April 1 COVID-19 Webinar Recap: Key Takeaways from Rockford, Waterloo and Puerto Rico

By Gabriel Seder, Destinations International Foundation

Destinations International is committed to helping the tourism industry navigate the unprecedented challenges associated with the ongoing Coronavirus crisis. To help destination organizations and others through this challenging time, we are producing a weekly free webinar series each Wednesday. The following speakers were featured in this week’s COVID-19 weekly webinar:

  • Jack Johnson, Chief Advocacy Officer, Destinations International
  • John Groh, President/CEO, Rockford (IL) Area CVB
  • Nick Povalitis, Vice President for Marketing and Sports Development, Rockford (IL) Area CVB
  • Minto Schneider, President/CEO, Waterloo (Ontario) Regional Tourism Marketing Corporation
  • Leah Chandler, CMO, Discover Puerto Rico

Jack Johnson: Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better. But They Will Get Better.

The industry will come back as strong as it was going into this crisis, just as it recovered from previous public health disasters and past financial crises. However, things will almost certainly get worse before they get better. Public health officials tell us that the worst is yet to come. This means that it is too early to think about recovery. We need to focus on the next 3-6 weeks, not the next 3-6 months.

For now, destination organizations must continue to be a community asset. Their most important functions are keeping visitors and residents informed, coordinating with industry partners, and being a resource for their communities. The destination organizations that will be in the best shape when we come out of this crisis will be the ones that handled the next 3 to 6 weeks – both internally and externally – the best.

John Groh:  Meet the Mandate of the Moment

We have a responsibility to serve our local communities. The Rockford Area CVB is continuing to do this—the work goes on but in new ways. All of the staff are working from home, but they aware of the fact that they are working on behalf of their communities, partners, and stakeholders. There are novel challenges in these times, but they are approaching them with open hearts (and clean hands). This means highlighting the good things happening in the community and sharing the positive as well as the negative.

It is impossible to think out more than a few weeks, so they are focused on what they can do right now. Their mandate is doing the next right thing over the next couple of days or weeks and doing what they for their partners in that timeframe.

The focus right now is on sharing resources, networks, and information. They are virtually convening stakeholder groups to coordinate responses and are reporting to legislators and policymakers about the priorities for the industry. They are organizing twice-weekly video chats for the community over the lunch hour and using that time to share information and resources.

The organization has become a resource-rich content sharing machine.

Nick Povalitis: What Was Destination Promotion is Now Stakeholder Communication

Agility in communications is important. As the crisis unfolded, recognizing marketing was out of the question, the organization’s messaging changed. Originally, they talked about events that had been canceled or businesses that had closed—now it is about talking about what’s open. They’ve launched a campaign targeting residents meant to leverage the brand to promote those businesses still open.

The Stay Home Rockford Campaign features virtual tours, a songwriting contest, social media influencers, and creative use of social media, like Rockford Night Skies which encourages residents to spend time stargazing in their own backyards—and sharing that experience on Instagram.

Minto Schneider: Highlight Heroic Acts in the Community

The Waterloo destination organization has been forced to furlough or lay off nearly all staff to preserve what funds are left for recovery. But they are doing what they can with the resources remaining.

When restaurants closed, they began promoting takeout options. They’ve partnered with regional business improvement areas (BIAs) to start a website to report on what businesses remain open through the crisis.

Many in the community typically hit the road in their RVs this time of year. When the US-Canada border was going to close, these RVers had to rush home from points south. To accommodate this influx of seasonal residents, local campgrounds opened earlier in the season than they would otherwise. Some residents opposed this move, but the destination organization framed the campground owners as heroes and pointed out that the RVers need a place to go

The future of the industry will likely look different. The Ontario government is helping coordinate messaging to residents that when the time is right, people should travel within Ontario. In the meantime, they are focusing on solitary, less crowded activities like paddle boarding or exploring local parks.

Leah Chander: We Cannot Afford to Stand Still

Puerto Rico has a robust crisis management plan with strategies to address 20 different crisis scenarios. They were able to activate their “airborne illness and infectious disease” plan in early March, making them a leader in risk mitigation and containment. Since they were able to activate the plan so early, they now see themselves moving out of the first phase of the plan, “impact”, and into the second phase, “regrouping”.  They are still focused on containment and avoiding the risk of spreading the disease, but as a marketing organization, they cannot afford to do nothing.

The Key is to keep the destination top of mind. They recognize that travelers are stuck at home and bored, so they are focused on creating a meaningful dialog with future travelers, and other audiences including meeting planners, travel trade, and media.

Since travelers cannot come to Puerto Rico, they are bringing Puerto Rico to the travelers. They launched a free online “virtual vacation” program, with live videos that travelers can access from home. The first of these included a salsa dance lesson, a cocktail class, and a cooking class. These were very successful, generating 178 million impressions in top-tier media, about $3 million in ad equivalency, and increasing Instagram views by 300% over the week before. They intend to build on this success with future “virtual vacations”. At the same time, they are sending local coffee to key clients and partners through their “Coffee Care Packages from Puerto Rico” program, ensuring that the island stays top-of-mind.

Keep Up to Date with Destinations International

This webinar is recorded and available online here.

Destinations International is committed to keeping you up to date as COVID-19 continues to disrupt our industry. Join us for our weekly COVID-19 update webinar series, led by industry experts from around the world. Register here.

This blog post was made possible by the Destinations International Foundation. 

About Gabriel:

Gabe is a tourism marketing and destination development professional with more than 10 years of experience consulting for emerging and established destinations and tourism businesses around the world. He has supported city, regional, and national destination organizations to create and implement tourism strategies and master plans, develop and roll out national tourism brands, and implement international multi-channel marketing campaigns.

A native of coastal Maine, Gabriel lives in Washington DC. He has a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs from the George Washington University.