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Tourism’s First Responders

After a long and difficult 2020, tourism is poised to begin its comeback in 2021.

The devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on travel and hospitality cannot be overstated. But despite the damage, many tourism leaders are optimistic that this year’s vaccine rollout will awaken latent demand for travel and lead to a swift rebound the third and fourth quarters.

To begin sketching out the road to recovery, The Group Travel Leader spoke to leaders from four tourism industry companies to learn about their 2020 experiences and their prospects for success in 2021.

These are their stories.

Collette: ‘Getting Through to the Other Side’

One of the world’s oldest and largest tour companies, Collette was primed for a year of historic profits at the beginning of 2020. But by mid-March, it became obvious the year would be nothing like they expected.

“We really had to make some difficult decisions early and quickly,” said Collette president Jaclyn Leibl-Cote. “There’s never been anything of this magnitude. We’re very financially healthy, and we have a very strong balance sheet from decades of managing the business. So we knew we could weather it — it was just a matter of being smart and getting through to the other side.”

Collette, which normally has dozens of tours operating at any given time, shut everything down March 16 and didn’t operate a tour for more than 100 days. During that period, the company refunded more than $115 million in customer payments.

By summer, though, Collette leadership determined there was both demand for tours and a way to operate them safely. So the company launched a series of small domestic departures that highlighted iconic destinations in the American West.

“Our first tour was a spotlight on South Dakota that departed on July 3,” Leibl-Cote said. “It wasn’t the full bus of 40 to 44 people you’d typically see. It was half that size, but they wanted to go. We worked with different health officials to make sure we were taking all the proper precautions. We made sure people wore masks on the coach and in public areas. We also took cleaning and cleansing protocols to the next level.”

After that initial departure, Collette found enough customer interest to continue operating domestic trips through the rest of July, August and September. Still, Leibl-Cote said the majority of the company’s customers are still waiting to return to travel.

“We have surveyed clients and guests that have moved their trips to 2021,” she said. “People definitely want to travel again. A lot of the booking trends for 2021 and beyond are in North America, but there’s also a lot of Europe. And we’re still seeing Japan just like it was pre-COVID.”

Many of those customers are counting on widespread vaccination to curtail the pandemic before they begin traveling again. When that moment comes, Collette will have another challenge in ramping back up to capacity.

“That’s a difficult thing to do,” Leibl-Cote said. “We have to manage the burn rate and business, but we’re also seeing strong demand coming in the later half of 2021. So we have to watch different triggers. As we see things develop, we’ll take people back as quickly as we can. We have multiple plans in place depending on what happens.”

Nashville: ‘We Got Better’

Few American destinations can boast the tourism track record of Nashville, Tennessee. The city welcomes millions of visitors each year and was on track to have its ninth consecutive year of double-digit growth when the pandemic hit in March.

“We as an industry were impacted first,” said Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation. “We were impacted the hardest. And we were probably impacted on the largest scale. We’re at about $4 billion in lost business.”

Pandemic closures took a double toll on Nashville, shutting down not only tourism and hospitality but also its sizable music industry. After the initial spring quarantine, local leaders were eager to find ways to get Nashville going again. They started by following visitor sentiment research.

“People wanted to know what you were doing to make your destination safe,” Spyridon said. “So the first thing we did was launch a program called Good To Go. It was a commitment to follow public health protocols, participate in webinars and share best practices with each other. We ended up with 700 businesses that participated: hotels, attractions and restaurants, but also churches, schools and retail businesses.”

The CVC worked with public health authorities at Vanderbilt Medical Center to develop those protocols and roll them out into the hospitality community. But rather than highlighting the minutiae of cleaning procedures in their marketing and outreach, the city focuses on telling people about its improvements.

“We’re not going to bury you with how we’re sanitizing doors and testing employees,” Spyridon said. “Our approach is to say, ‘While you’ve been away, we’ve been creating new hotels, new restaurants and new attractions. When you’re ready to come back, come back. We got better.’

“If we see the vaccine go into any sort of public distribution, even if it’s just first responders or health care, that will give us the confidence to start pushing the message,” he said in a November interview.

With any luck, Spyridon expects to see a big bounce back in the summer.

“If we get the all-clear in summer like most people think, we’ll use CMA Music Fest and July Fourth as big welcome-back parties,” he said. “July Fourth is completely free, and half of CMA Music Fest is free. So we’ll really shine a light on the fact that it’s safe to travel.”

Spyridon thinks it will take two years for business to recover to prepandemic levels but that local businesses can get back to profit quickly. In the meantime, the city will continue to plan and prepare.

“We miss our friends, neighbors and visitors,” Spyridon said. “We care about their health and safety. When they’re ready, we’re ready.”

Philadelphia Flower Show:  ‘Staying Flexible’

Among major events in the U.S., the organizers of the Philadelphia Flower Show got lucky: The 2020 edition of the event at the Philadelphia Convention Center concluded just as the pandemic began to sweep the East Coast.

“I left the convention center on Wednesday, and by Friday, the entire country shut down,” said Sam Lemheney, chief of shows and events for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). “We were one of the last major events in the entire country.”

The flower show, which began in 1829 with 200 plants, has grown into a large-scale exhibition with 5,000 plants and about 250,000 visitors over nine days. Lemheney and his team typically plan the show 18 to 24 months in advance, but last spring it became apparent that an indoor event for hundreds of thousands of people wouldn’t be feasible in early 2021. So the PHS took a radical step and completely reimagined this year’s event, moving it from March to June and from the convention center to an outdoor venue: Philadelphia’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Park.

“We brainstormed a lot and played with a lot of ideas,” Lemheney said. “It’s going to be an outdoor show in a location that has great access. It’s going to be much safer to have the event outdoors.”

After so many years of indoor events, moving the show outdoors will present new challenges. But PHS planners seem to be taking them all in stride.

“A lot of us have friends who do outdoor events, so we really tapped into them,” Lemheney said. “It’s going to be a different muscle mechanism to do an outdoor show. The restrooms are different. Electricity isn’t just in the floor. Where do we find water, and how do we use it? There are a lot of details, so we’re working with experts on the infrastructure.”

PHS is planning on taking additional measures to keep attendees safe and will regulate ticket sales to cap the size of the crowd. And current plans call for the flower show to return to the convention center in March 2022. But if Lemheney and his team have learned anything through the pandemic, it’s the importance of adaptability.

“We’re staying flexible and understanding that things are going to change,” he said. “They’re changing daily. So we’re kind of aiming at a moving target a bit. But this is something the events industry is striving to make sure is very safe and successful.”

Drury Hotels: ‘Smiling With Our Eyes’

For 45 years, Drury Hotels has been a leader in midscale hospitality, offering personalized service and high-value amenities to leisure travelers and tour groups. The company started in St. Louis and now has 150 hotels in 35 states. And though the pandemic put unprecedented stress on the organization’s local and corporate leaders, it didn’t stop their commitment to hospitality.

“We kept 100% of our hotels open every day,” said Carrie Sheridan, Drury’s vice president of sales and marketing. “That’s something that was very important to us. We were able to flex pretty quickly because we’re family owned and operated.”

Some of Drury’s signature amenities, such as its included hot breakfast and evening Kickback with appetizers and drinks, became challenging during the pandemic. But instead of doing away with them, the company invested heavily in acrylic shields and other protective equipment. And now team members serve food to guests directly, which helps them maintain a level of connection with customers.

“With acrylic shields and masks, we now have this barrier between us and the guests,” Sheridan said. “So trying to deliver that plus-one service to customers has been a real challenge for our leaders. We’re working on smiling with our eyes. We’ve gotten really creative with leading our teams on sight expressions: waves, thumbs up and other things that bring people in.”

The company also partnered with EcoLabs to create new sanitizing protocols and reconfigured guest rooms to allow for a deeper level of cleaning.

Based on the leisure traffic to Drury hotels this summer, Sheridan is hopeful about the year ahead.

“We’re optimistic that as we come out of the first quarter, there will be some kind of light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We’re going to stay very focused on local and regional customers and continue to implement smart promotions that make sense for business.”

Sheridan also said the company plans to offer extra flexibility and more attractive promotions to boost tour group business.

“We’re offering more aggressive comps: one per 10,” she said. “And we’ve increased our concessions to accommodate for smaller group sizes. We’ve been very flexible with our deposit and payment terms, as well as our attrition and cancellation terms.”

The added flexibility is part of Drury’s commitment to ongoing relationships in the tourism industry.

“We want to thank them for hanging in there and enduring through this,” Sheridan said. “We want them to know we’ve been around for 45 years and providing clean rooms and exceptional service, and they can continue to count on that.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.