Covid-19 has struck the tourism industry hard, but Houston First Corporation was quick to act. The Destination Management Organization (DMO) for the city of Houston, Texas, was creating a rebound strategy and path out of the pandemic as early as April, and attributes its successes to early bonds across the business and leisure tourism industries citywide.
The DMO has prioritized ensuring the highest standard of health and safety procedures are applied in venues and attractions with the development of the Houston Clean initiative. The initiative aims to protect the community and city’s guests. It pledges to research, curate and implement the most medically effective sanitation and social distancing measures available.
Houston has also been quick to incorporate virtual and hybrid events infrastructure into its roster of venues, ensuring that, whatever comes next, the city is ready for the new normal.
It’s the teamwork with other operators, venues and businesses in the city that means the DMO has been able to hold a range of special events while minimizing the risk to visitors and patrons. SkiftX spoke with Michael Heckman, acting president and CEO of Houston First Corporation, about how the company is confident in the attractions of Houston, and has focused on the message that—after significant effort and preparation—the city is primed for visitors to return.
SkiftX: Covid-19 has had a lasting effect on the travel industry. How has the pandemic impacted tourism in Houston?
Michael Heckman: Just like the rest of the country, Houston has felt the economic effects of safety-minded travel restrictions in the wake of Covid-19. The tourism industry accounts for almost $18 billion and 140,000 jobs in the Greater Houston Area. Needless to say, a drop in demand by a third from 2019 to 2020 has hit the market hard in both business and leisure travel. In spite of this, Houston First Corporation has managed to respond with new and innovative ways to inspire confidence in the safety of our attractions and reignite the desire to explore our wonderful city.
SkiftX: How did the company adapt to travel restrictions and prioritize its purpose?
Heckman: At Houston First we know that the appeal of our city hasn’t diminished. Instead, people need reassurance that Houston is rising to this new challenge – ensuring that any visit can be done safely and with full peace of mind. As early as April, we were developing our rebound strategy, utilizing virtual experiences to keep our local draws and attractions top-of-mind. We were encouraging a return to Houston hospitality businesses as soon as it was safe to do so with our #MissingHOU and Staycation campaigns.
Additionally, our marketing team produced hundreds of media materials for the City of Houston and our hospitality partners, serving both to encourage socially responsible health and safety measures and to promote the use of our hotels and venues. As a result of these combined efforts, hotel occupancy showed a 17 percent increase with a total estimated positive economic impact of $19 million citywide.
The numbers below reflect the campaign results from June 15 through September 20.
SkiftX: How can DMOs help develop unified health and safety protocols for all of a destination’s key stakeholders and organizations?
Heckman: The key to success in these kinds of initiatives is to develop a network of strong partnerships early on. While our major venues and events formed a health and safety taskforce, we developed a community-facing brand for the campaign and forged alliances with additional Houston businesses, including hotels, museums, sports teams, and the airport system. The result was Houston Clean, a comprehensive, unified public health and safety pandemic response. Through this program, visitors can be assured that all participating locations have committed to the same high standard of safety and sanitation. Through thermal cameras, permanent hand-sanitizing stations, electrostatic spraying, and many other protective measures, Houston Clean partners are creating the safest possible conditions for visitors.
SkiftX: How is Houston promoting digital and hybrid events?
Heckman: Houston’s primary large event venue, the George R. Brown Convention Center, was the first in the country to employ an Integrated Viral Protection system. This technology made national news earlier this year when it was proven to be 99.8 percent effective at filtering and eliminating Covid-19 within an enclosed environment. Complementing this system is our new, state-of-the-art 5,250 square foot virtual studio, designed specifically to host virtual events and live streaming. This allows Houston to host fully online or hybrid events while incorporating attendees or presenters from numerous locations anywhere in the world, all with or without an in-person audience. This flexibility will be key to maintaining our relevance in an increasingly digital modality.
SkiftX: After pioneering the use of augmented reality (AR) for attraction wayfinding and advertising, how will Houston First Corporation use the technology moving forward?
Heckman: Houston First is proud to be an early-adopting pioneer of augmented-, virtual-, and mixed-reality technologies to heighten visitors’ experiences. When we launched the AR app in 2018, we saw potential to bring the city to life like never before. Since that initial success, we’ve continuously improved what the software is capable of and added a lot of content. This next version is the most exciting yet, with 360-degree, mixed-reality experiences that are keyed to many of Houston’s most popular attractions. It’ll literally be like walking through a portal that comes to life with interesting information, such as history and connections to Houston culture.
SkiftX: How is the company engaging with businesses by conceptualizing innovative activities?
Heckman:> Adaptation and creativity is the name of the game in the times of Covid-19. We believe in the importance of community togetherness and interactivity, but we also understand the need to maintain safety standards and protect public health. To this end, Houston First has come up with new activities and events which address each of these concerns. Drive-in movie nights allow viewers to enjoy a cinematic experience without the risk of a crowded theater. Organized outdoor tailgating and viewing parties permit Houston sports fans to cheer on their favorite teams as a group, while also remaining safely separate. For some of our large banner events which were forced to cancel earlier in the year, like Comicpalooza, we’ve found opportunities to organize smaller tie-in events that benefit our vendors while also encouraging our patrons.
SkiftX: How should DMOs approach reinventing their company models to be more effective during this time?
Heckman: Each DMO will have its own priorities and a different complement of resources at its disposal. Houston First is a unique model in the destination management space. In addition to the traditional role of a convention and visitor’s bureau, we also own and manage 10 major city properties and venues while also overseeing a parking management operation for more than 10,000 vehicles. Because of this, it was most efficient to divide our team into two primary groups: one focusing on destination management, and the other on asset management.
In the short term, we are focused on communicating a sense of competency and safety for all of our properties and partners, and restoring the flow of visitation and utilization in a safe way. In the long term, we are concentrating on creating value for the event and hospitality market in Houston, while embracing the advantages of technology and current market trends. In any case, fluid collaboration and teamwork are key, and maintaining an open exchange of innovative and creative ideas is vital.
With a proactive approach, Houston First Corporation has put its city in the perfect position to welcome visitors in the safest way possible. Other DMOs can take from Houston First’s experience: Act early, cooperate across the industry, and continue to innovate to ensure the industry pulls through and is ready to welcome visitors in the safest possible way. As Heckman says, “Adaptation and creativity is the name of the game in the times of Covid-19.”