Florida CVB Veterans Talk Pandemic Recovery and Beyond

South Walton beach

With new protocols, flexibility and partnerships, today’s hospitality leaders are working to bring groups back to Florida. We spoke to a few of them to gauge their outlook for meetings and events through 2021 and beyond.

Casandra Matej, President & CEO, Visit Orlando

Casandra Matej
Casandra Matej

During a recent conversation, Cassandra Matej—just three weeks into her new role at Visit Orlando—said looking forward, her focus and vision is all about “recovery, recovery, recovery.”

“We’re fortunate Florida is more open than most states, so Orlando will probably be a year ahead of most destinations. We’ve been able to do 50 conventions and events during the pandemic, so hopefully we can be an example for the rest of the country,” she said.

“The shows on the books for 2021 are mixed. There will be some hybrid meetings and, for some in-house groups, we’ve seen attendance better than they hoped for, perhaps due to pent up demand or a need for meeting face-to-face.” 

As far as working with member hotels and attractions, Visit Orlando created a virtual SuperFam with a record 600 event professionals in attendance.  

“We feel if the community didn’t understand what DMOs did in the past, they’ll now understand the importance and our value to the community,” Matej said.

Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining, a yearly program featuring top Orlando restaurants, was not cancelled due to COVID-19. In fact, it was extended a month to help struggling restaurants and to boost proceeds of the charity the program benefits ($1 from each meal is donated to Feed the Need Florida).

Although Matej is cautiously optimistic for the second half of 2021, she believes business will be fairly strong because they’re seeing occupancy improve month over month. 

“One thing’s for certain,” she said. “The focus on safety will never go away. Best practices will continue. We’re showing planners how serious we are, which we  hope will give those who meet in Orlando peace of mind.”

Steve Hayes, President & CEO, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater 

Steve Hayes
Steve Hayes

Steve Hayes of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater said hotel occupancy has improved faster than expected, but added that “it will be a slow climb back up.”  

Fortunately, St. Pete and Clearwater properties are driven more by leisure than corporate and meeting travel, Hayes said, and because they draw smaller meetings due to a lack of a convention center, they were less impacted overall.  

“Most of our meetings from March to December were cancelled, but we did have smaller meetings of about 50 or less that still met here.”  

Staff at the bureau stayed intact, which was all the better to help hotels and customers. “We did try to get meetings to move dates rather than cancel and even had one piece of business that moved three times.”

The bureau started the “Rise to Shine” campaign to communicate the importance of wearing masks to locals and visitors and worked with hotels to see if they had items such as cleaning products and hand sanitizer.

“We spent some time trying to understand what the large hotels were doing in terms of social distancing so we could communicate what the new norm for meetings would be,” Hayes said. 

Hayes added that due to the increased number of hybrid meetings his team anticipates, they’re speaking to hotel properties about upgrading their bandwidth. 

Hayes sees a positive for Florida in increased airlift for those destinations that are opening up sooner than others. “Airlines are looking at readjusting flight schedules to where they think the demand is going to be and some destinations will win out.” 

Planners are generally positive about the future, Hayes noted, but they are frustrated. “They want to get the meeting done without having to change it again and again. Going forward, we’ll need flexibility from the destination and hotels. We’re all going to have to think outside the box to meet the needs of the customer.”

Santiago C. Corrada, President and CEO, Visit Tampa Bay

Santiago C. Corrada
Santiago C. Corrada

There’s no question Super Bowl LV helped bring Tampa’s hotel occupancy to 92%. “It speaks to the hard work and resilience of this destination and all those partners involved,” Santiago C. Corrada said. 

In that vein, Corrada said the pandemic has brought the meetings community together. “Local partners have exemplified what it means to work together with the interests of meeting planners and the destination in mind. Flexibility is essential right now, and this flexibility and the cooperative spirit of our community have played a significant role in this success, particularly when it comes to rescheduling events. 

“Thanks to the additional safety measures implemented by our community leaders, Tampa Bay has continued to safely welcome visitors and events.”

Visit Tampa Bay developed an innovative “Hybrid Meeting Grant” program, which is playing a role in generating new RFPs for meetings in the months ahead.  Early on, they recognized challenges presented to event organizers as the hospitality industry continues to recover.  

In many cases, attendance is down while costs have increased because of the added expense for technology, which was not accounted for when developing original budgets for these programs, Corrada explained. “Visit Tampa Bay wants to do our part in helping these events move forward.”

“During planning meetings and site visits, feedback from planners has been very positive. Not only about our destination and all of the new development, but also the steps implemented by our team to ensure a safe visit. 

“In terms of planner outlook for the future, we know the desire to meet is there. While virtual solutions have sustained us in recent months—and are a valuable enhancement that should remain in the future—there is no substitute for the business accomplished, education gained and personal connections made during in-person events.”

Stacy Ritter, President & CEO, Visit Lauderdale

While Fort Lauderdale saw 340,000 room nights cancel, one third of those rebooked. With that in mind, the CVB’s emphasis at both the CVB and hotel levels has been on flexible contract terms and CVB sponsorship where applicable—with the destination providing resources and emphasis on safety with their Visit Lauderdale Safe + Clean Pledge, which has been taken by 900 area businesses to uphold CDC and hospitality industry safety protocols. 

Stacy Ritter
Stacy Ritter

“As we moved into the new year, we saw sales activity improve along with lead volume. We expect a surge of demand for the back half of 2021. We are just beginning to see cancellations for Q3 and Q4 filling up. We’re expecting both group and leisure to bring increased occupancy in the second half of 2021,” President and CEO Stacy Ritter said.

Because Florida has opened up more than other states, Fort Lauderdale has had three inquiries for groups relocating from California. 

“Groups are prioritizing the opportunity to take advantage of sunshine, fresh air and open outdoor spaces and we offer that and more,” she added. 

[Related: Miami and Fort Lauderdale Meetings Industries Plan for Brighter Days]

Karen Morris, Director of Sales, Visit South Walton

From the very beginning of the pandemic, Visit South Walton got busy working with hotel partners on safety and cleaning protocols to lessen concerns for returning groups. 

“We felt being honest and transparent about conditions was key but also essential in maintaining a trusting, long-term relationship with our clients,” Director of Sales Karen Morris said.  

For those not yet ready to travel, alternate dates and seasons were offered to planners to reschedule their meetings, without penalty. 

South Walton also offered creative options for outdoor venues for events and meetings.  

“Since these types of meetings are new to some of our planners, we provided photos of socially distanced meetings and events to help planners envision what might work best for them. Event hosts are also increasing their audio-visual services in order to facilitate hybrid meetings,” she said.

“In-person events will need to offer a virtual component to allow attendees who are not ready to travel to participate. I think that trend of hybrid meetings will likely continue through 2022, and meeting planners will continue to have high expectations for stringent cleaning and safety protocols for the foreseeable future. Everyone seems to agree nothing can fully take the place of meeting face to face, so as immunity rises and cases decline, in-person meeting participation will steadily increase,” she said.  

“We’ve worked with groups contracted to go to Caribbean or international destinations, as well as groups that moved from large metropolitan destinations to South Walton due to travel restrictions and lockdowns. We are fortunate to have wide open spaces in an uncrowded coastal paradise to offer planners a safe meeting destination. 

“Nothing can replace the value of a face-to-face meeting—of building personal relationships in-person—so I think we’re going to find that people are eager to get back to that as soon as they feel comfortable doing so,” she concluded.

[6 Ways Florida Meeting Planners Modified In-Person Programs During the Pandemic]

Al Snow, Convention, Meetings and Events, Visit Central Florida

Initially, Visit Central Florida and the area venues worked with planners to reschedule or postpone meetings, very often rescheduling multiple times. “It seemed the events moved from spring to summer and then summer to fourth quarter, and then cancelled,” said Al Snow, the convention, meetings and events rep for Visit Central Florida.

Al Snow
Al Snow

The CVB developed a comprehensive health and safety plan customized for each event they hosted, built an inventory of products and services (from masks and hand sanitizer stations to jet-pack disinfectant sprayers) and developed programs with local health officials to offer conference organizers.

Snow added that Visit Central Florida also has turnkey programs in place for planners looking to offer hybrid meeting options. AV production teams in place make it easy to add those elements into programs as meetings and conferences move forward.

“Personally, I think 100% virtual is a temporary fix. You see a lot of virtual burnout already with people tuning out and attendance slipping for recent virtual events or webinars. Hybrid is a great way to participate if you can’t travel to an event, or if the event conflicts with other business or personal needs, so I think hybrid events will continue to be an option in the long term. Over time, the need will always be there to connect face to face, and I think that will ensure live meetings and conferences will be back stronger than ever,” Snow said.

Central Florida occupancy has been helped by the leisure traveler, and although the corporate and meeting travel is not there yet, Snow is optimistic. “We are starting to get more inquiries for space and quoting more business in the second half of 2021 and beyond.

“I think the vaccines and all of the health and safety steps that venues, hotels and destinations have provided provide a light at the end of the tunnel, but we just don’t know how long that tunnel is until people are comfortable getting together face to face.”

William McBroom, Director of Conference Sales, St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VCB

William McBroom
William McBroom

“Florida is in an interesting position because we have few restrictions here,” noted William McBroom, director of conference sales for St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VCB. “We are all following CDC guidelines, of course, but there are so many other restrictions in other parts of the country. We are also unique in that a lot of attendees, from Virginia to Alabama, for example, can drive here if they don’t want to get on a plane.

“We saw about a 50/50 split of cancellations and postponements, but we want to work together to get groups to push forward. We’re seeing that about 50% of our meetings in 2021 will be smaller, with fewer than 30 room nights. Meetings ahead are going to have a larger hybrid element, allowing people to attend virtually. Virtual will be with us for a long time. National events will become regional events and for safety reasons, we’ve seen a few hundred people in a space that fits several thousand people,” McBroom said. 

The bureau is helping groups in myriad ways. Some of the hotel properties are understaffed so they’ve helped meeting planners with site visits, for example. 

“Some planners have relationships with sales people who have been furloughed, so it’s not uncommon for planners to work with several conference service managers,” McBroom said. 

The good news is they’re seeing an uptick in site visits from zero to several a month. Safety modifications and the area was greatly helped as far as occupancy with St. Augustine’s “Night of Lights,” which takes place from November to January each year. 

“Together with the beaches and other outdoor venues, and the COVID vaccine, there’s definitely a more positive outlook from planners,” he said.

“There is still frustration over uncertainty. We are in between having the vaccine and the liability issue where some companies still won’t allow attendees to travel. But we do see an end in sight.”

Jill Vance, Director of Sales, The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel Visitor and Convention Bureau

Jill Vance
Jill Vance

Fort Meyers and Sanibel are fortunate that almost 70% of their groups rescheduled for a future date, and the area’s hospitality partners are taking extra measures to safely welcome meetings and groups to the area by establishing best practices and safety protocols as the priority, said Jill Vance, director of sales for the VCB.

“This includes extensive staff safety and sanitation training, meeting space reconfiguration to accommodate physical distancing, customized AV solutions that accommodate hybrid meetings, and several have added hygiene managers or cleanliness compliance director positions to improve cleaning practices for guests. Several hotels have enhanced cancellation and attrition policies to make them more flexible for planners,” Vance said.

“I think we can all agree that the world has permanently changed. And the way we meet has changed,” Vance said. “We are finding out that there are quite a few benefits of hybrid meetings, like reaching larger audiences with the addition of a virtual platform or having the ability to record the meeting sessions and making them available later on demand for review or training purposes. 

“I do believe that in-person meetings at full capacity will return because it is so important for effective collaboration and networking. However, it is likely that a digital component will continue to be used since there are many benefits to having a virtual meeting option.”

Vance said the second half of 2021 is already looking stronger for meetings than the first half, and that meeting planners seem more positive now that COVID vaccination has begun.

“We have been receiving more RFPs from our meeting planners, which is a positive sign,” she said.

“We have observed more incentive planners choosing tropical domestic destinations, like The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel for their events. Southwest Florida naturally lends itself to outdoor events, which are in high demand right now. The consensus is that small outdoor gatherings in open spaces, with physical distancing measures in place, are lower risk.”

Plus: Q&A With Dana Young, President and CEO, Visit Florida

Did you have many meetings cancellations?

Florida did see a significant amount of event cancellations and postponements, but thankfully many were rescheduled for later in the year or into 2021. 

Dana Young
Dana Young

How have the CVB and hotel properties assisted meeting planners?

Virtual alternatives have been a huge help this past year, along with cover-your-event insurance and flexibility in cancellation and postponement options. For better or worse, Florida tourism is no stranger to crisis, and we know from experience we must be nimble in our response. 

Are meeting planners you've spoken with mostly positive? 

There appears to be tremendous optimism for Florida’s meetings sector. Pent up demand, along with the massive influx of postponed and cancelled events being rescheduled, will continue to be a driving force of this positive outlook. 

Have you seen any meetings switch from one location to Florida?

Florida’s business-friendly environment and demonstrated success with in-person meetings have motivated several organizations to move their events here. The Orlando Orange County Convention Center alone has hosted 11 events originally scheduled for Las Vegas, New York, Houston, Baltimore and Vancouver. This past November, the 2020 Global Wellness Summit was relocated from Israel to The Breakers in Palm Beach due to ongoing travel restrictions in Tel Aviv. Both Destinations International and the U.S. Travel Association have moved meetings to Florida from other venues. 

Thoughts about the future of meetings and conventions? 

Though the data is limited, initial indicators point to pent up demand driving this sector’s rebound. This will be, of course, contingent upon a variety of factors, including consumer confidence, company travel policies, vaccine distribution and public health progress. 

Our recovery depends on this sector’s return. Florida has successfully hosted many types of large events throughout the pandemic, including this year’s Super Bowl in Tampa. As we continue navigating this “new normal,” it’s important we, as the tourism industry, continue to serve as role models and demonstrate meeting in person can be done safely with the appropriate precautions. 

VISIT FLORIDA has been doing everything possible to position Florida for an incredible comeback. We are grateful Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken a thoughtful, sensible approach to our state’s pandemic response that has been business-friendly and helped us avoid some of the scenarios that have played out in other states. With continued progress with vaccine distribution and other health measures, I’m confident we are poised for much brighter days ahead.

Read more from the 2021 edition of Meetings Today Florida

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Jennifer Juergens | Contributing Content Developer, Florida and Caribbean