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Richard Geiger: ‘Look forward, travel back’

Richard Geiger: ‘Look forward, travel back’

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Little did we know when we launched our new brand and tagline just a year ago that “Look Forward, Travel Back” would be so poignant.

In so many ways, these last four long months have left us all grappling with how to navigate our businesses, our health and frankly, every aspect of our lives through COVID-19.

As president of Visit Winston-Salem for the last decade and a 40-year veteran of the tourism industry, I’ve seen our economy reignite after financial downturns, communities rebuild after devastation wreaked by Mother Nature and reunite after tragic acts of terrorism. Today, although we’re still fully in the throes of a devastating pandemic, I am heartened to witness so many in our community rolling up their proverbial sleeves even further.

This is particularly true in the tourism industry, which has been devastated by COVID-19. Across this industry, hoteliers, restaurateurs, meeting venues, museums and attractions are taking steps to re-examine entrenched business models to reinvent and keep their businesses relevant, even in the face of a pandemic. Transforming tours and live music performances to a virtual stage and once sit-down dining to take-away are just a couple examples of nimble and necessary pivots.

We will eventually reach the other side of this pandemic mountain. We are therefore hyper-focused and taking strategic steps now to ensure that our city is squarely back in the spotlight and the minds of visitors who want to conduct business meetings, annual conventions and leisure travel in Winston-Salem.

As much as our world has changed, our vision and our commitment to the entire Winston-Salem hospitality community is steadfast. Our leadership is fueled and guided by tomes of research and ongoing conversations with colleagues and customers.

Research has been our constant compass. Perhaps the upside to the downturn in our industry is that at no other time has there been so many researchers surveying, analyzing and deciphering the situation.

Study after study indicates there is a pent-up demand to travel, however with the one caveat: when it is safe to do so. Industry analysts concur; destinations like Winston-Salem are better poised for a quicker rebound post-quarantine. Specifically, consumers and meeting/event planners collectively agree their first choices would likely be smaller, less congested cities that are centrally located, drivable and offer affordable accommodations and meeting venues.

These formal findings echo exactly what Visit Winston-Salem is hearing from clients and local hoteliers during their weekly “wellness check-ins;” planners are now seeking smaller, more regional and less densely populated cities as an alternative for their conventions when it’s safe to meet again.

Due to drastic reductions in hotel occupancy revenue, which is our primary funding source, our new annual budget was reduced by over 40%. However, our plan is laser-focused on answering the question, “Why travel to Winston-Salem?” in the top two markets, Raleigh and Charlotte. In addition, we are concentrating public relations and promotional efforts in top regional markets throughout the Southeast, especially in metro Atlanta and the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area.

Since we know that consumers will begin to travel sooner than corporate and convention attendees, we kicked-off a comprehensive summer hotel package getaway campaign, “Travel Back to Winston-Salem Summer Getaway.” We are partnering with local hoteliers who have created overnight packages that “speak” to consumers with a pent-up demand to travel while still dealing with COVID-19 anxiety.

We are working side-by-side with our colleagues at area meeting facilities, including the management team at our largest venue, The Benton Convention Center. We are taking globally certified procedures and practices to create a safe and socially-distanced venue. As we communicate these important, stringent efforts with our clients and customers, we are also working tirelessly and cooperatively to deliver a consolidated message to Gov. Roy Cooper and elected officials that there is, indeed, a path for safely reopening convention centers. After all, the very essence of this industry is to travel, meet and convene.

No matter how it is measured, tourism is big business. Local hotels, restaurants, attractions, breweries, retail, galleries and countless other businesses rely on visitors to fuel our economy. Thankfully, many of our residents continue to support these local businesses, but it’s important to take note that pre-pandemic research told us that the almost 2 million visitors who cross our county lines each year provided an economic impact of more than $900 million additional dollars to Forsyth County’s coffers and created more than 7,200 jobs.

Even in such uncertain, and yes, unprecedented times, Visit Winston Salem is more committed than ever to help reopen businesses, bring jobs and tourism back to help rebuild our economy, together. We are humbled and grateful to all the dedicated individuals working the front lines to keep our loved ones healthy and community safe.

We look forward to getting travelers back to Winston-Salem.

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