By Gabriel Seder, Senior Director of Advocacy Policy and Program Development at Destinations International
Last week, Destinations International conducted a member survey to understand the most pressing challenges facing destination organizations in the wake of the abrupt slowdown of the travel and tourism industry due to COVID-19. We are seeking to understand how these challenges are evolving and to look for creative strategies that destination organizations are developing to address them and priority areas for Destinations International to help
Over 220 professionals from destination organizations membership responded to the survey. Among other questions, the survey asked “What do you feel are your most pressing needs as it relates your organization and the destination organization sector at large” and what was of “Concern to the operations of your organization as it relates to COVID-19?”
We received nearly 300 responses to these two questions. What we found is that these responses overwhelmingly fit within six recurring themes—the six biggest challenges that destination organizations faced last week.
These challenges are summarized below in the words of more than 20 members who articulated some of the fears, frustrations, and expectations that we heard from many destination professionals.
Challenge 1: Finding reliable information about the pandemic, its implications for the industry, and official guidance for how organizations should react.
Organizations expressed frustration with information about the virus that often changed day-by-day or even hour-by-hour. Another source of frustration was news reports that sometimes seemed to be in conflict with other sources. Destination organizations endeavored to themselves be trusted conduits of information for their stakeholders, but first, they needed access to timely and relevant information they could trust.
- “We need facts! I am not sure whether to believe Coronavirus is no more contagious or deadly than the flu or that this is extremely serious and deadly and that this is not being taken seriously by everyone, the mosaic of reactivity all across the board is quite confusing.”
- “Keeping up with what's changing day to day”
- “There are so many sources of community info out there…it almost becomes information overload.”
- “Our most pressing need is what everyone else's is: information. We can't predict what is going to happen next or how long this will last.”
Challenge 2: Being a trusted conduit of information for stakeholders including travelers, residents, meeting planners, partners, members, and staff.
In the face disruptions across the industry, destination organizations stepped in to provide timely information and guidance to local stakeholders. Among the highest priorities was providing updates on closures and cancellations in the region. Destination organizations also shared guidance from the CDC, state health departments, and various industry associations. By March 20, over 75% of respondents reported that they had added information about Coronavirus to their websites.
However, with the pace of closures, cancellations, and travel advisories accelerating, destination organizations struggled with “remaining advocates of travel and tourism and supporters of local partners without appearing irresponsible or insensitive to the circumstances”.
- “Trying to be as current as possible with information on the status of operations for all partners in the community and keeping meeting planners, visitors and partners informed on how and if they can meet, visit or remain open during the crisis.”
- “Getting info to visitors who are still traveling”
- “To remain calm and get the word out that everyone should follow guidelines and restrictions and check with local businesses on their hours.”
- “Consumer sentiment monitoring, encouraging hotels and convention center to not enforce cancellation penalties, communicating closures to the public, support local businesses.”
Challenge 3: Continuing to offer core services and continuing business operations in a safe manner.
Over the course of the week, nearly every destination organization surveyed had to decide when and how to scale back operations. By March 20, 75% of organizations surveyed reported that their staff was working partially or fully remote to comply with nationwide calls to prevent the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve”. This rapid transition presented a number of challenges for organizations that had to come up with new operating procedures on the fly. The question of what to do with visitor center staff and other employees whose work cannot be done remotely also came up repeatedly.
- “Keep staff united and productive during this period of working from home, which many are not accustomed to.”
- “Not everyone is accustomed to working remotely. It is key to provide employees with the right tools to operate well.”
- “The transition to a fully remote operation had a few hiccups, but it is going OK so far. This shows the current flaws in our emergency plan but gives us plenty of ideas to build from.”
- “We allow occasional remote work but learning to maintain "team" while fully working remotely is a crash course we weren't prepared for from a contingency standpoint.”
- “Staff is getting very demoralized with the continual spread of the virus. Working from home is confining and takes away the interaction with colleagues and customers”
- “Long term plans for part-time staff who do not have duties they can perform at home.”
Challenge 4: Cutting costs in anticipation of steep budget cuts.
With hotel tax revenues abruptly anticipated to be a fraction of what had been projected, destination organizations had to immediately start cutting costs. The survey did not ask for specific information on cost-saving measures, but the theme of cutting expenditures in an effort to head off employee layoffs came up again and again. Many organizations reported suspending marketing campaigns, cutting travel, and dipping into contingency or reserve funds. However, in some organizations, furloughs and layoffs had already begun.
- “Figuring out how to cut expenses, given that we don't know how long this will last and what recovery will look like. We're presuming we'll cut all expenses to the bone wherever we can. Do we cut staff now? Furlough them? Eat through our reserves and hope the economy picks back up before we're flat broke?”
- “The fear of reducing staff if this goes on for more than 3-4 months. In what manner does an organization handle that -- reduce by non-essential vs. essential staff? Last hired? There doesn't seem to be any good way to approach that, but our tourism partners are already dealing with reduced hours, reduced workforce, so will our organization if this lasts for very long.”
- “Cut expenses, stabilize the business, try to maintain staffing, remind lodging community there will be a rebound, be a strategic future-focused resource for a government focused on day to day operations.”
- “If we slash our $675,000 budget by 50%, that means we can only pay our staff and operate the building with no marketing media buy. Just sales calls and maybe no budget to fly anyone in for site inspections. Will need to tap into reserves.”
Challenge 5: Providing resources to local businesses that are forced to close and to local workers who may lose jobs.
As events were canceled, hotel occupancy plummeted, and restaurants began to shutter across the country, destination organizations were increasingly alarmed at the impact of the crisis on small businesses and workers in their community. Many warned that the longer the crisis lasts, the more significant the impacts would be in their community. Some organizations reported that they had stopped marketing their destinations and were instead focusing on communications on local audiences. Many organizations focused on driving residents to local businesses. Others called for state and federal assistance for businesses and workers. For many organizations, tracking lost and canceled business became a priority.
- “As a destination organization, our most pressing needs are to communicate with and support our industry partners. Minimal emphasis is on marketing our destination for the future at this time.”
- “Communicating with our tourism partners on what's happening and providing resources for their businesses. Sharing with our community how our partners are adjusting -- closings, curbside service, take out only, deals or gift cards for sale, etc.”
- “Supporting local businesses with alternative ways of shopping, purchasing gift cards, and take out/delivery service”
- “We have shifted our focus to our hospitality community and creating website-based resources for workers facing layoffs or reduced hours. We are also providing tools for small businesses, bars, etc. that are seriously impacted.”
- “Keeping up with all the partner closures and changes in operation to be a resource to community and clients.”
- “Most important items: Negative impact on small & family-owned businesses - restaurants, wineries, breweries, etc. We want to be prepared to drive healthy consumers (residents and tourists) to these businesses when life begins to go back to normal.”
- “Collecting business impact information in order to get federal funding for small businesses.”
Challenge 6: Understanding how—and when—to begin recovery planning.
Despite the anxiety of the unfolding crisis, many of the comments we received were underpinned with notes of optimism. Some organizations committed to using this period of uncertainty to build team morale, become more nimble organizations, strengthen partnership with local stakeholders, and refocus the organization on serving the community. Others shared their commitment to developing robust recovery plans ensuring that they emerge from the crisis more resilient than they went into it.
Despite this, most organizations expressed uncertainty about recovery planning: When was the right time to begin recovery planning? When is the right time to begin marketing again? How can organizations forecast budget cuts? And how can they go about developing a realistic recovery plan?
- “There are opportunities during these times as well. Can strategically realign staff and re-engineer aspects of our organization.”
- “We recognize that tourism is going to take the hit in the short-term, but must be able to lead the post-COVID recovery. What to do? When to do it? How to go about creating and capturing demand after COVID?”
- “We are in search of ideas for… continuing to create and build a better relationship with the local community all while attempting to create a strategic plan on how to be begin the recovery as well as being a resource for others.”
- “We must get our recovery plans ready for deployment. Maintain open communications with stakeholders and community leaders to build and reinforce confidence.”
- “When will it be the right time to start marketing our destination again?”
Against a backdrop of ever-tightening travel restrictions, calls to maintain “social distancing”, and the continued spread of the virus, these challenges facing our industry are unlikely to abate in the near future. Destinations International will continue surveying members weekly to understand how these challenges are evolving and to look for creative strategies that destination organizations are pursuing to address them. And where no strategies exist, Destinations International will endeavor to create them. We will be reporting survey results online, in weekly webinars, and other channels.
During these unprecedented times in our industry, we have an opportunity to learn from one another. Please take a moment to complete a short survey to let us know your challenges and priorities this week and to share any thoughts that may be valuable for your colleagues who are facing similar hurdles. A new survey opens every Friday at 9:00 a.m. Eastern and closes the following Monday at 5:00 p.m. Eastern.
You may begin the survey here.