As one of the most vital lifelines to corporate meeting planners and local businesses, CVBs and DMOs have learned how to weather the COVID-19 pandemic roller coaster as well as any entity in the travel and tourism industry. Without the benefit of having a crystal ball to predict the year, let alone months ahead, they have nevertheless deftly navigated the sometimes strange, mostly knot-in-the-stomach-inducing uncertainty of an industry in crisis.
Here’s a look at how they have fared, their recovery efforts and hopeful plans for the future as the U.S. slowly continues to emerge from the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.
Reduced budgets, staff reductions, shorter work weeks — in essence, overall fewer resources — presented new challenges for the ability of CVBs and DMOs to stay afloat and relevant as the pandemic took hold across the country. Locally, small businesses struggled with fewer visitors and weakened supply chains, forcing closures and salary cuts. Additionally, nonprofits lost fundraising opportunities while associations faced “declining memberships due to economic hardship,” says Sandy Ward, CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism in Washington state.
Nan Devlin, MTA, executive director of Tillamook Coast Visitors Association in Oregon, adds that “Restaurants [were] hit hard, especially with constantly changing COVID guidelines and restrictions. And staffing shortages hit businesses the hardest. They are coping with overworked and stressed employees, more days closed, and limited hours when they are open.” And yet, “Somehow, nearly all have coped, changing between takeout meals to only 25% capacity, to full capacity.”
Staff reductions and tighter budgets hit many CVBs and DMOs hard in the early days of the pandemic. “Staff [was] reduced to 30% of our pre-pandemic level, 13 international partner agency contracts were paused immediately in March 2020, and our budget was down 75%,” says Elisabeth Wieselthaler-Toelly, MBA, former vice president, global PR & media relations for the San Francisco Travel Association (SFTA).
For Visit Indy, in addition to reducing the team and moving to a four-day work week, the pandemic necessitated “significantly reducing our sales and marketing investments, drawing funds from reserves, and pursuing funds from federal relief programs,” says Leonard Hoops, president & CEO.
Ed Carey, chief sales officer for Discover Puerto Rico, described the significant impact on the commonwealth, “Due to Puerto Rico’s unique position as an island destination reliant on air and cruise visitors, the territory was impacted more quickly and severely than many other U.S. destinations,” he says. “Additionally, we were the first state or territory to issue strict measures, including stay-at-home orders and curfews. The pandemic presented unique challenges, particularly for our valued local partners. The tourism sector is a critical piece in the island’s economy, accounting for 84,000 jobs that are impacted directly and indirectly prior to COVID-19.”
Location also played a critical role in Alaska’s pandemic’s economic impact, where the state’s position in the northernmost part of the North American continent put the region “at a distinct disadvantage due to its isolation,” as noted in a late spring 2021 report by the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “With cruise ships banned and highway borders closed, travelers had to rely on airplanes and very limited ferry service to reach the state,” the report states
Although Michelle Russ, STS, vice president of sales, sports & events for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism in Alabama, acknowledges that they “were extremely fortunate as a beach destination to welcome guests back in early summer 2020,” she also mentions, “We are certainly feeling the national staffing shortages across our tourism-based businesses.”
Creative collaboration, enhanced communication and virtual experiences each represent but a few of the positive changes that have resulted despite the pitfalls presented by COVID-19. CVBs and DMOs rose to the challenge both out of necessity and their own resiliency. “We have learned to expect the unexpected and adapt quickly,” Russ says. “We have stayed in communication with current and potential clients about the state of our destination, and have expanded our digital marketing resources to meet planners where they are and stay top-of-mind for future planning.”
Despite the hardships experienced by the pandemic, many CVB and DMO leaders say they were forced to adapt and are now stronger for it. “The pandemic made us a lot more creative, nimble, [and] innovative, than before,” says Sonia Fong, formerly vice president of convention sales & services for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB), and now senior vice president of convention development for Louisville Tourism.
Vicki Logan, convention sales manager for Travel Juneau, agrees. “We’ve had to find new creative ways to fulfill our mission with fewer resources.”
Employees also learned how to work remotely via Zoom, Teams, WebEx and other digital platforms, Hoops says, adding, “In addition, following the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide civil unrest shortly thereafter, we have increased our efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Collaboration among industry partners has always been a huge part of getting things done in the meetings and events industry. But during the height of the pandemic — and still as things are waning a bit — partnerships have become more intimate and more important since the onset of the pandemic. “We’ve partnered with a regional community foundation on a program called ‘Inclusive City’ and organized a DEI assessment, not just for ourselves, but for eight other organizations in a group we collectively call the Indy Civic Leadership Alliance,” Hoops says.
Fong and Carey each note that the Miami and Puerto Rico regions are no strangers to adversity. Miami has weathered its share of hurricanes, while Discover Puerto Rico has also endured hurricanes and earthquakes. These crises went a long way to preparing them for the pandemic. “We were able to pivot quickly at the start of the pandemic because of the extensive crisis preparedness measures we had already taken,” Carey says. “When Discover Puerto Rico was created in 2017, we immediately went to work creating a crisis playbook, which included scenarios from hurricanes to political unrest, to even a pandemic scenario which we were able to adapt for COVID-19.” Beyond that, Carey says, “Our local partners at the Puerto Rico Tourism Company quickly created a certification program and other resource guides to help tourism partners and planners resume meetings and other initiatives safely, and we shifted our marketing strategies to rely more heavily on virtual and hybrid offerings in the group space.”
In early winter 2020, Visit Tillamook partnered with the Tillamook County Creamery Association “to offer $200,000 in marketing resiliency grants to our community,” Devlin says. “We encouraged collaboration among businesses, and the 16 lead recipients helped a total of 90 businesses. We also co-sponsored #tillamooktakeout campaign with the Tillamook Chamber of Commerce to encourage local support for restaurants. Our $4,000 investment resulted in $4 million in sales for participating businesses. Restaurant owners said it kept them in business during their darkest hours.”
Other tactics employed by various CVBs and DMOs included filming promotional videos for the CVB and local businesses, as well as creating virtual FAM tours to keep planners updated on the latest information. “When the COVID quarantines first went into effect and our island lodgings were closed, we abruptly pivoted to promoting videos and virtual tours produced by businesses and other islanders,” says Amy Nesler, communications/stewardship manager of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau in Washington state. “All conventional advertising was pulled in favor of encouraging the purchase of gift cards and other e-commerce and keeping people ‘dreaming’ of future travel.”
At Discover Puerto Rico, Carey’s team “hosted virtual planner FAMs as another way to ensure planners stayed up-to-date on the latest health and safety protocols in place, while seeing new venues, hotels, and experiencing technology advancements such as the hybrid capabilities in the Puerto Rico Convention Center, the most technologically advanced in the Caribbean,” he says. In addition, Carey said his team “created a series of ‘Virtual Vacays’ that kept our local partners front and center for audiences globally. Beyond social … through the DMO, Puerto Rico became the first destination to offer live-guided tours utilizing Google Earth on Facebook Live … partnering with a personable local tour guide.”
Strengthening communication among all partners has also played a key strategic role in recovery efforts for CVBs and DMOs. At Discover Puerto Rico, “In addition to the tourism partner certification program, we increased communication with stakeholders. Clear and constant communication is particularly important, including that with meeting planners — both from us to them, and vice versa,” Carey says. Specifically, “We ensured lines of communication remained open, for all to be aware of the latest information that may impact an event, including government regulations, event permits, as well as screening procedures at our airports. We were keen to understand the concerns and needs of planners to best accommodate them in the future, so we held a series of roundtable discussions with meeting planners across the country.”
When the travel and tourism took the dramatic, unexpected downturn in early spring 2020, CVBs and DMOs wasted little time in planning new campaigns and initiatives. At Visit Indy, the Indiana Convention Center invested $7 million in new health and safety upgrades, while at the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, marketing communications amplified the need to strike a balance between supporting island businesses and protecting the environment. “This is done through subject choice and wording in our social media and advertising,” Nesler says. For starters, the CVB, “following the lead of destinations like Palau, New Zealand and Aspen, created the San Juan Islands Pledge that visitors are encouraged to sign before boarding the ferry or floatplane. When you act as an ecologically and socially responsible visitor, you are actively contributing to the future of the San Juans.”
In the summer of 2021, Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism initiated a “Worth the Wait” campaign “to communicate that Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are ‘worth the wait’ despite staffing shortages, and to give guests a few ideas to make the most of their precious time on the coast,” Russ says. In addition, “We have expanded the meeting planner marketing toolkit on our website to provide planners with free, ready-to-go resources to make planning meetings on the Alabama Gulf Coast more efficient. Items in the toolkit include a custom digital save-the-date, custom digital banner ads, visual assets, pre-written destination copy and a PDF of popular restaurants and activities.”
The SFTA also rolled out two new campaigns in 2021: “#OurGateIsOpen and “MeetLocal, both targeting regional and domestic visitors,” Wieselthaler-Toelly says.
While Fong was at the GMCVB, she says, the “… recovery campaign focused on the outdoors, with special mention of the Everglades and parks, for instance. [They] also highlighted the multicultural heritage in different neighborhoods to show what makes the area unique. Locally, [they supported] restaurants through the Miami Spice program,” now in its 18th year of operation.
With a focus on helping the food industry as well, Visit Tillamook “went to work on big projects,” Devlin says. “We are implementing more workforce training programs, and [developed] a food business innovation center to help our local producers and entrepreneurs. We [hope to find] funding to build commercial kitchens and cold storage units, provide food processing equipment and culinary training classes, and form a food hub and delivery system to help our farmers and fishers.”
At Discover Puerto Rico, “We developed a new advertising campaign focused on the concept of ‘time,’ with our creative agency R&R partners,” Carey says. “It was specifically designed to seamlessly evolve in different phases as we progressed during the pandemic. The campaign was fully produced in-house by Discover Puerto Rico’s multimedia team, and rolled out in phases to allow the DMO to deftly move between messaging as restrictions on the Island changed.” The campaign’s messaging evolved from Phase I during lockdown — “All in Good Time;” to Phase II, “Time to Plan” and “Time to Book;” to its current rendition, “It’s Time” — to incentivize travelers to visit Puerto Rico now that inbound tourism has reopened.
In looking toward a brighter future, CVBs and DMOs emphasize the importance of proactively engaging with partners in travel and tourism to prepare for the next potential crisis. For Devlin, “The [variants], hitting mostly unvaccinated people, threaten business closures again. Restaurants, retail, museums and event venues will again be hit hardest. This is what keeps me up at night. If they have to close again, it could mean closing for good, and that would be terrible for all of us.” With that in mind, Devlin says, “We have updated our crisis communications plan to include pandemics — we had earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, fires — but not pandemics. We are also revising our strategic plan to include ways to support public safety and emergency management organizations.”
From Nesler’s perspective, “DMOs and CVBs have the opportunity to show leadership in how tourism is managed in their destination and be proactive to keep the pendulum from swinging toward over tourism. Sustainable tourism is no longer enough; it’s time to get behind regenerative travel — [i.e. ‘making sure that what we do now feeds back into the system from which we benefit’ — as defined by the World Travel and Tourism Council]. It’s about being proactive and intentional.” Nesler continues: “The climate crisis is already here and evolving rapidly. We promote ways travelers can lighten their footprint and provide information to island businesses on ways to do the same.” Staying abreast of current safety and health protocols, updating crisis management tools, plus providing ongoing staff training, are all critical components in order to be prepared for whatever crisis comes next.
Meanwhile, in addition to new outdoor venues, new hotels and restaurant openings around the country, CVBs and DMOs anticipate such future events as the recent grand reveal in Puerto Rico of DISTRITO T-Mobile, and celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the city of San Juan spanning 2021 and into 2022; Visit Indy eagerly awaits its hosting role to the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship; Visit Tillamook will host the 2022 Swiss Society Centennial event, celebrating the heritage of the region’s dairy farmers; and the GMCVB hosted Art Basel Miami in late 2021 and will host the International Boat Show early this year.
In preparing to meet the future, CVBs and DMOs cite the essential role meeting planners play in their recovery. “We’re partners,” Fong says. “At the end of the day, we have to work together. The more transparent and communicative both planners and CVBs/DMOs are with each other, the greater success for all.”
Ward advises planners to “Keep working with us. Keep talking to us and support us in FAMs. Share and be generous with information. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s how important these partnerships are.”
At Travel Juneau, Logan suggests that planners can also help with recovery efforts “by realizing that we are all dealing with fewer dollars and some of the incentives of the past need to be reviewed or eliminated as we all move toward recovery.”
Russ reminds partners that “Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are open for business, but very much hurting for staff like other destinations around the country. Meeting planners can help CVBs with recovery efforts by contacting the CVB first for all planning needs. CVB sales teams know the state of the destinations and how best to accommodate your group by sourcing proposals, providing planning and marketing resources, and suggesting off-site activities.” Carey says, “We encourage planners to continue communicating with us, letting us know what they need and what they are learning from their clients, so that we can best adapt our offerings, tools and resources to ensure their success. We plan on continuing our proactive outreach, but they are free to contact us at any time.” Also, he says, “Meeting planners can foster responsible tourism among their groups, ensuring they are communicating local health and safety policies, and encouraging travel and events that will help build back tourism economies.” C&IT