By Beth Buehler
Throughout the world, coronavirus (COVID-19) has shaken up how the meetings and events industry does business. Little has remained untouched, but the industry has shown its true colors by coming up with creative solutions from top to bottom, including site visits. Destination Colorado talked to two longtime industry professionals, one who represents a mountain property and the other a city destination management organization.
“Site visits are exciting opportunities to engage with customers and to allow them to fall in love with our destination as one can do only through first-hand experience! Many times, sites not only seal the current deal but create new destination ambassadors,” says Jason Lusk, CMP, associate vice president, convention sales for VISIT DENVER. “We have developed a Site Visit Precaution Survey for those attending a site visit to complete in advance, so we can better understand where each individual is on the spectrum of precautionary measures so that we can meet them where they are in terms of comfort level.”
In many ways, COVID-19 has prompted the industry to unite in bigger ways than ever. “If anything, the frustration and challenges of COVID have forced suppliers and buyers to work closer together, and the common comment is that ‘we are all in this together,’” notes Bruce Horii, sales and marketing director for Beaver Run Resort and Conference Center in Breckenridge, Colorado.
During the height of COVID-19, did your property/destination transition to online site visits or how did you handle getting planners familiar with venues, lodging, dining and activity options?
Bruce Horii: The first conversation with all planners circles around changes in safety and sanitizing protocols, as well as allowable minimum numbers of attendees, which is dependent on our county and state regulations. We have done several virtual visits utilizing our website, video assets and photos and sharpened our communication skills to best describe our facilities and how we would best meet the needs of the planner’s goals. In person visits, outside of COVID-19 discussions, are business as usual except capacities in meeting and function space is completely turned upside down with all of the physical distancing restrictions that now exist and as restrictions are updated.
Jason Lusk: At VISIT DENVER, we were fortunate to have a robust library of videos, images and interactive maps before the COVID-19 crisis hit. These tools cover many assets, such as an interactive map of the Colorado Convention Center, a video of the experience taking the University of Colorado A Line train from Denver International Airport to Union Station, neighborhood videos, and a dining guide. Once travel restrictions eliminated in-person site visits, we were able to compile existing resources and package them for a customer or present them via video conferencing. Many of our hotels and venues have done the same.
How has that gone over with planners?
BH: Planners have been very understanding as COVID-19 issues are worldwide and not exclusive to any region or facility type. Many discussions that are occurring are filled with creativity about how to pull off meetings, conference and events in a safe manner and still accomplish the goals and needs of the organization.
JL: Planners have certainly been grateful for the virtual offerings. Many of these tools can give a great sense of location, proximity and capacity. One of the most difficult things to convey virtually, however, is the true feel of our city, our true character. Fortunately, many of our cultural attractions have launched virtual experiences such as concerts and exhibits to help close this gap. In addition, one our newest videos highlights some of our local hospitality professionals, a way to put faces on our warm, welcoming community.
Since Colorado has been reopening to smaller gatherings, have you been able to conduct in-person site visits?
JL: We are very slowly seeing some our hotels conduct in-person site visits, and one of our sales managers will host our office’s first one in mid-July. As of today, we have 76 tentative bookings on the books for the remainder of this year, so we anticipate an increase in these requests as people become more comfortable traveling and as gathering mandates allow.
How have you or your partners made changes to site visits with COVID-19 concerns being considered?
JL: VISIT DENVER has developed precautionary protocol to deliver a site visit experience that reduces high-touch points and nonessential interactions, while still showcasing the destination as effectively as possible. … Additionally, our partners have implemented measures that increase sanitation within their respective venues.
Geographically, where are the meeting/event planners who have been doing the online and in-person site visits from?
BH: Our online presentations have been more national in scope and with events and meetings being postponed; those planners are looking out to the future. Many planners have some time to discuss future opportunities, as some have been furloughed or are just coming back into the fold. In-person site visits have been more regional, like from Colorado’s Front Range or what we are now calling the “New Drive Market,” which includes neighboring adjacent states and as far away as Texas. They will tour Colorado’s mountain region.
JL: We have customers from all of the United States, representing all size meetings. We have been able to share our virtual offerings across all markets.
What types of gatherings are they planning?
BH: Much of the focus is currently on rebooking of postponed conferences and events and how to retool those programs under new COVID-restricted guidelines. Also, some visits, both online and in person, are for winter 2021 in the hope that we can get back to hosting some larger gatherings. We have needed to adjust parameters of contracting with the flexible restrictions that COVID has forced us into. There are so many unknowns that influence the current state of hospitality, so those considerations most definitely come into play and are a huge part of the conversations.
When are the meetings/events taking place (what quarter, what year)?
BH: As I just mentioned, we are still targeting some winter 2020 with some smaller programs. Many corporate travel restrictions, as well as financial considerations, are also influencing these conversations. Many organizations have taken huge financial adjustments, so limits on size may be based on so many factors.
JL: VISIT DENVER represents many properties in Denver, across the metro region, and beyond. As such, gathering mandates vary depending upon the location of each hotel. We still have more than 180 definite meetings on the books for the remainder of 2020; these groups range in size—mostly small—and are slated for July through December. It is worth noting that the Colorado Convention Center’s exhibit halls are contracted as an alternate care facility through Sept. 30, 2020. We closely monitor the evolving COVID-19 concerns, as well as planner and traveler sentiment, to help guide all conversations about the landscape of meetings in the future.
Why is it important for planners and suppliers to do site visits?
BH: The creativity needed to really address the needs and goals of the organization balanced with COVID protocols and restrictions is forcing a much more in-depth look at programs from both the supplier and buyer point of view. These thoughts are preliminary before approaching details of A/V and virtual presentations, proper food and beverage presentation and fulfillment, and how all details are affected by COVID management.
JL: These are very trying times for everyone in our industry; however, we must continue to plan for the future. … Site visit requests are a sign of recovery—and we know we will recover!
Beth Buehler has been editor of Colorado Meetings + Events magazine for 15 years and helped launch Mountain Meetings magazine in 2013. She has planned numerous meetings and events and enjoys exploring Colorado.