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Like many of you, I’ve been overwhelmed at the impact Covid-19 has had on the travel industry, and how each day has brought an unpleasant serving of new closures, new layoffs, new news that suggests that this beloved industry is changed forever.
And yet in and amongst the devastation that the pandemic has unquestionably wrought, I’ve also started to see bright spots, glimmers of hope and possibility from colleagues at destination marketing organizations across the country. I see them in the DMO social media feeds, in Google alerts, and I see them posted from friends and family members in those various destinations.
What I’m seeing is a reminder to me that Charles Darwin is famously misquoted — he never said that the strongest species survive. He said the most adaptable survive. And in the last several weeks, as airlines and hotels have shut down, as attractions and restaurants have been shuttered, and as our normal way of life has been restricted to the four walls of our respective living areas, DMOs have done a remarkable job of adapting to survive.
I reached out recently to 23 DMOs in a variety of U.S. cities to ask them more about what they’re doing, find out what they’re most proud of, and discover how they’re thinking about both “the now” and “the next.”
The heartbreak was apparent in many of the responses I received, and although much of it was about losing colleagues to layoffs, the pain was also acute in how they talked about the devastating loss to the industry, including the hotels, restaurants, attractions, and retail outlets that define their destination.
None of them know what things will look like when we pull out of this, but all of them remain optimistic, and remain fully committed to doing whatever is necessary to get their local economies growing again. And despite the significantly reduced resources many of them have access to, every single one of them is adjusting their goals, strategies, plans, and tactics to the dramatically different environment in which they’re all living and working.
In what follows, I’ve tried to cull the extensive lists of initiatives that many of the DMOs have undertaken over the last two months into bite-sized nuggets, both to demonstrate the creativity and resilience they have in order to hopefully remind and inspire others of the role — and the responsibility — the organizations play within their destination.
Some Key Themes
Before I get into the specifics of what each DMO provided, there were a few common themes worth pointing out.
Local Is the Focal Point
It was notable to me that every single one of them had shifted their primary focus to the local market — reinforcing pre-existing relationships with government bodies and other key constituents while also forging relationships that up until now have been deemed as unnecessary or unimportant, such as local media (because most visitors come from outside their market, most DMOs haven’t historically invested many dollars on local marketing efforts). To this end, a number of the organizations have completely dropped out of all paid marketing visitor-targeted efforts, reinvesting all available resources to build awareness locally in order to help keep their industry alive.
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
Most if not all of the DMOs I heard from are already seeing the negative impact of the pandemic on their budgets (which are largely derived from taxes or assessments on various aspects of the travel industry, notably hotel and in some cases vacation rental stays). But while limitations and restrictions on budgets and resources are often accompanied by taking a more conservative approach, I was really impressed and surprised by some of the work and thinking that was shared. In many cases, the paucity of funds gave space for more innovative thinking and greater creativity.
Rising Tide Raises All Boats
Ironically, as DMOs have wrestled over the years with their own relevance, it’s unfortunately lost on many residents in any given city that the restaurants, retail establishments and attractions they all enjoy are supported by both visitor and resident dollars. And if the visitor dollars go away, so will many of the things the residents love. I call that the “interdependence economy,” and it could well be one of the silver linings that comes from this crisis — a better understanding, appreciation and respect for the value DMOs deliver to the vibrancy of local experiences, and the local economies. These organizations quite literally “lift” the experience for both visitors and residents, and make the quality of life in the whole destination much richer.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum
While it’s easy to think tourism is primarily airlines and hotels, as noted above, the fact is that many of the stores, businesses and experiences we all enjoy as locals (think museums, sporting events, etc.) are at least in part supported by visitor dollars. And yet no other single organization or association is as connected to all those businesses as a DMO, no one else has either the relationships to galvanize such a disparate group nor the resources to mobilize them. In the last several weeks, DMOs have risen to the occasion, showing up and providing support in a myriad of unique and unexpected ways. They fill gaps and voids that other organizations can’t see, or don’t reach, and are proving to be an invaluable resource for many who weren’t really aware of their capabilities.
Lots of Common Ground
A deep dive into what DMOs are doing right now to respond to the pandemic reveals that there is a common playbook, and most if not all have quickly created or curated “the basics,” from Zoom backgrounds to digital puzzles, virtual tours of local attractions to lighting up their city blue in support of the local hospitality community, and by providing a list of movies, TV shows and books set in their destination for residents to pass the time with and for visitors to enjoy in hopes of being inspired for a future visit. I haven’t listed every one of them here, as I’ve tried where possible to focus on the unique and innovative things each was doing.
The following list is not exhaustive of the DMOs that are doing interesting and creative things — these were the teams I had access to, and that were gracious enough to quickly get me the information to put this together. Destinations are presented in alphabetical order.
Visit Anaheim has developed a simple three-step process to its marketing and communications — start with empathy and understanding, shift to dreaming when visitors are ready to embrace the idea of travel again, and then aggressively begin marketing for planning and visiting. Since DMOs weren’t originally built to communicate with locals, the southern-California DMO embraced the opportunity to create relationships with the city’s residents, but didn’t have the channels to do so. To address this, they instantly developed collaborative partnerships with 34 local industry members who also welcome locals (restaurants, attractions, etc.) who are pushing out the critical messaging to locals. Having built the Visit Anaheim brand on the range of “characters” that make up the diverse industry in their community, they’re now communicating about the “character” of the local community, which has stepped up in a big way to feed locals, provide PPE to those in need, supporting this critically important industry while garnering national recognition as a result of the DMO’s efforts.
Visit Anaheim COVID-19 Resources
Key hashtags: #VisitAnaheim
The ACVB’s biggest area of impact has been serving as a resource to their hospitality industry. As many of their 850 members face extreme financial challenges, the organization has aggregated online resources on Atlanta.net designed to help the companies and their employees. These include fundraising efforts on behalf of employees in the hospitality industry, as well as aggregating available open positions and curating an ongoing job board from Atlanta-based businesses both in and outside of tourism. And in an effort to jumpstart the meeting and convention business, the ACVB has reached out to the local business community (which includes Fortune 100 firms including The Coca-Cola Company, Delta Airlines, Home Depot and UPS) to request that they consider holding upcoming meetings in their hometown as the hospitality community gets back on its feet.
ACVB COVID-19 Resources
Key hashtags: #WeAreATL
Visit Buffalo Niagara quickly turned its attention from sales and marketing to community support and outreach. A “Virtual Tip Jar” encouraged the Buffalo Nation to consider leaving a tip for service industry employees when they made a meal at home or grabbed a beer from the fridge. To date, the Buffalo community has sent more than 2,200 tips to more than 700 hospitality industry employees, making them one of the top performing cities in the country. Buffalo’s music is its heartbeat, and normally you couldn’t turn a corner each night without hearing music thumping out of their legendary venues, dive bars, clubs and halls. So Visit Buffalo Niagara created the “Buffalo Forever” playlist on Spotify featuring Buffalo-born favorite musicians like the Goo Goo Dolls, Brian McKnight, Grover Washington, Jr., Every Time I Die, Willie Nile and a few tunes where Buffalo the city gets a special nod.
Visit Buffalo Niagara COVID-19 Landing Page
Key hashtags: #BuffaLove #InTheBUF
Conventional and logical wisdom is that when travel begins, it will largely begin with regional travel and road trips, a sweet spot for Dallas. To seize on that Visit Dallas is developing a leisure bridge campaign that will be deployed when recovery occurs in their regional drive markets to encourage road trips to Dallas. And in addition to creating engaging tools for locals, the sales team at Visit Dallas is also working to keep their destination top of mind with clients and customers crafting live, virtual events. Called VisitDallas Live, the first live event was a celebration of the fact that the frozen margarita machine was invented in Dallas, a happy hour hosted by their Margarita Mile Ambassador Chef Julian Rodarte. The team will produce the second VisitDallas Live event on Friday featuring spring gardening advice from the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and continue with weekly Friday programming for the next few months.
Visit Dallas COVID-19 Resources
Key hashtags: #VisitDallasSoon
Visit Denver teamed up with a multitude of tourism and hospitality partners to develop “Love This City Denver,” a new initiative designed to inspire locals to show their love of the community by supporting Denver businesses and attractions suffering from mandated shutdowns. As part of the effort, the DMO created LoveThisCityDenver.com, a convenient online resource for supporting Denver tourism and hospitality businesses through the COVID-19 crisis including local restaurants, museums, attractions, sports and educational/cultural institutions. The initiative was launched with a seven-week, online and social media public engagement component that rewards locals with free Denver experiences, including full weekend staycations, for future use if they visit the site to answer Denver trivia questions. The new website offers a wealth of resources including ToGoDenver, which provides access to nearly 900 Denver metro restaurants offering convenient take-out and delivery services, entertainment and educational resources, virtual arts/attractions tours, and children’s activities and learning tools.
Visit Denver COVID-19 Resources
Key Hashtags: #LoveThisCityDenver
In Fort Worth, locals are their visitors, so they redirected advertising to promote restaurant pick-up and delivery, and as a result of their work (available on the website, but they were also able to quickly create mobile and map versions of the database), their website gained a big new local following and maintained narrow YTD traffic gains instead of dropping into negatives. The organization is so committed to supporting film and music that they produced a “Ways to Support Local Artists and Musicians” page on their website and developed a creative industries fundraiser with United Way to provide grants to artists who have lost so much work. And they’ve created the Distancing Distractions: At-Home Video Challenge, inviting filmmakers, novices and kids to submit 30-second to 2-minute videos created at home — anything from stop-animation to cooking content. And they applied their own team’s creative skills to help the City launch a brand-appropriate public service campaign: Y’all Stay Home.
Visit Fort Worth COVID-19 Resources
Key hashtags: #VisitFortWorth
The DMO quickly converted their events calendar to list virtual events only, and have aggregated traveler resources as well as things for locals to do under the banner of “#MissingHOU” – their site includes heartwarming stories from the community, ways to help, as well as recipes from local chefs, coloring pages they made in partnership with local artists, and more. Additionally, while they’ve halted their advertising, they’re working closely with their local CBS affiliate which is helping support and promote a number of their current efforts. And they’ve developed a unique promotion called a virtual dinner party, in which friends in different locations enjoy a meal together and have a chance to win prizes. Through their “Houston Insider” program, they’ve signed up more than 3,000 Houstonians who regularly participate in meet-ups to explore the city, and they’re now leaning on those Insiders to be advocates, helping amplify the messages to support local businesses.
Visit Houston COVID-19 Resources
Key hashtags: #MissingHOU
The response to the pandemic by the Visit Indy has been equal parts creativity, collaboration, and compassion. They’re coordinating “Table for 200!,” a citywide virtual dinner party to support the local restaurant community and give Indianapolisians (word?) a chance to connect with other residents, and have supported the local emergency funds by netting $61,000 in an Indy t-shirt promotion in mid-March. A deep and diverse set of “Indy-Inspired Ways to Unwind” is featured prominently on their meeting planner page in order to keep them front and center with that audience. With #INthistogether, they’ve created a platform and coordinated with other resources to keep the industry connected to the latest news about how hospitality is responding to the crisis. And via thoughtful budgeting, they haven’t had to furlough any of their 62 team members to date, have cut exec salaries and all discretionary spending, and shifted to a 4-day work week to encourage usage of PTO.
Key hashtags: #INthistogether #LoveIndy
Almost certainly the most complex of the DMOs researched for this article, Discover Los Angeles is tracking the closure, cancellation and postponement of hundreds of events and attractions weekly across a broader geography than any other single city DMO. That same complexity, however, means a vast store of content from which to draw to keep all types of visitors from all over the world engaged in the City of Lights – their site has been updated to include fresh content including 50 films shot in L.A., lessons in speaking Korean from pop supergroup BTS, and information about virtual tours of many of L.A.’s top attractions. In addition, they’re hosting a nightly “Magic Hour” on social media, celebrating one of the city’s most beautiful assets – the sunset over the Pacific Ocean — while also curating recipes for LA-themed cocktails and playlists. Hosts for the event change weekly, and will include well-known artists, photographers, musicians, chefs and mixologists.
Key hashtags: #MagicHour
Miami’s hotels are of course shut to the general public, but the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau is hosting a special page on their site to make it easy for “essential lodgers” (whether healthcare professionals, first responders, airline crew members, patients’ families and more) to find a place to stay. They’ve also gone beyond just providing a list of restaurants that have takeout or delivery available by reminding locals to call the restaurant direct rather than go through one of the delivery services (such as UberEats, or GrubHub), since those companies are charging the restaurant up to 30 percent of the bill — which can easily leave the restaurant with no margin at all. And beyond the extensive virtual tours they’ve aggregated on their site, they provide access to a variety of live webcams at various locations throughout the city — to check the weather or see if people on the beach are keeping proper social distance.
Key hashtags: #MiamiShines
Like many other DMOs, New Orleans & Company has created a fun and extensive list of things to do at home (NOLA Boredom Busters), and made it easily accessible on their website. Due to budget constraints, they’ve been forced to bring their social media in-house, re-engineering and cross-training an internal team while maintaining the same level of activity and engagement. But they’re really devoting most of their energy toward the eventual reopening of their city, working directly with the Governor and partnering with our city and state organizations to make recommendations for the reopening of business-related activities and commerce for the coming months, representing the critically-important tourism industry. In addition, because New Orleans is such a “sensory experience” (if you’ve been, you know), they are maintaining relationships with key convention customers by sharing with them the sights, sounds, language and products for at-home experiences.
Key hashtags: #OneTimeInNOLA
It should come as no surprise to anyone that NYC, one of the most diverse and multi-faceted cities in the world with one of the most vibrant tourism economies inter-woven through the daily lives of millions of New Yorkers, would have a DMO that has proven time and time again to lead the city’s varied visitor industry through difficult times. Beyond providing their office and website as a conduit for information related to the visitor industry to flow through, they are providing immediate and ongoing guidance for local businesses to access relief and funds, including hosting educational webinars with key members of both the city and federal small business administrations. Additionally, they’re gathering data on behalf of city agencies to assess the number of NYC residents in the hospitality industry who need childcare, and also leveraging their intimate knowledge of the city and deep relationships to identify unused event spaces for pandemic-related uses, etc. And PS, the amount of content they’ve created in a short period of time for how people can experience NYC while social distancing is staggering.
Key hashtags: #VirtualNYC, #NYCThroughMyWindow
Paying close attention to supporting the local economy that’s primarily driven by tourism, Visit Orlando built a deep resource on their website for individuals and businesses in need, which includes information on financial relief resources, food assistance, employment opportunities and even special offers their members are giving healthcare workers and first responders. To assist with business planning, the hub also provides access to the DMO’s industry insights, webinars and opportunities to join campaigns that are helping to keep Orlando top of mind with consumers. In addition, they partnered with Orange County to create and promote #407Day, a social campaign with a nod to the calendar date (4/07) and the county’s longtime area code. Their “virtual dinner table” encouraged residents to order takeout or delivery from one of the 400+ open restaurants, garnering upwards of 30,000 site visits. A series of webinars they created is supporting their members and local community, featuring the organization’s economist and head of research, as well as a member of the TripAdvisor team.
Website Resources – Tourism Help Hub (for the industry)
Key hashtags: #407Days
Visit Philadelphia provided one of the more exhaustive (and impressive) lists of pandemic-related activities. A quick pivot from an ongoing partnership with a local TV station that could no longer be filmed has become a popular Facebook Live program – Philly Live Weekends is a real-time, virtual livestream in which viewers bring Philly into their home to connect with renowned chefs, performers, artists and other Philadelphians working and playing from home – think Giraffe feedings at the Philadelphia Zoo, Pantry Parties with James Beard Foundation award winning chef Jose Garces and intimate live concerts from the Philadelphia Orchestra. In addition, the DMO worked with the City of Philadelphia to develop a thank you campaign for healthcare professionals and other essential workers (including those in the city’s tourism industry). The un-branded ads are running on digital billboards across the city and in a variety of local media outlets, and have also been posted on boarded up buildings.
Key hashtags: #Philly
In an economy made up predominantly of small businesses, and with such a small and tight-knit community that relies so heavily on tourism as a key economic driver, challenges that face the tourism industry are seen as broader business challenges. As a result, there is great synergy and alliance between the team at Visit Portland and the Greater Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. In facing the pandemic, the two organizations have partnered with many others to create, share and promote PayItForwardMaine, encouraging residents to shop local during this crisis and support local small businesses. Unique to other promotions and partnerships shared on this list, the groups disregarded any organizational member status – the goal was to support small businesses irrespective of whether that business was a member of the organizations. They were also able to secure local media placement, and leaders of the organizations were able to record their commercial in the studio from a physically-distant 6’ apart.
Key hashtags: #payitforwardmaine
Travel Portland underwent a significant pivot in focus during the pandemic, directing the majority of communications tools and staff resources toward the local community, developing and pushing out content on social channels to communicate with residents. The social team also created assets for local businesses to use in social media promotion, and created a social campaign designed to inspire Portlanders at home through videos from well-known residents such as makers, chefs, musicians and artists. In PR, the DMO is telling the story to residents of the damage endured in their local business community so residents are aware that many of their favorite places could be gone if they don’t get support now. For example, Powell’s Bookstore, one of Portland’s most popular visitor attractions, is also popular with residents. But when locals realized that the pandemic had forced the closure of their primary downtown location, online orders flooded in and resulted in the business being able to hire staff back.
Key hashtags: #Portlandtogether, #TelePortland
Sacramento sits within California’s Central Valley, often referred to as “the breadbasket of the world,” given the area’s rich agricultural heritage and vast farmlands, and the city is known as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital. For the last year or so, Visit Sacramento has had a video series in the works called “Breaking Bread,” featuring some of the city’s best restaurants and chefs in an unscripted reality show — but when the pandemic hit, the DMO and producers were forced to pivot and tweak the title to be “Breaking Bread…At Home,” now showcasing the ability of the chefs to create spectacular takeout food, and what it means to the local community to do so. They’ve also stayed connected to the community via a new incarnation of the Visit Sacramento Podcast, recent episodes of which focus on sharing the good stories coming out of the community, including a local grocery store chain discussing the way they’ve met challenges and the positive feedback from the community.
Key hashtags: #Sacramento365
As we’ve seen with many non-tourism brands, the messaging around the pandemic tends toward the bland and unbranded (as in, any brand could’ve said that), but the message from the San Diego Tourism Authority is “Stay Safe – We’ll Keep San Diego Warm For You” is as on brand as any DMO statement I’ve seen in the last couple months, providing “virtual sunshine” to their potential visitors. The highlights of their website are the videos the DMO has produced featuring a diverse set of local visitor industry folks, from Paralympic Gold Medalist Alana Nichols talking best nearby kayak spots to noted local music expert Jeff Terich, and from San Diego Padres Hall-of-Famer Trevor dishing on ballpark food to SeaWorld’s Stranded Animal Coordinator Jody Westberg discussing her company’s commitment to conservation. You might think San Diego is just a surf destination, but the work the team has done reveals otherwise.
Key hashtags: #WithLoveSanDiego
(Full disclosure, I used to work for San Francisco Travel, apologies if I glow). We’ve all heard the word “unprecedented” a few more times than we’d like in the last couple months, but it’s entirely appropriate to use in the case of a collaboration between the DMOs of three of America’s most highly-visited cities — San Francisco Travel, along with NYC & Company and the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board. As visitors are asked to stay home, #ThroughMyWindow was created to encourage residents of each city to share the wonders of the place they live, in hopes of inspiring future travel – and in a unique twist, each DMO is not only promoting their own views but also those of the other cities. Unprecedented to see LA or NYC on SF Travel’s Instagram, but it’s happening. I also love the “Good News” the team at SF Travel is pumping out, not just good news about the City by the Bay but from all over the world. Take that, John Krasinski.
Key hashtags: #SFThroughMyWindow
The marketing challenge for Visit Seattle right now is to stay top of mind and continue to grow loyalty, while not being tone deaf to the current situation and not spending any additional dollars. As a result, they have been strategic with packaging up owned assets in new and different ways to give people Seattle experiences in the safety of their own home, all under the theme “while travel is discouraged right now, dreaming is not.”
Knowing that video consumption is up 60 percent during this pandemic, they’ve turned their monthly newsletter into Special Edition versions, housing the rich bank of VISITSEATTLE.tv content for people to binge on, then serving up virtual experiences that allows soon-to-be travelers to enjoy the Seattle Symphony, Pacific Science Center, Seattle Aquarium and various live feeds from Seattle viewpoints all from their couch. And the city’s artists are keeping the energy alive downtown by using the protective plywood on suspended businesses as canvases.
Key hashtags: #SeattleBucketList
In an effort to bring St. Pete/Clearwater together under one unified message during an uncertain time, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater developed and launched a bridge campaign, Brighter Days Ahead. The digital assets were deliberately unbranded to develop a platform of creative ideas that their partners could leverage and utilize during this time to reach residents and visitors, stripping their brand out to unite behind a single positive message. For now, the DMO is communicating that message through owned channels and creative social media content, like hour-plus-long beach scene videos that provide a peaceful soundtrack to a work-from-home day. In total, three ASMR-style beach videos have generated more than 250,000 views across social media, and they anticipate using the Brighter Days Ahead message as the first paid marketing effort they will roll back into the market when the state and its beaches all reopen.
Key hashtags: #BrighterDaysAhead
Visit Tampa Bay went from monitoring COVID-19 to actively leading an industry response with a new temporary logo and tagline, launched in an effort to advocate for social distancing and safer-at-home practices. The change is reflected in unlocking its iconic keys and changing the tagline to “Unlock Tampa Bay. From a Distance.” The new logo was released alongside two new videos, a 60-second Stronger Together spot and a community crowdsourced social media video, We Are Tampa Bay. Additionally, Visit Tampa Bay offered virtual experiences, partner webinars, and Dining at a Distance, a live hub of restaurants open for takeout. Among the many pieces of content serviced on social media, Social Distancing The Tampa Bay Way equated six feet of distance using destination-specific icons and went viral. Admirably, recognizing the food insecurities being magnified by the pandemic, Visit Tampa Bay partnered with Feeding Tampa Bay by giving 100 percent of the proceeds from cookbook sales to assist local families in need of food aid.
Key hashtags: #UnlockTampaBay
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the DMO located in our nation’s capital is taking a leading role in the political side of the pandemic, as Destination DC holds a prominent seat on one of the key committees on Mayor Bower’s Reopen DC Advisory Group. In addition, they are collaborating with the U.S. Travel Association to call on Congress and the administration for relief efforts and payroll protection for 501(c6) organizations, the designation for most DMOs. Destination DC also works in partnership with Events DC, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and the Hotel Association of Washington DC to communicate the plans that will eventually be in place from the medical community guidance. They’re also working with the city’s museum community and the District’s small businesses to understand and communicate the safety measures they will have in place as the city is reopened.
Key hashtags: #DCtogether
Matt Stiker is a longtime destination marketing specialist and the founder of Capital M Marketing.