The meeting and convention industry looks for ways to rebound after taking a hit from COVID-19.
North Carolina boasts a rich array of enticing meeting and convention venue options for out-of-state visitors. In 2018, tourism-related jobs increased to a record 230,000, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. Visitors spent $73 million per day last year and contributed $5.9 million per day in state and local tax revenue, according to tourism group Visit N.C. The coronavirus pandemic is expected to drastically affect these numbers in 2020.
“North Carolina does have a unique niche in the country in that we are an incredible tourist destination for things like corporate gatherings, association conferences, sporting events and concerts,” says Rich Phaneuf, CEO and executive director of Association Executives of North Carolina. “North Carolina is a place that people want to go whether it’s to work, retire, visit or play — they want to be here.”
AENC works with executives, particularly in the association, hotel and hospitality industries, to provide guidance as well as a network of other individuals to connect with. The organization has been checking in with its members since the beginning of the stay-at-home order to see how it can help members succeed despite the unprecedented circumstances.
Though AENC has a small team that already worked remotely before the pandemic, the group is also feeling the effects of the virus. Phaneuf says it’s possible AENC’s annual convention, set for Durham later this month, may be canceled.
Summer and fall are popular times in North Carolina for corporate retreats on the coast or in the mountains, but with restrictions on gatherings, few will take place this year. This will likely cause a trickle-down effect in the state’s most popular destinations, Richard Geiger, president of Visit Winston-Salem, says.
“We are here to try to bring people together — the larger the gathering the better,” he says. “The reality is because of the pandemic, that’s exactly what we don’t want to be doing from a health perspective. That’s why you’re seeing the numbers you’re seeing with unemployment at restaurants, hotels, attractions and the vendors they do business with.”
In 2017, Winston-Salem’s Benton Convention Center underwent a $20 million renovation, and there are 5,000 hotel rooms in the Winston-Salem area to support travel and tourism each year. In addition to the Millennium Center, the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts, the Stevens Center and the Wake Forest Biotech Place Conference Center, Geiger estimates 35% of business in Winston-Salem comes from meetings and conventions, with another 35% from corporate transient business. The majority of large gatherings this year have been postponed or canceled, he says, aside from some smaller group meetings and weddings.
Visit Winston-Salem is working with local hotels and convention centers to reevaluate all processes and determine an individualized approach forward. This might include creating a plan for them once they can host large groups, or working with the event venue to come up with a hybrid meeting model that utilizes technology, according to Christian Schroeder, Visit Winston-Salem’s director of sales and services.
Schroeder says many venues have changed their policies to make it easier for folks to postpone meetings because of COVID-19.
“If you had something planned this summer, don’t cancel it, but look at postponing it,” he says. “Work with your bureaus, partners and convention center partners to rebook rather than cancel.”
Chetola Resort in Blowing Rock is experiencing many postponements of gatherings to 2021. Director of Sales and Marketing PJ Wirchansky says the mountain resort has seen a smattering of small group meetings with four to 12 people, but it isn’t offering buffet options and won’t accept larger gatherings until it’s safe to do so. He estimates Chetola hosted 100 meetings and conventions last year but will see only a fraction of that this year.
One avenue Chetola and other resorts are exploring is outdoor gatherings. At press time, groups of as many as 25 people could gather outside. With Chetola’s 78 acres, Wirchansky says some meetings and events have switched to an outdoor option. The resort reopened the hotel and are seeing more individuals and families come stay in Blowing Rock.
“We do have policies in place currently for all guests and staff in public areas to wear masks, and we are taking temperatures at our entrance gate for everybody,” he says. “And we have a minimum of 24 hours inbetween guests when the room remains vacant, and then the housekeeping goes in and cleans with hospital-grade supplies.”
Chetola has always had stringent cleaning policies, but Wirchansky says the lodge has increased these efforts with the help of Count On Me NC, a statewide program led by N.C. State University, Visit N.C., the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and the N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association.
However, these extra measures cost hotels and restaurants at a time when they’re making less than normal in a peak season, NCRLA President and CEO Lynn Minges says. The NCRLA is working closely with government leadership to create policies and grant and loan opportunities that will help hospitality-focused businesses survive this difficult economic period.
Count On Me NC was designed to prepare the state’s restaurants, hotels and hospitality businesses for reopening with safety and sanitary precautions in place while also giving potential customers peace of mind, Minges explains.
The program consists of five training modules businesses can participate in with their employees. Once completed, businesses get a certificate they can hang in their building and are listed on the Count On Me NC website. Guests can also take a pledge stating they will practice social distancing, be kind to employees and wear a mask when necessary.
“We understood there would be some reluctance among consumers to come back into restaurants,” Minges says.
If the future sounds bleak or uncertain, it hasn’t affected the spirit of those working in the meeting and convention industry. Wirchansky is encouraged to see so many visiting the resort to check out local nature. Phaneuf says all of AENC’s members have been damaged, but none have been defeated. Minges echoed these sentiments.
“We have to get through this together,” she says.