May 8, 2021

GPS Tourism Town Hall Sends Positive Vibes

By Terri Hardin

For tourism professionals, National Travel and Tourism Week (May 3 – May 9, 2021) is an opportunity to present results and expectations to the industry, a general accounting of the health and wealth of a destination. For the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), its recent Virtual Town Hall, held May 4, 2021, was a breath of fresh hope to dispel the anxieties created by a disastrous 2020.

The Town Hall was convened by CVB CEO Scott White, who acknowledged that, with the unusual season, it “has been a long road to getting to this day and getting on our road to recovery” before briefly turning the meeting over to Tom Tabler, Chairman of the Greater Palm Springs CVB and General Manager of JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa. Pointing to a recent uptick in economic numbers across the board, Tabler noted, “We’re coming out of it and even going vertical in so many areas. Tourism is the lifeblood here in Palm Springs.”

To put everything into perspective, White presented slides with data culled by Tourism Economics, a research company engaged by the CVB. After sharing a few grim travel statistics from 2020 (39% fewer visitors for a 53% lower economic impact = a 40% jobs loss), White expounded on plans to achieve 16 million visitors annually by 2026, in part through improved transportation, destination improvement initiatives, and what travel professionals call “the visitor experience.”

The Case for Transportation and Infrastructure

White noted that air flights in 2021 are projected to exceed that of 2019, with the addition of Southwest Airlines. The presence of Southwest in the Palm Springs market is very exciting for tourism professionals; as Colleen Pace, chief sales and marketing officer for the Greater Palm Springs CVB, remarked, “When Southwest goes into a destination, they don’t do seasonal flights, they do year-round flights, which is what they’ve done here. And they’ve been very pleased so far with the performance, obviously taking the pandemic into consideration. The newest flight is into Las Vegas direct from Palm Springs. That is actually a brand-new flight that starts on Mother’s Day.”

Another part of the plan – expanded passenger rail service – dovetails nicely with the current federal infrastructure initiative (more news is expected with the next 40 days).

Meanwhile, the Coachella Valley Arena is expected to open in 2022. It’s one of eight “intimate venue” arenas to be launched globally by the Oak View Group through 2024.

The Visitor Experience

Erin Francis-Cummings of Destination Analysts provided insight into the visitor experience and expectations. Looking ahead, Francis-Cummings said, “Travel is looking awesome. Anxiety about COVID has largely retreated.”

As of April 25, “excitement to travel” has advanced to 6.4 on an 11-point scale. More than 53% of companies have returned to travel, and 36.9% of business travelers are planning to attend meetings in 2021.

“The number of leisure trips Americans are saying they’re going to do has more than doubled since the beginning of the year,” said Francis-Cummings. And with activities like dining in restaurants, shopping, and outdoor recreation topping the summer to-do lists – and with the top three desires being relaxation, experiencing beautiful places, and “escape” – Palm Springs is well-placed for success. “We see your top-rated attributes are things that people want: your beautiful scenery, your weather, your outdoor activities, your fine dining, and your welcoming atmosphere,” concluded Francis-Cummings.

In agreement with Destination Analysts’ findings, the state tourism organization Visit California is planning several campaigns that leverage the Golden State’s outdoor appeal. “It’s time for our comeback,” noted Lynn Carpenter, Associate Vice President, Global Marketing at Visit California, speaking from the organization’s Sacramento home base. Visit California’s layered marketing strategy includes motivating in-state, domestic, and international visits – as well as cooperative opportunities for such travel partners as Greater Palm Springs. With California being so populous, “It is a huge competitive advantage for us to be able to let people know that it’s part of their civic duty to take their vacation within California – it helps get people back to work.” Carpenter encourages its partner to use its vast library of resources and add to it by filing stories on the Visit California website.

Carpenter concluded by acknowledging White’s leadership and her close working relationship with Colleen Pace, CMO for the Greater Palm Springs CVB.

“Find Your Own Oasis”

Colleen Pace followed Carpenter’s remarks with details about the CVB’s re-engaged media plan. In February and March, the CVB generated 3.3 billion impressions that touched 20 markets. Bookings remain short-term, about 75% booking within 30 days of arrival. “We’re still very much a short-term decision for people,” said Pace. “As we saw, people are waiting until the last minute.” The theme for the CVB’s two television spots is “Find Your Own Oasis,” with music redolent of Coachella acts; other markets include billboards and digital media.

With the help of digital media, the CVB also plans to extend Restaurant Week from June through August and gamify the event with check-ins and prizes. A summer restaurant pass is being developed by tech company Bandwango which will be available for download in June. “We’re expecting to get 100 restaurants to participate.”

Finally, with the predicted return of meetings tourism, “We’re very excited to relaunch our convention meeting plan. There are specific guidelines, as of June 15, in terms of regulations, for group meeting space. It will be about partnering with the client and putting a plan together with the customer and the meeting planner, based on the comfort level of the attendees. Groups may feel very strongly that they want a limited number of people seating at each table or doing their events outside.”

But the interest is there: “We received 87 leads for the month of April, which is the highest we’ve seen since pre-pandemic time. People who are meeting planners are definitely ready and wanting to look at booking business here at Greater Palm Springs.”

On Par with Tourism

What would a Palm Springs marketing plan be without a golf tournament? On May 20, the newly formed (18 months) Greater Palm Springs Tourism Foundation will offer a tournament and reception at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa. The Foundation is a scholarship program for getting area high-school students into college, but it has also raised money for industry workers who were struggling during the pandemic.

Last year’s job losses have displaced many employees, to the point where the area is now feeling a labor shortage. “Obviously,” noted Pace, “the labor shortages are a real thing. But anecdotally, in talking with the hotels, things are improving. They are getting more people to come back on board, as things open up, and so far, they haven’t limited their occupancies beyond what is required.  It does not seem to be impeding the guest experience, which is of the most importance to us at this point.”

On the Mend

Here’s a surprise: With the pandemic shutting down so much business last year, consumers might be thinking that they are in a buyer’s market. But that’s not really happening. “We’re not at pre-pandemic average daily rate (ADR) levels,” said Pace, echoing some comments by Tom Tabler, “but we are getting a strong ADR.”

Similarly, restaurants are having a rebound. “The restaurant industry has taken a huge blow, but since the occupancy levels for restaurants have been able to increase, they’ve been busier than ever. What I’m hearing from the restaurant is that if I want a reservation, I should be making it a week in advance to ensure I can get the time that I want. As you saw from the Destination Analysts survey, people want to go out and dine. Which is exciting. They’ve got back-to-back business, which is a great thing to see.”

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