In a time when it is easier than ever to be connected, all segments of the tourism industry, from tour operators and group leaders to destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and suppliers, have found it a challenge to stay in touch with their partners. One of the key obstacles these travel professionals have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic is that some of their usual contacts have been furloughed or reassigned or just aren’t with their usual organizations any longer.
“We’ve got so many new contacts around the industry these days,” said Dan Flores, vice president of business development for Las Vegas-based Maverick Helicopters, which supplies aerial sightseeing tours for groups. “It’s been hard to adjust, especially because so many of the previous people are good friends.”
The changes on the DMO and supplier sides have left tour operators and group leaders scrambling a bit to get the latest information regarding an ever-changing landscape of reopenings and restrictions without the assistance of their regular helpers. Requests for group itineraries have steadily increased throughout the summer and early fall, but that has magnified the need for quality information.
But DMOs and tour suppliers have a clear message for travel planners: “Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.”
Throughout the pandemic, these destination experts have had plenty of time to answer questions, adapt, plan and get ready for groups to return. They’ve remained committed to helping their travel planner partners in any way they can, even though things inevitably look and feel different than before.
We spoke to four industry veterans about how they are staying connected, the different hats they are wearing these days, an innovative approach to DMO partnering and the abundance of new tour offerings they’ve been developing.
New Roles for Old Friends
So, what did travel planners do when their usual contacts at that DMO or attraction were no longer there? According to Flores, many pivoted, and reached out to their other longtime partners in that city or region.
“I’ve fielded a lot more questions from tour operators about things that have nothing to do with Maverick Helicopters. They’d say, ‘Who’s the new contact at this museum?’ or ‘What are some hotels, because I cannot reach my contact at our usual place?’ I can talk to them and help, and it always feels good when I’m the first person they think about when they think Las Vegas or Maui or the Grand Canyon,” said Flores.
One silver lining over the past few months: Many DMO and supplier companies have added — or re-added — staff positions. While it may not be that old standby contact, different people are stepping up to continue to provide travel planners with the high level of service they demand.
“Sometimes when you get a new contact it can be good,” said Betsay Painter, area director of sales and marketing for Lowcountry Hotels, which has seven properties in the Charleston, South Carolina, area. “Maybe they have fresh ideas or know different people, and they can help you reach somebody else.”
Painter has found travel association conference calls to be a good way to keep tabs on tour operators and hear what is going on with them. She said that in her follow-up outreach, she has prioritized asking them how they are doing personally rather than strictly talking business.
“Tour operators were hit hard, too, and I tried to be very sensitive there,” she said.
The story was the same on the destination marketing side, as a number of CVBs suffered significant staffing cutbacks. In spite of that, Frances Manzitto, director of tourism sales at Visit Clarksville (Tennessee), said one thing hasn’t changed: DMOs are still a tour operator’s best friend.
“DMOs are the main connection point, especially at this time,” said Manzitto “I am the Clarksville expert when it comes to the group market, and tour operators know to call me first for everything.”
Creative DMO Collaboration
What began as a way for a group of travel professionals to stay connected and process what was happening in March 2020 when the world shut down has turned into an innovative partnership.
“We started a call with the Lunch Bunch in March of last year,” said Manzitto. “I had just been sent home to work, and I knew a lot of the people in the industry were, too. I wanted to talk to somebody face-to-face — besides my husband and my daughter — and stay connected. So we started this call.”
The group still meets daily on Zoom Monday through Friday, and any tourism professional is welcome. Early on, they spent time comparing notes on what they were experiencing both personally and professionally, sharing laughs and tears: “We took that ‘travel family’ mindset to a new level,” said Manzitto.
“In the fall last year, I started thinking aloud with the DMOs in the group about how we could take what we had created with that family and do something related to business with it,” she said.
The discussions led to the formation of Dynamic Destinations, a unique partnership between six DMO representatives — all from different states — who were Lunch Bunch mainstays: Manzitto, Todd Stallbaumer of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, Linda Jeffries of the Greater Beaufort-Port Royal CVB in South Carolina, Rich Gilbert of the Maryland Office of Tourism Development, Wendy Dobrzynski of Circle Wisconsin and Heather Egan of the Grapevine (Texas) CVB.
“We realized [there are] so many similar things in our destinations, and that was a reason why we branded ourselves Dynamic Destinations,” said Stallbaumer. “We say to tour operators, ‘Hey, if you like this destination, here is a very similar experience in another part of the country.’ While we are very different destinations, at least geographically, we have common experiences.”
The group has begun a multifaceted outreach. One aspect is a monthly sales call with a tour operator, who gets an overview of each of the six areas during the hourlong Zoom session. Manzitto and Dobrzynski teamed up in July to do joint sales missions in-person across Ohio, and the full group pooled resources for joint sponsorships at industry events. They also created a combined profile sheet with information on each destination.
“The first response from tour operators has been ‘Wow, this is amazing. Usually we just learn about singular destinations,’” said Stallbaumer. “None of us are in competition with each other, and we all want to see that tour operator plan a trip to each of our destinations. With it not being a ‘compare and contrast,’ the calls have been more relaxed.”
Another benefit of the connections within the group is that the members can be a sounding board for one another. Plenty of new tour ideas have been shared and discussed, and members can suggest tour operators who might be good to target for specific packages.
“I am pretty proud of what we’ve been able to do, and it will be interesting to see how this continues to develop going forward,” said Manzitto.
Get Your Fresh Tour Options
And speaking of new tour packages, another positive byproduct of hitting pause during the COVID-19 pandemic was that it gave DMOs and suppliers more time to assess their product offerings and do some creative, future-focused brainstorming.
“All of this has given us a chance to really rethink our destinations’ offerings, come up with new ideas, create or revamp tours, find additional partners to plug into itineraries and see how we can diversify,” Stallbaumer said. “I am seeing opportunities to bring some of our Oklahoma partners together that traditionally haven’t worked together, and that’s been a big part of what we’ve tried to do.”
He cites a new group tour as an example. Partners in central Oklahoma developed a three-day itinerary that allows groups to experience six of the state’s different ethnic cultures for a half day each.
During the Vietnamese portion, travelers find out more about how Oklahoma City came to have the largest Vietnamese community, per capita, in the United States. Two food-related components are learning to make a spring roll and going to a restaurant to sample pho, another traditional dish.
“They tell you the stories of pho and talk about how it is prepared,” said Stallbaumer. “From there, you see a lion dance demonstration or a fashion show with typical dress, and you finish with a Vietnamese coffee. So you spend half a day really immersing yourself into that ethnicity instead of just having a Vietnamese lunch and being on your way.”
Flores tells a similar tale of how Maverick Helicopters’ two newest Las Vegas flightseeing tours — Neon and Nature, and Neon and Nature Sunset — came about.
“Before we had a $100 product to fly over the Strip at night. Then the next price point was the Grand Canyon tour for more than $400,” Flores said. “We looked at how to put a product out that might be attractive to that in-between market, and the two Neon and Nature tours came out of that. We’d talked about it for years, but we never took time to dive in until COVID.”
Those tours, which launched in January, whisk passengers above the Strip to the Red Rock National Conservation Area just outside the city. Maverick has a landing spot there where participants get out and have roughly a half hour to relax and enjoy the area’s natural beauty.
“You can take pictures — the Strip is in front of you with red rocks behind you — and we do a champagne toast,” Flores said. “A lot of people are surprised when they get up to Red Rock on the tours, and they’ll say, ‘Red Rock is beautiful; I had no idea.’ It’s all Las Vegas-centric, and that price is about half of what a similar Grand Canyon tour is.”