Orleans, while building some of the most comprehensive tools available from any destination marketing organization.”
Lisa Anders, executive director of Explore Gwinnett, just northeast of Atlanta, says in mid-March, the DMO felt the immediate impact via dropping hotel occupancies, seeing lights out at entertainment venues and restaurants, and its thriving film and TV production world went on immediate pause. “We immediately implemented a budget and travel freeze,” she says. “We spent a lot of time reaching out to our partners locally — hotels, restaurants, venues — to educate them on relief packages, making connections, creating resource pages for our partners, etc. My sales team was busy rescheduling events that were pushed to 2021, or re-booking cancelled events at new venues. We’ve had to furlough staff, but everyone has done an extraordinary job taking on the additional responsibilities to ensure our clients and visitors don’t miss a beat.”
Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism in California, says while the Sonoma County tourism industry has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the extraordinary spirit of resilience, tenacity and creativity is showcased every day in myriad ways, both large and small. “Almost no other destination has experienced the trials Sonoma County has had in the past three years,” she says. “While this crisis is different, our visitor-facing business owners, entrepreneurs, workers and other professionals have provided a number of ways for people to bring Sonoma County into their homes, and virtually convey the experiences that make this destination so special. This beautifully illustrates the spirit and ingenuity of travel.”
Jennifer Richards, vice president of group development at Sonoma County Tourism, explains that when the pandemic first started, the staff pivoted quickly to remote work and, despite an ever-changing environment with many uncertainties, they continue to work hard to serve Sonoma County as a destination. “In addition to budget and staffing changes, we’ve refocused our marketing efforts to our [local] drive markets,” Richards says. “Since we are located further from bigger cities where COVID-19 cases remain high, meeting planners are seeking open-air spaces that allow for outdoor activities and, fortunately, Sonoma County has many options. We also remain in close contact with our top meeting planners so they are aware of the available options in Sonoma County and ensure we are there for them for any future meetings.”
It Takes a Toll
Like most, New Orleans & Company has experienced significant cancellations in corporate and incentive business due to COVID-19 restrictions and travel bans and, as of late August, leisure business was the first segment that is seeing a return to the city.
At the lowest point, Minneapolis saw hotel occupancy around 3% with 30% of its supply taken offline with temporary closures. As of late summer, they were almost all back open, and occupancy reached about 20%. “We did have our first group at the Convention Center in August,” Ries says.
Aguel notes Orlando has taken a careful, measured approach to reopening. “Our local businesses have spent months working to establish enhanced safety measures and processes to protect their employees, and our visitors,” he says. “All of Orlando’s theme parks are back in operation, along with most of our smaller attractions, and 84% of our hotels have re-opened. As we enter this phased reopening, how quickly people resume travel will depend in large part on how we communicate new policies that establish a sense of confidence.”
Anders notes corporate travel, with some exceptions — Amazon, training businesses and some transient businesses — is essentially on pause until Q1 2021, for the most part. “But metro Atlanta is the hub of business, economy, high tech, convention business and real estate,” she says. “There’s a lot of pent up demand, but we do anticipate the recovery will be slow, but hopefully steady. It will also be impacted by the corporate decisions to allow all workers to work from home.”
Still, she admits there are a lot of unknown variables — spikes in cases, the election, etc. — that may move the needle one way or the other. “Currently, we are seeing daily incremental improvements in our hotel occupancies, but much of the growth is the leisure and social markets,” Anders says. “2021, we hope, will be the year of the return of our business travelers, as well as group business. I think we’ll see a positive trend in the first six months of the year, with incremental improvements to follow. They’ll be changes, no doubt, because of diminished meeting capacities and social distancing, as well as more working from home, but Atlanta is the city that never sleeps when it comes to business.”
John Schreiber, vice president of business sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), notes with strict limitations on the number of people allowed to gather publicly as well as the temporary closure of its casino/resorts, much of the city’s corporate and incentive business has rescheduled or canceled. “In addition to the business that has rescheduled, we’ve heard anecdotally that, despite the current unprecedented situation, groups are continuing to book for future events,” he says. “The resorts in Las Vegas began to reopen during the summer and have continued reopening. As Las Vegas is preparing to get back to business, our resort partners across the destination are taking serious steps to ensure the best possible guest experience, including putting together their own individual health and safety plans and taking part in the LVCVA’s citywide ‘Vegas Smart’ campaign.”
Part of the “Vegas Smart” message is that while things may look a little different, they are confident attendees will still find the world-class, Only-in-Vegas experiences they’ve come to expect.
As of late summer, Sonoma County still did not have clear guidelines on how to reopen for meetings. “Of course, many event spaces have already prepared for reopening; but, without clear guidance on what restrictions will be placed, it is difficult for businesses to forecast budget, staffing, etc.,” Richards says. “Fortunately, small groups are likely to be the norm and our destination has many options for smaller groups looking to spread out in open-air spaces. Once the county guidelines are set for our destination, our event spaces are ready to make a quick turnaround to bring meetings to our destination.” It appears that now all Sonoma County hotels, and resorts are now allowed to reopen and are accepting reservations.
Getting Back on Track
Richards says the top priority for bringing back corporate and incentive meetings is safety and trust. “Market research shows that consumers are looking for destinations that take the health and safety of visitors seriously,” she says. “Also, many are looking for destinations with recreational outdoor activities, and Sonoma County has so many options, including kayaking, boat tours, zip lining, wine tastings/tours and hiking. Our businesses have quickly adapted their businesses to align with COVID-19 guidelines, from expanding sanitation practices, spacing out in-person appointments and requiring facial coverings. The continued dedication of the hospitality industry to be up to date with the latest safety guidelines will be the key to bringing back meetings.”
Turner notes New Orleans & Company is participating in meeting industry webinars to learn about what is happening nationally and globally, and be a part of the conversation that discusses how to successfully bring back meetings and conventions. “Our hospitality community is unified and has been at work creating comprehensive measures that support the return of safe and healthy travel,” she says. “Our focus has been on preparation for when the industry returns to hosting wide-spread meetings.”
A major area of development has been Louisiana House Bill 826, which is one of the first in the country that provides sweeping liability limitations from lawsuits relating to COVID-19, including protection for meeting planners, corporate and association planners, and trade show and convention organizers. While many feel the corporate and incentive travel segment will continue to be low in the months ahead, spreading far into 2021, there are ways that CVBs are preparing for those who do want to hold meetings.
The keys to making this happen is education — and making sure everyone feels safe. “Safety used to mean physically safe — what is the crime rate, do I feel comfortable walking around at night — but now it’s encompassing both physical and health safety,” Ries says. “Planners and attendees need to feel safe during all parts of the process — the flight, the hotel, the meeting; the dinner. All of those experiences are now potential risks, so it’s up to our businesses to not only limit those risks but also tell people about it. I won’t be surprised to sit down in a restaurant and alongside the logos of local farms to see the mark of the cleaning products they use.”
Visit Orlando is promoting that it is the summer home for all the remaining games for Major League Soccer and the NBA at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. “We have also utilized safety and social distancing measures, and temperature checks, successfully for two of the first events back at the Orange County Convention Center — AAU Jr. National Volleyball Championships and the Together Again Expo,” Aguel says. “Successfully hosting these events helped validate how the enhanced safety measures we adopted at our Convention Center met the expectations of safety and comfort expected from their attendees.”
Schreiber says a directive from the state of Nevada once again allowing gatherings of large groups will be key to bringing meetings and other special events back to Las Vegas. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak recently issued a directive that sets a 1,000-person capacity limit on trade shows, conventions and conferences.
The LVCVA, as the DMO for Las Vegas, is tasked with keeping Las Vegas top-of-mind for all leisure and business visitors. “In the meantime, our No. 1 priority is keeping our guests, employees and community safe,” he says. “The team at the Las Vegas Convention Center as well as our property partners across the destination have been busy creating and implementing the policies, and procedures, that will allow show organizers, attendees and exhibitors to get back to business with confidence.” The DMO has established enhanced guidelines and best practices for cleaning, sanitization, health and safety across its campus, so when meetings and conventions can return, they’ll be ready.
Meet Minneapolis’ first campaign is focused on its local community. “Minneapolis has been impacted by a number of challenges but, through it all, our community has come together to support each other,” Ries says. “We want to continue to carry that message forward, particularly as it relates to our neighborhoods and the small businesses that are the fabric. To that end, we have been leading with ‘We Need Us’— Support the Small Businesses that Support Us Back.” On the meetings side, the organization has dramatically shifted its messaging. “Our print ads before would talk about our awesome walkability, incredible air service and other assets,” Ries says. “Now, we’re telling planners what they can expect on the ground here. More than ever, planners need that information conveyed frequently, and clearly, as the rules are changing all the time.”
Visit Orlando has been in regular contact with its planner clients, keeping them up to date on the destination re-opening and all the new and enhanced safety measures through webinars, social media on LinkedIn, updates through e-communications and its Meetings Matters newsletter, as well as personal outreach. “At VisitOrlando.com, we have a section dedicated to Healthy Travel and Reopening information that serves as a one-stop source for the latest information and safety measures,” Aguel says. “We have also developed the first-of-its-kind partnership with the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) and Orlando Health, one of the leading health systems in Florida, to provide medical support and resources for planners hosting their event at the OCCC.”
Explore Gwinnett’s primary campaign, first and foremost, is to ensure client and visitor confidence in visiting and staying in Gwinnett County. “All of our hotels are participating in robust, corporate-led ‘Clean Stay’ programs with enhanced health and safety,” Anders says. “Additionally, we’ll be rolling out a pledge for the rest of the hospitality community, ‘Gather Safely in Gwinnett.’ In it, our attractions, venues and restaurants will also commit to enhanced measures to create confidence in the visitation experience while here.”
This year, the LVCVA recently announced that the Las Vegas Convention Center was awarded the GBAC STAR accreditation through the Global BioRisk Advisory Council. The program certifies that the facility is implementing the industry’s highest standards of cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention for infectious agents such as COVID-19 and is the leading standard of prepared facilities. The LVCVA also has rolled out several new campaigns, including the January launch of the “What Happens Here, Only Happens Here” campaign, which is the next evolution of the infamous “What Happens Here, Stays Here” campaign. “The LVCVA never stopped running spots, but we have changed the message, tone and even the timing of some campaign launches to reflect the current events of this year,” Schreiber says. “Over the summer, in conjunction with the reopening of our resorts, ‘The Light’ was launched to symbolically show the lights of our world-class resorts once again illuminating the iconic Las Vegas Strip.” These campaigns were in addition to the ‘Vegas Smart’ campaign launched when resorts began to open, which he notes, was created to “encourage visitors to stay smart, healthy and responsible while enjoying the destination.”
New Orleans & Company recently created “Welcoming You to New Orleans Safely,” a comprehensive resource that includes all the safety and cleanliness pages organized by category from its member hospitality community, in addition to the important resources. “Many new developments in the city continue to elevate the meeting experience,” Turner says. “The recent completion of the state-of-the-art airport terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport offers an even higher capacity for handling large groups of passengers in a safe and clean environment with space for social distancing, thanks to more than 100 check-in counters and a consolidated security [TSA] checkpoint that stretches 17 lanes wide.” Additionally, the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center also was awarded the GBAC STAR accreditation.
Sonoma County Tourism created a “Safe Travels Promise” to show visitors and residents its commitment to health and safety in the county. “Many of our partners have posted this at their businesses or on their websites as a show of solidarity to this commitment,” Richards says. “Additionally, we’ve created a video to socialize this message. We continually share industry insights and updated guidelines to our partners to ensure they receive the most accurate information especially as the situation remains fluid and changing.”
In addition to the Safe Travels initiative, the organization has worked with event spaces to take professional photos of their meeting spaces with physical distancing guidelines in place. “We plan to expand this to other industries, including wineries and restaurants, so our planners have visuals of what safety and health protocols look like at our destination,” Richards says. “We are also working on a new meetings and incentives e-guide for our planners.”
As more states start to open up and more restrictions are lifted about gatherings, things are already looking better for some. “As a destination and an industry, we will continue to evolve and adapt to the new circumstances we are facing,” Aguel says. “Our sales team has been working closely with planners to re-book conventions and meetings through the remainder of 2020, into 2021 and beyond at the Orange County Convention Center, along with those that are still looking to make their plans beyond this period.” C&IT