By Bobby Bordelon
The Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau (GCCVB) held their second Tourism Talk during the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday, July 17. Following up the first, hosted near the beginning of the state-wide shut down, the current tourism out-look was the prime focus for the speakers.
A notable speaker during the talk was Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby with the West Virginia Tourism Office, who provided data giving context to the impact the uncontrolled pandemic had on one of the state’s largest industries.
“The question I get all the time is ‘how bad has this been on the industry?’ I have to tell you I know, from talking to folks like you guys, how devastating the effects have been, but seeing them in black and white has been a little shocking to me,” said Ruby. “This is the research, and it’s state-wide data, you look at hotel occupancy in March, compared to the previous March, we saw about a 35 percent decrease. Revenue hadn’t really started falling yet, so revenue is projected to be down about 40 percent from March. In April, we got to 60 percent decrease. Rates started lowering, so revenue we saw a loss of 72 percent. Then in May, we saw it bounce back up.”
Ruby also explained this affected employment throughout West Virginia tourism.
“The number that really struck me most was unemployment,” Ruby said. “In hospitality, these are state numbers by the way, it dropped from 71,200 jobs in April to 31,010 in May. I think these numbers paint the picture of what really happened to this industry and what we’re trying to get out of.”
Although tourism is down overall during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the speakers during the CVB’s talk noted how well positioned the state is for when tourism returns due to the particular desires of people looking to travel in the current pandemic. According to some surveys, Ruby explained this includes things such as less crowded areas, small towns, outdoor recreation, affordability, and traveling by road trip rather than by plane.
“Its a perfect description of West Virginia,” Ruby said. “… If there is a silver lining in this, I think West Virginia is really going to be poised to gain market share, a new sector of people who are looking for a different kind of vacation. … We are an entire state of small towns and that’s what people are looking for – they no longer want to go to the major metropolitan areas, they’re looking for small town charm. We certainly have that. You guys [Greenbrier County] have one of the most charming small towns so we’re really excited to start promoting that even more.””
Most of the advertising out of the Greenbrier County CVB reflects this, with minimal changes in order to accommodate concerns around the virus. Beginning in 2017, the Simply Get Away campaign began at the CVB – the marketing campaign aimed to display the natural beauty and the small towns of Greenbrier County to potential tourists from across the U.S. Through ads in print, posted on billboards, and spread on digital media, the campaign took aim at residents of Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio, with a special emphasis on Washington, D.C. Currently the campaign is reduced, accounting for travel restrictions in each state, but there is already a plan for renewing Simply Get Away.
“We are still very well positioned as far as what products we have to offer – our travel clientele,” Beth Gill, GCCVB marketing director, explained. “None of that changed for us. Imagery stayed the same, and as you all know, we’re still very strong on in luxuries because of what we have to offer at The Greenbrier, downtown Lewisburg, things along those lines. … We’re just changing the messaging a little bit in order to address folks concerns these days. [Things like] peace of mind, lots of breathing room, outside space.”
Once travel demand increases, phase four of renewed tourism advertising will begin, which would bring open up more regional-based advertising between the partners. This includes paid social media, contextual content ads, banner displays, and more. This would be in addition to streaming audio, such as Spotify and Pandora, ad placements and TV video spots.
“If everything goes well over the next couple of months, we will launch phase four at the end of August,” Gills said. “What that does is another layer to the campaign. It expands in our regional market and then … layers a piece of digital display advertising.”
Financial concerns over advertising were also highlighted. As funds are reduced, many businesses and organizations are having to cut advertising in order to meet operational costs. Recently the Greenbrier County Commission voted to defer payments on an over $400,000 loan given to the CVB in 2016 to combat the effects of the flood that year. In order to combat the decreased revenues across the state, Ruby explained more funding has been made available.
“We’ve looked at our funds and we’ve moved things around so that cooperative advertising program that we have,” Ruby explained. “It has always been based on a dollar per dollar match, but we moved it to an 80/20 match. Starting now, and it made it retroactive for anything that has been purchased during the summer, the state will now offer an 80 percent match on advertising through our program. …. If your company wants to do a digital buy through us, we would pay for 80 percent of that media, but we also cover production costs for you. Our hope is that this allows you all to shift some funds around, put more money in operations, and continue to advertise. We are committed to do this through the end of the year, but we’ve also applied for some funds to extend it for one to two years because I understand that this isn’t going away.”
The discussion also highlighted new ads produced by Havenbrook Media, new audio ads, and the recent opening of the new World Tennis Tour courts in White Sulphur Springs
“We actually went over and met and had lunch with the CEO of World Team Tennis yesterday,” said Dense. “Such a lovely guy and they are just so happy with everything that’s going on right now and their experience with The Greenbrier.”
Although it’s uncertain how long the tourism industry will remain sustainably impacted by COVID-19, both the state and the Greenbrier County CVB are hoping to see a decent come back locally for Greenbrier County’s biggest business.
“The good thing is we’re really starting to see these numbers improve, but we’re not back to where we were,” Ruby said. “So many of you have huge revenue deficits from those months before you were closed. We are starting to see things turn around. … People are traveling more localized – a lot of those people that were taking New York vacations or beach vacations or Disney vacations are staying closer to home, more regional travel. But I want to underscore that things are not back to normal.”