Ch@t: What exactly do ‘tourism,’ ‘vacation’ look like during a pandemic?

Posted 5/15/20

Chatham County was the beneficiary of $36.9 million in visitor spending throughout 2018 — an increase of 5.4 percent from the previous year and the highest mark ever. While the 2019 numbers won’t …

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Ch@t: What exactly do ‘tourism,’ ‘vacation’ look like during a pandemic?

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Chatham County was the beneficiary of $36.9 million in visitor spending throughout 2018 — an increase of 5.4 percent from the previous year and the highest mark ever. While the 2019 numbers won’t come out until the summer and the 2020 numbers next year, they’re sure to paint differing pictures because of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing restrictions on non-essential travel. But that doesn’t mean Chatham’s tourism professionals are stopping their work.

This week, we talk to Neha Shah, director of the Pittsboro-Siler City Convention & Visitors Bureau, which serves all of Chatham County and gets funding from the county government, about how tourism has shifted during COVID-19, what marketing looks like and working through the uncertainty the pandemic has caused.

National Travel and Tourism Week typically is observed in May as the “vacation” season begins, but in a pandemic — with some travel restrictions in place and so many destinations closed or slowly re-opening — how have your work and priorities shifted?

Our service level has increased with the additional work of managing communication and updates due to COVID-19. The CVB supports tourism and hospitality businesses, guests and our visitor business owners, many of which are small. The message shifted and the focus, too. Instead of encouraging travel, we focused on a few sectors of our industry, predominantly restaurants. We created a page to offer updates on which ones were open, for takeout, curbside, delivery, drive-thru, retail and events, too. The marketing workload is still in place but the message has definitely shifted.

You began a series of blog posts on May 3 to help shine the spotlight on local businesses. With so many people researching potential travel destinations online, that underscores how much work goes into the CVB’s website. Can you talk about your strategy for the site and for marketing Pittsboro, Siler City and Chatham County?

Everything we do is about marketing and branding, and it’s a lot of building behind-the-scenes. Our strategy was and will be, for some time, to be sensitive to the impact of the pandemic while also supporting the industry, workforce, business owners and guests. Information is our currency, so we rely heavily upon two-way communication with our tourism and hospitality businesses.

Our budget is small and I’m the only permanent and full-time staff. I rely heavily on online marketing. Our guests find their information online and communicate online; they expect swift responses. We have a few e-newsletters and social media channels. I focused on sharing up-to-date information to keep our guests informed. Our message, right now, is: Stay home and we’ll see you when the time is right. Instead of promotional newsletters, we’re offering Zoom backgrounds, sharing the nature sites and looking back at all we have that is waiting for our guests.

We put N.C. Beer Month and N.C. Wine Month in a different light. Instead of visiting, order online and host a happy hour or join the winemakers in some. I send weekly emails to all our visitor businesses with updates from the CVB and industry, requests for information and resources. Instead of promotion, we’re offering quarantine cuisine cookbooks — a growing collection of recipes from our local businesses.

Since a lot of what we do is in advance and behind-the-scenes, we continue to work on marketing — the timeline is just altered.

What’s Chatham County’s events calendar looking like as we transition from spring toward summer, and with so much uncertainty (and so much unknown) out there?

We had a number of events cancel immediately in March for spring events. We had a few late spring and early summer events that canceled for this year, others that postponed to late summer, some want to consider late 2020 but do not have dates yet, so it’s a mix. Certainly, a lot of hesitation in planning when I speak with event coordinators of major festivals.

In the meantime, there are a lot of “virtual” events taking place. Can you talk about some of them?

We are very pleased to see the number of virtual events. We celebrated Earth Day online and N.C. Wine Month too. Virtual events, virtual tours ­— these have given everyone a chance at a behind-the-scenes opportunity, not just for the site, but the business owners too. We have a platform and an audience — time with tigers, park rangers, story tellers, children’s activities, music, yoga, happy hours and more. We even took a cross-country road trip with U.S. Travel Association, entirely on Twitter!

For those like you in the visitor/travel field, is there a “recovery plan”? What does it look like?

The recovery plan is about getting the tourism and hospitality industry to prepare for a post-COVID-19 outlook. Safety is more important than ever. We have to reassure our guests that it’s clean and it’s safe. We will be ready but we also want visitors to enjoy their experiences, and feel secure, whether day trip or overnight. We are working with Visit NC, the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA), and other state and national associations who have been generous in sharing information and data so that will definitely shape the new marketing plan.

How are you working right now with the staff at Visit NC?

Visit NC and NCRLA are providing an incredible amount of support and research. They are working on several initiatives on which we’ll be participants and will be rolling out soon. They’ll have a training for our restaurants, a Count On Me campaign, a promise to ensure safety for staff and guests. We’ll also work with them on a Cook it Forward promotion. It’s about supporting our eateries and their staff and inspiring our guests.

Those are only two of many upcoming projects. Visit NC has been working with national research organizations that have been conducting ongoing research. We don’t want to promote travel until it’s safe and until everyone is ready.

Let’s look ahead a bit farther out…Chatham County’s 250th anniversary is next year, in 2021. Too early to talk about plans for that?!

As we were preparing to meet and assign roles and tasks, the pandemic required immediate attention. We have not met as a group, nor online, since everyone has had the more emergent issues to manage. What the celebration may look like next year, some aspects may remain the same but the excitement will nevertheless make it a success. It might mean fewer in-person events but will not dim the pride for this milestone.

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