In July, I attended the Destinations International annual convention in Baltimore Maryland. It was my first live conference and the first convention to take place in Baltimore since before the pandemic. The energy at the event was contagious and the team at Visit Baltimore were amazing hosts.
I brought my award-winning, 5-star podcast to the convention and conducted mini-interviews with 26 tourism leaders to get their take on the past 18 months. Those interviews created a 3-part series for the show with each guest sharing the opportunities, lessons learned and outlook for the travel, tourism & hospitality industry. The idea for this book was born out of a desire to capture all this wisdom in one place. We turned the transcripts of each interview into a written Q&A from each tourism leader and compiled them into an eBook.
Ten themes appeared within the reflections of these 26 tourism leaders on this period in our industry history. Whether it was an opportunity, flash of brilliance, lesson learned or outlook for the future, these ten themes can provide a roadmap for navigating a post-pandemic world.
1. Human Leadership
Many of the tourism leaders couldn’t help but reflect on the human side of the business. We are an industry that is about people. We have always been focused on delivering a memorable experience for the traveler. With the pandemic, our focus broadened to our team members and the local community. Leading with empathy became a top strategy for supporting our teams as they navigated so much change. Recognizing that everyone has up days and down days and that people were affected differently by the pandemic. Gordon Taylor from Destination Cleveland summed it up in referring to leading his team:
“People get so hung up on the stresses of the job, let’s just talk about what is good right now. I know that we are doing a lot of work, but let’s not forget we are human beings.”
To learn more about human leadership, check out the Love is Just Good Damn Business Podcast with Steven Farber and his recent interview with Bob Chapman.
DMOs became one of the central clearinghouses for communication during the pandemic. Providing up-to-date information to residents and visitors on what was open, local mandates and safety protocols. This communication expanded to also being the conduit for tourism and hospitality businesses to share details about changing mandates, federal programs, and grant opportunities. In the case of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, they were able to offer the strength of their TV station to the cause and became a pseudo newsroom for the communities and hospital systems within their region. In this role the Visitor Bureau provided daily news briefings and eventually offered opportunities to local nonprofits to gain exposure to the local community as well.
3. Data is king
The pandemic proved that data is critical to understanding what is happening, and for planning for the future. When things change so rapidly, data becomes an even more crucial tool for making decisions. And the industry saw data like they never have before. Many partners stepped up to share data freely and organizations like Destination Analysts and Longwoods International started conducting weekly travel sentiment studies which the industry leaned on throughout.
As Andria Godfrey pointed out in her interview, the industry had more data than ever during the pandemic and that brought us closer to the consumer. Understanding when they were ready to travel, what they were willing to travel for and how they were planning those trips all became a lifeline for the industry as we navigated through the changes.
That closeness to the consumer, the deeper understanding of what they want will propel us into the future.
Deeper, broader, new – are all adjectives that industry leaders used to describe relationships throughout the pandemic.
New relationships were forged with competitors, across the industry, with other industry sectors, with government agencies and so many more. Leaders described deepening relationships with stakeholders, collaborators, industry associations, and economic development offices. They also pointed to the broader relationships formed with the community from the residents to elected officials to the health system and business community. When you are in it together, relationships become an integral role of moving through crisis.
Valerie Knoblauch from Finger Lakes Visitors Connection talked about the new and deeper relationships that she made with her county government officials. She points to those relationships as a key opportunity and how they will be fostered into the future. Valerie shared a recent conversation she had with her County Finance Director who noted that Valerie’s organization had made a mark over the last year and stated they need to be supported into the future.
A true necessity to get through this crisis, collaboration was leaned on in more ways during the pandemic. From collaborating with government agencies to helping with communication of changing mandates and closures to working with the SBA and local agencies to administer grants and federal programs, collaboration was everywhere throughout the crisis.
In a recent study on collaboration in the travel, tourism, and hospitality industry that I commissioned, 60% of respondents said that collaboration would be important to our industry’s recovery. 76% of respondents said they have collaborated with direct competitors. This is what I like to call co-opetition. Where competitors come together to create something bigger together than they can on their own. A great example of this came from Kurt Krause from Visit Norfolk and the creative marketing collaboration that his destination pulled off with nearby Virginia Beach. The campaign, aptly titled Together at Last, pooled the two communities’ resources together for a $1 million budget that resulted in $6 million in room sales.
6. Innovation & Technology
There is nothing like a crisis to challenge our creativity and force us to innovate. Leaders point to their ability to innovate internally with how they work, manage teams, and create marketing communication programs. They also point to how they support the innovations of stakeholders as new systems created touchless experiences, scheduled reservations, reduced lines, managed takeout service and so much more.
David Holder illustrates the impact that technology has on our industry by highlighting that technology virtually eliminated waiting in lines during the pandemic. Technology makes things easier for people and we should be looking to keep that technological edge moving forward. By approaching things from the lens of making the consumers life easier it changes the dynamic of the business offering.
7. Community shared value
When Destinations International started talking about the need for DMOs to become a community shared value in 2019, Chief Advocacy Officer, Jack Johnson thought it would take up to 10 years for this idea to evolve. What we saw with the pandemic is that DMOs large and small were viewed as an important part of the response team. They were brought in very early to help provide communication to both visitors and residents, to work with local businesses helping with grants and mandates, and to provide the voice for the tourism industry within their community. With tourism completely stopping due to lockdowns and travel restrictions, it quickly became obvious how important the visitor economy is for supporting local businesses.
Valerie Knoblauch from Finger Lakes Visitors Connection explained that her economic development office realized that part-time jobs are just as important as full-time jobs during the pandemic, and they looked to her office to help understand the needs of the hospitality industry to bring those jobs back. Tourism leaders point to many examples of how they were involved in the community and at the table more than they had ever been in the past. Jack Johnson says doors have been opened and contacts have been made and he warns leaders not to let that fade away.
Josiah Brown gives us a new way to think about an old adage. He explains that “live, work, play,” needs to be flipped around to “play, live, work.” He points to the pandemic and how it changed people’s priorities. Quality of life is more important than ever and as DMOs we know how to enhance the “play” aspect of our community. That focus will lead to better communities that can attract residents and visitors alike.
8. Changing traveler behavior
Leaders pointed to the need during the pandemic to quickly pivot marketing campaigns and programs to meet the changing behavior of the traveler. Whether it was marketing to a more local or regional audience, focusing on road trip travel, or highlighting safe outdoor experiences. Marketers need to know what the traveler wants and deliver the right messages and campaigns at the right time to help them in their journey. Traveler behavior will continue to change, and personalization is here to stay. Tourism leaders pointed to the need to continually evaluate and modify marketing plans. No more setting up the annual plan and running with it for a full year. The name of the game now is to run it, test it, measure, adjust, and repeat.
Julie Gilbert from Destination Niagara shared that her team tests their campaigns in market, they make modifications as they progress and optimize the campaigns as they go, and she says they do this much more quickly now. She reflects that it is easy to fall back into what you have done in the past and says as an industry we just can’t do that anymore. She points to consumer brands and others outside of the industry and how their marketing is adapting and changing and says that tourism marketers should take note of that and follow suit.
9. Adaptable & Flexible
We learned how to respond to change through adaptability and flexibility. Many tourism leaders pointed to the very first test of this, learning how to work as a remote team. Along with that was learning how to support stakeholders in the industry at a level that had never been done before.
- Wes Rhea from Visit Stockton points to the $3 million in small business grants that his office administered as one of those moments of adaptability.
- Gordon Taylor from Destination Cleveland shared how his sales team worked hand in hand with the Sales Directors at his local hotels to reschedule meetings and conventions into future years to save that business.
- Jill Delaney from Discover Albany talked about creating a flexible work environment and keeping that level of flexibility moving into the future.
- Annette Rummel from Go Great Lakes summed it up perfectly, her organization adopted the theme of “semper gumby,” forever flexible.
It is not surprising that tourism leaders brought up trust in their reflections on the crisis. It was certainly a common theme throughout the pandemic and is more important today than ever. But don’t take my word for it, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special report on Brands and the Coronavirus emphasized that the post-pandemic world will have trust at its core. With consumers looking at brands to solve problems, protect, care, collaborate and innovate with the public interest at heart.
In the study that was conducted in March 2020, 70% of consumers said that trusting a brand is more important today than in the past and this belief was shared across age groups, gender, and income. The 2021 Edelman Trust barometer study furthered this notion with 76% of consumers placing more trust in their employer over other information sources and stating that they are more likely to trust what is local, citing people in their local community, their employer CEO, and scientists to do what is right.