Outer Banks Visitors Bureau holds tourism summit

Published 3:51 pm Monday, June 15, 2020

Among the many cancellations due to COVID-19 travel restrictions this spring was an Outer Banks Visitors Bureau tourism summit.

Not willing to have that May event remain nothing more than a crossed-out entry on his calendar, Outer Banks Visitor Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles went to work developing a replacement event.

“The coronavirus has presented some amazing challenges for the world,” said Nettles. “One of the industries most affected is travel and tourism. As an industry we lost a lot of jobs right off and the economic impact is tremendous.”

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According to Nettles, US Travel Association statistics show the coronavirus impact is expected to be as much as nine times greater than what came after the 911 attacks.

“Here locally there has been an impact as well,” he continued. “Obviously we have reopened and it seems there has been quite a bit of pent-up demand by the fairly strong visitation that came with the reopening.”

Since Nettles was unable to bring people to the Outer Banks for the May summit, he instead held a video conference Tuesday, June 9 with a focus on post COVID-19 travel and the effect on the local economy.

“More than anything we were hoping to provide some perspective for our travel partners and provide some information to help them come to terms with what is going on and how to make the best of a bad situation,” explained Nettles.

To accomplish that, Nettles lined up speakers from San Francisco, California, Atlanta, Georgia and Milwaukee, Wisconsin with research capabilities to provide a data analysis on what is happening around the country and then ratchet it down from a national level to an closer Outer Banks perspective.

In all, about 80 people tuned in to the webinar. Although attendance was down from the 100 to 120 that normally attend a face-to-face seminar, it was still a significant number that spent a little more than an hour hearing Erin Francis-Cummings, president and CEO with Destination Analyists Research, and Melanie Brown, director of data and analytics with Key Data Dashboard, provide an in-depth look at travel patterns impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Also on the agenda was Emily Dodd, V.P. and executive media director with Hoffman York, who shared a few planning strategies and co-op opportunities.

In the first presentation, Francis-Cummings said her market research company has a weekly tracking survey of adult travelers in four US regions. Using opinions on travel safety from more than 1,200 completed surveys over 13 weeks of data collection, she said the overall opinion on safe travel is improving with more car travel than air travel planned.

“There are increased numbers that report they already travel or are ready to travel,” said Francis-Cummings. “More than 70 percent expect to take at least one trip in the remainder of 2020 with and half expect to travel in the fall.”

She went on to say a large segment still have some hesitation on air travel and opt instead for road trips this summer. For that group, a beach or resort and home of a friend or relative lead the list with more than half traveling by personal vehicle.

Other findings show personal safety is a major factor in making travel plans with some 70 percent reporting having recent travel plans impacted by coronavirus.

The second presentation on the COVID-19 impact on Dare County by Melanie Brown saw several similar trends.

Brown said she tracks trends in short term vacation rental markets with information drawn from more than 700 property managers and tourism organizations around the world.

According to Brown, the areas hit hardest nationwide include urban and fly-to markets like Hawaii and those that depend on spring break visitation.

Although March and April booking activity was down across the board for a while, current last-minute reservation bookings numbers are up significantly with this summer appearing to be on pace to match last year in some markets.

Locally, many of the numbers match those for the rest of the nation, with a noticeable increase in visitation and booking once the travel ban was lifted. One shift is that booking dates are farther out after the ban than they were before.

Brown offered one recommendation to property managers with reservation numbers below their 2019 numbers.

“There are so many last-minute reservations there is no reason to panic and drop rates if your reservations numbers are down,” she said.

Her data also shows while April and May are not peak season dates for Dare County, the drop in reservations we saw should not be a serious economic impact since the current bookings are tracking better than in 2019.

“Dare County benefits from being a drive-to market,” Brown continued. “You do not rely on spring break visitors and there is a larger share of single family home rentals than condos here.”

Brown concluded by saying more people coming here from larger cities than did for the same period last year and occupancy numbers higher than 2019 are possible.

In the final presentation, Emily Dodd covered several planning strategies and co-op opportunities.

Dodd said with visitors restricted as of March 17, all media advertising was paused immediately. In April, a new program was developed when the announcement of the Outer Banks reopening created a lot of interest and bookings. May 25 saw a relaunch of all TV and digital efforts.

“Although a Memorial Day opening brought people back to the beach, there is still work to be done,” Dodd added. She then focused some of the promotion plans that meet trends from the two earlier presentations.

North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio remain the core geographical area for a target audience.

In closing, Dodd touched on emails, feature articles and travel guide co-op opportunities for travel partners.

“This was the first webinar we’ve conducted,” Nettles explained after the webinar. “Typically, we have that face-to-face tourism summit in May. When that got canceled, I made a pledge that I still wanted to have some kind of webinar summit until the time when we could get back face-to-face.”

Nettles said he was happy with the turnout and it has caused him to consider it as something he should plan on doing again in the future.

“Obviously we are spread out a bunch of miles,” he explained. “And everybody has different things going on, so the webinar format . . . makes it easier to get the caliber of speaker that we want to have, that can focus on helping our local businesses perform better and get some insights from across the country. We will still do face-to-face, because that’s important too.”

Nettles said he will likely look at a series of webinars broken into smaller topics.

“We could have Aaron lead a 20-minute lunch and learn focused on PR and travel writers,” Nettles continued. “Then maybe Lori could do the same with group tour operators. So the audience could change depending on the topic.”

Nettles said while he likes to bring in national caliber speakers for a summit, the webinar format makes it easier and less expensive.

“It seemed to go pretty smoothly,” Nettles said. “The whole idea behind a face-to-face summit was recognizing that the travel and tourism industry here does not have an opportunity to come together. So we thought that the summit would do that. I think that whole intention and purpose comes across in a webinar format as well. An opportunity to bring us all together no matter where we are on the Outer Banks. And hopefully give us some ideas to help our industry.”

Nettles said the webinar was recorded. Anyone with questions about the event or interested in a copy should contact Outer Banks Visitors Bureau tourism sales and events manager Lorrie Love at 252-473-2138 or email love@outerbanks.org.



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