Many Safe and Happy Returns: Welcoming Visitors Back in a Changing Time

Each spring, cities and towns across America are swept up in the unbridled optimism of seeing nature in full bloom. As has become the norm, this year has proven slightly different. It may still be true that “April showers bring May flowers,” but has anyone gone outside to check? With many of us staying home to prevent the spread of coronavirus, we’ve been unable to spread the collective cheer brought on by warmer weather.

For places that rely on the economic impact of tourism, especially during the busy summer season, this downtime is far from ideal. Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) work year-round to make the next few months memorable, with celebrations and promotions that put the best of their communities on display. However, these efforts will not yield the same visitor count that they have in past peak seasons. Judging by a late April poll conducted by ABC News/Ipsos, a clear majority of Americans wouldn’t consider doing much outside of their homes upon a hypothetical lifting of social distancing orders and restrictions: 20% would be likely to go to sporting events; 21 % to bars; 24% to movie theaters. The one exception is wide support for a quick return to the workplace — 77% of respondents would go back if it were possible to do so tomorrow. If the general public hesitates to go out for non-essential activities (and rightly so), how can DMOs reassure prospective visitors that it’s safe to travel once those orders and restrictions have been lifted?

Despite the greater-than-usual uncertainty surrounding the future, there’s good reason for DMOs to stay optimistic and hopeful alongside 46% of Americans surveyed for another Ipsos poll released in April. After all, a not-insignificant 43% of respondents also agreed that they plan to travel at some point this summer, if allowed. And as long as we continue to take the necessary precautions, we just might get our wish of a gradual easing of the restrictions that have temporarily reshaped society. Soon, outdoor adventurers, patio loungers, and marathon shoppers could be arriving at nature parks, restaurants, and retail centers in greater numbers. Before that happens, we spent some time at North Star brainstorming ways for our DMO partners to continue their work as local leaders, particularly by helping residents and visitors take a much-needed break from our current reality. Here are a few ideas for adapting summer plans while keeping in mind what matters most — the health and safety of neighbors and visitors in our communities:

– This year’s travelers are less likely to leave their region for a bit of weekend fun, meaning that local visitors are bound to make up a greater percentage of your total visitors. This subset could include people who are intimately familiar with your destination as well as people who take trips farther away and haven’t visited in a few years. Both groups, however, would appreciate a series of retrospective posts on social media that drive interest in old and new attractions. Curate a gallery of downtown views through the years; dedicate a post to longtime business and attractions owners and tell their story; or do a brief Q&A with businesses (talking shop and future plans) celebrating between 1 and 5 years as part of your community.

– Collaborate with local partners on a “Healthy Habits” campaign that educates visitors on ways to maintain social distancing while enjoying what your destination has to offer. Make it friendly and accessible — people should know that they can keep doing their part to reduce the spread of Coronavirus while regaining a sense of normalcy. Include giveaways for limited-edition, destination-branded masks and hand sanitizers. Provide businesses flashy stickers with a message of solidarity to hand out to kids following suggested distancing guidelines. Bring “air-fives” back into the mainstream with a humorous how-to video set in your destination.

– Work with municipal governments to eliminate vehicle traffic in areas that are popular with pedestrians. On select weekends, divert normal traffic around main streets, downtowns, public squares, etc. to give visitors ample room to move in and out of boutiques, museums, and the like. Allow shops and restaurants to take advantage of the extra space with expanded patio seating and street clearance-sale booths. Overall, aim for a lively atmosphere that discourages overcrowding.

– In the absence of concerts, races, and sports, we could all use some connection through collective activities. Sponsor a series of weekly challenges wherein local businesses and organizations encourage participants to accomplish a common task. Ask participants to submit photographic proof to social media that they’ve completed the weekly task, and reward those who participate every week with an exclusive prize (t-shirt, hat, medal, etc.). For example, a local charity could design a route for a 5k running course around area landmarks; a theater or record store could moderate online movie or music discussions after people stream a selected work; an arts and crafts store could share instructions for making a sculpture with common household objects.

– Do you have access to a large open lot? Consider staging a drive-in performance series throughout the season. Invite residents and visitors to roll up and enjoy acts from the comfort of their vehicles, and devise a way to coordinate food orders from food trucks parked along the perimeter. Feature comedians, singer-songwriters, and one (wo)man play actors who can bring a playful levity to their solo performances.

– If you already have ideas (or seek additional ones) for addressing new travel patterns and behaviors this year, gauge the interest level and opinions of your audiences as part of your planning process. Use tools like social media polls and free online survey tools to understand what your prospective visitors, local partners, and frontline workers are thinking during this time. You may not be able to reach everybody, but you don’t need soundproof methodology or irrefutable results to show that you’re thinking about how best to serve your visitors and your community when the time comes.

So DMO friends, wherever you represent, we hope you stay healthy, safe, and positive out there. We know your communities and visitors are as eager to support you as you are to support them.