COVID-19 has cut a path of destruction through the meetings industry, and among the hardest hit are DMOs/CVBs, which are cutting staff as much of their revenue stream from hotel bed taxes and tourism improvement districts has dried up.

According to Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destinations International (DI), the association that represents DMOs/CVBs, the lingering pandemic and dire news about a resurgence in infection rates has added extra urgency for relief that the federal government has yet to offer through the CARES Act. 

Welsh emphasized that DI is working with US Travel Association to apply pressure on the federal government to expand the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to include 501(c)(6) tax-exempt organizations, which comprise about 97% of DI’s membership.

“Clearly business conditions have not improved,” Welsh said. “I think many organizations are not able to bring back very important furloughed employees, and in some cases they’re having to now lay off additional people. 

[Related: Leveraging Your CVB Relationship: Tapping Into Free Services From CVBs/DMOs]

“We had a three- to six-month runway, and through reserves and budget cuts could continue to operate,” he continued about the general CVB environment.

“Here we are five months into it and the situation has not improved from a financial standpoint. On average, you can probably assume 70% to 80% in staffing reductions from where we were in March, so all of our members have been having to do much more with less, with much fewer people on the sales and services side. The bottom line is the need for us to be included in the funding for PPP, and longer-term loans are critical.”

 

A Former CVB Staffer Speaks Out

Lysa LewinLysa Lewin, formerly senior vice president of sales at San Francisco Travel, who was laid off along with what she estimates was a nearly 70% reduction of the CVB’s staff, said the prime objective for CVBs in the near term will be communication with their diverse set of clients and stakeholders.

(Photo: ​Lysa Lewin, former senior vice president of sales at San Francisco Travel)

“From the CVB side, their goals are talking to customers and pushing postponements of meetings rather than sales of meetings,” she said, “and how do they know when the hotels are going to open or the convention center is going to be compliant with the latest guidelines?

“The focus is on communication, and at the same time they have to push all that is available in their city to their local community—the restaurants, outside dining,” she added. “The local community is what’s keeping restaurants and catering companies alive during a difficult time.”

Like most CVBs, the bulk of San Francisco Travel’s efforts was dedicated to leisure travel, so in the short term, the meetings side will get even less attention.

“Ours was about 60/40,” Lewin said of San Francisco Travel’s pre-pandemic leisure/meetings mix. “The 40 is gone.”

[Related: Unique (And Free) Ways That Florida CVBs Can Boost Meetings and Events]

A Magnified Problem

The numbers don’t lie, and the projections are dire, concerning the prime driver of CVB operating funds.

  • U.S. hotels have suffered a 50% revenue decline in 2020, representing a $124 billion loss, according to a study by Oxford Economics.
  • Eight in 10 hotel rooms are empty, according to Smith Travel Research.
  • 70% of hotel employees have been laid off or furloughed, according to an Oxford Economics and Hotel Effectiveness survey. 

The lack of funding and staff reductions in hotels is magnified because the gutting of hotel convention services and sales personnel would usually filter down to CVBs. And CVBs could take up the slack when dealing with meeting planner requests that would normally go to a hotel, convention center or other meeting or event facility. 

The Situation on the Ground

So how are CVBs struggling to fill the service gap? Meetings Today reached out to several to see how they are triaging their services.

  • Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CVB has maintained staffing levels, but launched its Brighter Days Ahead campaign, which included educational webinars for meeting planners in key segments to discuss the current state of meetings. The CVB also created virtual tours for planners.

[Related: Planner Best Practices for Working With CVBs/DMOs]

  • The Chicago Southland CVB is dedicating much of its efforts to listing brand-specific safety guidelines and protocols of area hotels. It also created an online portal for planners to request Zoom appointments with its sales team and arrange for virtual site visits.
  • California’s Meet in Walnut Creek CVB, located in the San Francisco Bay area, has seen its staff reduced from two employees to just one, but is concentrating its efforts on clear communication of safety guidelines.
  • Alabama’s Huntsville/Madison County CVB, while maintaining staff levels, is focusing on offering video site tours and communicating cleanliness protocols.
  • The Gatlinburg CVB is also fortunate in not anticipating any staff furloughs or eliminations, and noted that since it had ordered an unusually large  amount of gift items for meeting attendees, it is well stocked even though the shutdown has decreased the pipeline in many destinations. The CVB is focused on having honest conversations with clients about possible attendance reductions, and noted that the Gatlinburg Convention Center is currently applying for GBAC STAR accreditation.
    Gatlinburg, Tennessee
    Photo: Gatlinburg, Tennessee; Credit: Dawid S. Swierczek (Shutterstock)
  •  Illinois’ Springfield CVB has also maintained its staffing levels, but like other DMOs is shifting to virtual meetings and conference calls to communicate with clients. The destination is offering a mix of virtual and traditional site tours that are carefully conducted in concert with the host hotels to ensure safety.
  • Iowa’s Visit Quad Cities CVB, which serves destinations in eastern Iowa and western Illinois straddling the Mississippi River, has also maintained its staffing level, which it said is important in helping groups navigate its unique situation of covering destinations in two states.
    Quad Cities
    Photo: Quad Cities, Iowa & Illinois; Credit: Shutterstock
    The CVB said it has ramped up its service of assisting planners with creating hybrid meetings when necessary. It’s also focusing on COVID-19 measures that include the ability to customize outdoor experiences in unique spaces to further ensure social distancing and safety, as well as working with the meeting facility and hotel community to relax attrition and cancellation contract terms.

Read Next: How 3 CVBs Worked With Planners to Save or Reschedule 2020 Meetings