Destination Cleveland Pivots to Tackle COVID-19

By Gabriel Seder, Senior Director of Advocacy Policy and Program Development, Destinations International Foundation

Under normal circumstances, Destination Cleveland, the destination marketing and management organization for the city and surrounding county focuses on changing perceptions of Cleveland, attracting visitors through leisure, business and meetings travel and providing leadership for Cleveland’s $9.4 billion tourism industry.

Like destinations across the world, Cleveland has been forced to reassess its strategy and make temporary, but substantial changes to address the resource challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the sudden drop of hotel occupancy to single digits, we, along with so many of our peers, are in an unprecedented situation,” said David Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Cleveland. “In late February, we announced at our annual meeting that our primary initiatives would be to continue to deliver on our mission of attracting visitors and to amplify the impact of their work by getting visitors to consider Cleveland as a place to live and work. With the loss of our funding, we had to focus on new priorities to allow us to determine the best use of our resources. Acting immediately was necessary so that Destination Cleveland can emerge from this unprecedented time strong and ready to lead our community out of the crisis.”

To continue to provide leadership for the industry, support friends and partners in the region, and ensure that Cleveland is in the best possible position to rebound from the crisis, Destination Cleveland has pivoted to focus on the five temporary organizational priorities listed below. The organization is continuously monitoring the world situation and its impact on the industry to determine when pivoting back to its pre-coronavirus mission and work is appropriate.

Organizational Survival

Destination Cleveland’s first goal is surviving the crisis so that it can lead the city’s recovery. Like other destination marketing & management organizations, it is anticipating substantial budget shortfalls. Revenues for 2020 are likely to be down as much as 90% against what was projected at the beginning of the year.  The organization is cutting expenses to balance the books and focusing on ensuring a viable business model to survive the crisis.

Compassion for People

While the pandemic is causing profound business interruption, it is fundamentally a human crisis. Destination Cleveland is putting people first and implementing a strategy that focuses on compassion for its people affected by the crisis. The organization has been forced to reduce hours of more than 40 percent of its team and furlough the remaining 60 percent, but it has not turned its back on its team. The organization is being proactive in maintaining contact with furloughed workers, keeping them updated as the situation develops, and ensuring that staff can return to work as soon as the situation allows.   

Partner Support

As a partnership-based organization, Destination Cleveland has a responsibility to the businesses, suppliers, and other industry partners in the region who depend on them to lead the tourism industry. It is continuing to provide leadership through the crisis by creating a COVID-19 Partner Toolkit with resources for the industry, maintaining community within the sector through a local hospitality industry Facebook page,  promoting businesses that are open and showcasing partners that are making a difference in the community, and advocating for the long-term viability of tourism in the city.

Take Advantage of Opportunities

While the pandemic presents untold challenges for the organization, its partners and the industry, Destination Cleveland is committed to finding opportunities during the crisis and remaining nimble to take advantage of these where it can. It has found opportunities to promote virtual experiences in the destination, giving locals and potential visitors alike a chance to experience the destination without leaving their homes. It has also showcased parks and trails where Clevelanders can explore their own city at a safe distance. And it is promoting restaurants offering takeout and delivery through the crisis. Most importantly, its sales team is working full-time to reschedule meetings and conventions that have been forced to postpone due to the pandemic.

Readiness to Gear Back-Up (When the Time is Right)

While Destination Cleveland has suspended the majority of its sales, marketing, and destination management programs, it is using this time to adjust its strategy, so the team is ready to ramp back up when it is safe to do so, and the market is ready. They are tracking the latest research to understand trends in the sector and measure the public’s readiness to travel. Key among these resources are  Longwoods International Travel Sentiment Study, MMGY’s The FutureState of Travel, and Destinations International & MMGY’s North American COVID-19 Barometer.

About the Author

Gabe Seder headshot
Gabe Seder
Senior Director of Advocacy Policy & Program Development
Destinations International Foundation
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.