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Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) are up against an enemy of gigantic proportions: the COVID-19 pandemic.
And many of these companies — which are also known as tourism boards or visitors and convention bureaus — have gotten scrappy when it comes to pivoting their promotional strategies and coming up with creative ways to stretch their marketing dollars, all while continuing to serve the regions they represent.
A recent Zoom panel hosted by Nick Wayland, CEO and founder of TravMedia, tackled these topics and more with panelists Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destinations International; Elliott L. Ferguson II, president and CEO of Destination D.C. and the National Chair of the board of directors for the U.S. Travel Association; and Liz Bittner, president and CEO for Travel South USA.
In a time of furloughs, layoffs and massive budget cuts, DMOs have not escaped unscathed; on the contrary, they represent some of the hardest-hit travel businesses during the pandemic. Despite the fact that DMOs are vital to the economic health of a city or state, their status as 501c6 organizations (nonprofits) make them ineligible for CARES Act federal relief initiatives, including the Paycheck Protection Program.
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During the panel, Welsh reported a “dire situation” for his U.S. Destinations International membership: A chunk of his 459 member DMOs are reporting a revenue freefall — some of up to 90%.
The lack of inclusion in federal stimulus relief packages is an issue that the U.S. Travel Association and the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) have both been actively lobbying against.
But in the case of the PPP, it may be too little, too late, according to Bittner.
“The fact that DMOs were left out of the Paycheck Protection Program is just heartbreaking,” she said. “I personally think that the industry, and the U.S. Travel Association, did a yeoman’s job in bringing that to attention. But now everyone is talking about it, and June 30 is the last day you can apply for the PPP. I think that particular ship may have already sailed, and it’s not going to come back.”
However, she said DMOs should explore additional funding channels, such as Community Development Block grants.
“Tourism is in the top three economic drivers in the U.S., behind manufacturing and agriculture,” she said. “Both nationally and regionally, if you look at unemployment, it is overwhelmingly in the hospitality industry. We have to get all those people back to work, and the only thing that’s going to help is government stimulus.”
Though not a lobbying organization, Destinations International has started a letter writing campaign and has had phone calls with city mayors, urging them to provide funding to cities.
“Unless organizations get funded, they can’t do their jobs,” Welsh said. “Everybody has had to pivot. It’s not business as usual.
Unless organizations get funded, they can’t do their jobs. Everybody has had to pivot. It’s not business as usual.
“We need to have a marketing budget, which we won’t be able to have if we can only pay salaries and expenses,” Ferguson said. “We have limited dollars, and we are all fighting for the same customer with limited dollars.”
The current situation may be best compared with the shuttering of Mexico’s tourism board in 2019, Welsh said.
“A new president came in, and he literally abolished the great work that had been done for decades,” he said. “He shut down all the offices and did away with all the promotional funding for tourism organizations, and we kept saying, ‘Wow, that’s never going to happen in the U.S. and Canada.’ But this has been an equalizer.”
Destination D.C. has its own unique set of challenges. Right now, Ferguson said, he’s focusing on beefing up the destination’s website and focusing on the drive market.
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The city also has 100 free attractions for locals and visitors, but he’s had to consider what the realities of visiting an attraction may look like right now.
“My biggest nightmare is that people come here, and the lines to get into everything are blocks long due to social distancing,” he said. “Maybe we can get them to go to restaurants and to do other things while they’re here. We have to really think about not only what we are doing to market our destinations, but if we’re successful, the limitations to what a large number of people can do because of social distancing.”
And until a full return to normalcy is established, DMOs “all have to think differently” in the interim, he added.
“Maybe the convention center, because of social distancing, becomes the venue that all the hotels use for their meetings, simply because they don’t have the capacity to social distance,” he said.
And other states — such as North Carolina and Tennessee, which are both represented by Travel South USA — have found creative ways to market their destinations by communicating about new COVID-19 safety initiatives, and thus actively highlighting the virus in their messaging.
Visit NC (the tourism bureau for North Carolina) recently co-launched the Count on Me NC campaign. It comprises a guest pledge for travelers with specific guidance on staying safe in the era of COVID-19, as well as a business affiliate program that provides local restaurants, hotels, attractions and shops with COVID-19 training that has been developed by public health officials and safety experts. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Department of Tourist Development has partnered with some 30 local brands to develop the TN Strong Mask Movement, which has distributed more than 300,000 free or low-cost masks across the state.
“We are going to slow, we are going to pause, and we are going to be safe,” Welsh said. “Travel will never stop, nor do I think face-to-face meetings will ever stop. But it’s got to be built on safety and security. We are going to slowly come back, but we won’t stop.”
“I hope we’ll come out on the back-end as a better destination,” he said. “And I know that people want to travel, it’s the only way we can appreciate each other’s differences and celebrate our likenesses, globally and domestically.”
The DetailsDestination D.C.www.washington.orgDestinations Internationalwww.destinationsinternational.org
Travel South USAwww.industry.travelsouthusa.com