Answering the Call - How the Poconos Face Crisis Together

By Chris Barrett, President and CEO of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau (PMVB)

In the months before COVID-19 would change everything, the Pocono Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania had been tested. Fire destroyed the “Grand Lady of the Mountains,” the century-old Pocono Manor prior to a major renovation project was to begin. The feds began a months-long review process of a dam and its whitewater releases on the Lehigh River which currently support the tourism industry to the tune of millions of dollars annually. And, as luck would have it, the weather did not cooperate as it usually does for the winter season.

Then March came in like a lion. The four-season destination which welcomed 28 million visitors in 2018 (a record) and is heavily reliant upon tourism dollars to drive the economy had to close up shop. The indoor water parks that had ushered in a new dynamic to the region, the longtime family resorts with loyal patrons, the charming downtowns replete with small businesses and exciting attractions all had to put business on hold and focus on stopping the spread of the deadly virus.

You could say the situation was bleak what with all the hospitals preparing for a surge in patients, nonprofits already stretched thin helping those within the margins and a spring season that looked nothing like a spring the Poconos ever before. But all that would not deter a coalition of community partners from doing all it could to confront the virus and its ripple effects. Leaders from the finance, education and health care sectors banded together with the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau (PMVB) to provide a public service and institute a new program for the new normal.

By mid to late March, the Pocono Television Network (PTN) along with a microsite on PoconoMountains.com and the bureau’s social media accounts were transformed into public resources for everything from local governments to unemployment and state department of health updates as well as stories highlighting the efforts of our health care community to fight COVID-19 and in many cases, succeed in saving lives.

Come April, the PMVB partnered with East Stroudsburg University and Blue Ridge Cable TV13 to produce a weekly half-hour briefing on the case numbers, phased reopening, useful tips to help residents get through the coming days and weeks including addressing their personal and mental health needs. This COVID-19 Weekly Briefing aired live on nine consecutive Friday mornings and the content ran in heavy rotation on PTN, the bureau’s 24-hour destination channel. Public service announcements were developed and produced airing on local broadcast affiliates stressing the need to flatten the curve, stay home and maintain social distancing. The Pocono Mountains, which was typically all about hospitality, was now about survival.

Distilleries produced hand sanitizer and gave away thousands of bottles for free. Resorts organized food drives for furloughed employees and made large donations to local pantries. Restaurants delivered food to hospital staff, while ski resorts collected goggles for medical personnel to use as eye protection. The iconic Pocono Raceway even transformed its superspeedway into a stage for thousands of high school seniors so they could safely hold graduation ceremonies.

While the good deeds continued, the Poconos’ hospitality industry looked forward to safely reopening for the guests. The PMVB, along with its members and community leaders, developed the Pocono Promise which has been signed by hundreds of businesses of all shapes and sizes.

The Pocono Promise is a voluntary set of guidelines that protect residents, visitors and employees. Those guidelines include aggressive cleaning protocols, health surveys for staff before starting their shift, special training and using personal protective equipment when possible. In return, businesses ask employees and customers to follow certain guidelines as well, which include following social distancing protocols and staying home/visiting another time if feeling sick. Businesses embraced the initiative by displaying door signs and fliers at their properties as well as putting into place the real, visible measures needed to make guests, employees and residents comfortable.

The mission now shifts back entirely to marketing the Pocono Mountains as a safe, reliable destination all within a short drive from New York or Philadelphia but we have gained a great deal along the way. Our neighbors have seen just how committed the industry is to be helping in times of need as well as collaborating with various organizations and stakeholders to succeed even in the most challenging of times. The Poconos and its people have endured so much but now can begin to heal as well as welcome back those who seek healing and respite from months of adversity.

About the Author

Chris Barrett
President & CEO
Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau
Chris has been with the company since April of 2017. Before this appointment, he was Executive Vice President/COO/CFO for Target Media and Target Digital, a leading east coast media and advertising firm headquartered in Harrisburg, PA.

Having three years at the PMVB under his belt, Chris makes it a point to give back to the community, provide value to members of the PMVB, improve the overall quality of life in the Poconos, and the vacation experience for visitors. He has made a concerted effort to include various stakeholders throughout the communities which the PMVB serves in order to address various needs ranging from economic development to anti-litter campaigns. Through his leadership, the visitors bureau has formed a coalition of different sectors to aid in public service messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the recovery phase that follows.