Hit the road: A shifting landscape has drive-in destinations mapping out a plan for success

With its location five hours from Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Winston-Salem, N.C., continues to market itself as a perennial drive-in destination.
With its location five hours from Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Winston-Salem, N.C., continues to market itself as a perennial drive-in destination.

One year ago, amid pandemic-related travel restrictions and safety concerns, drive-in meeting destinations saw an opportunity.

Promoting themselves as safer meeting destinations, drive-in markets touted the advantages of not having to deal with the stress of air travel, along with the peace of mind that comes with meeting in a smaller, less crowded destination.

Now that pandemic concerns are waning, drive-in destinations aren’t reversing their marketing strategy. Instead, they are gearing up for a strong 2022, assuming heightened demand for drive-in markets isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Much like companies have warmed up to the idea of remote work, meeting planners are looking with fresh eyes at drive-in destinations and seeing the benefits of meeting a little closer to home.

Drive-in appeal continues to be a focus for Spartanburg, S.C., now that in-person meetings are increasing. Timothy Bush, chief tourism development officer for OneSpartanburg Inc., says groups are eyeing destinations like Spartanburg through a different lens.

“I think planners see drive-market cities as more of an option now,” Bush says. “Spartanburg has shown we are a good partner when it comes to hosting meetings in our community and can really add valuable resources to planners.”

In Tennessee, Sarah Rowan, senior director of convention sales and marketing with Visit Knoxville, is seeing the same trend play out. “Planners and attendees both are more willing to consider mid-tier drive-in destinations and remain open-minded about the value and benefits we have to offer as a fresh option without the hassle,” Rowan says. “It’s the same idea we have always communicated but is being better received now due to shifting perspectives of attendees.”

Drivability in demand

When attendees drive to destinations, many stay a few extra days to relax and see the sights.
When attendees drive to destinations, many stay a few extra days to relax and see the sights.

With its location within a day’s drive of more than half of the continental United States, Knoxville has always promoted itself as a drive-in meeting destination. During the height of COVID-19, that message became a focus of Knoxville’s print and digital ads. And now that groups are resuming their old travel habits, the city’s location continues to be a major selling point, Rowan says.

“We are still using drivability as an important asset when marketing and working with groups, especially with social and hobby groups who are ready to get back out there and take a road trip with friends around an event,” she says.

Although it wasn’t a new strategy, Visit Knoxville looked at some places where it was promoting the ease of traveling in and out of the airport, and then changed that message to emphasize Knoxville as a convenient destination to get to by car. “We also came up with that because travelers have their car and can stay an extra day or two, so they can easily drive to all of the regional outdoor offerings while attending a conference,” Rowan adds. “The fact that our downtown hotels offer very reasonable overnight parking rates makes it more appealing for attendees and meeting planners, as well.”

That’s not to say drumming up business will be easy—even with the advantage of being just a car ride away for many attendees.

“I think we always have to be savvy to capture new business,” Rowan says. “Taking into account we pretty much missed an entire year and a half of a typical selling cycle, we are still seeing some lag in demand due to that.”

For example, some groups still don’t know whether they will continue to follow a hybrid format beyond 2022 and 2023, leaving uncertainty for space and room needs. “But seeing the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel I think has finally reassured planners they can move forward again with planning future years, and we are seeing the faucet turn on full blast again because of that,” she continues. “I think many planners are smart in being comfortable to work ahead again, as space and room inventory is going to be in high demand beginning 2022 and on.”

Shorter lead times

With its location along Interstate 10, Beaumont, Texas, is considered drivable from 80 percent of the state.
With its location along Interstate 10, Beaumont, Texas, is considered drivable from 80 percent of the state.

In Beaumont, Texas, in-person meetings are picking back up for 2022 and 2023, in part because of planners’ preference for drivable destinations, says Freddie Willard, director of sales for the Beaumont Convention & Visitors Bureau. The caveat, she notes, is there has been less lead time from groups and planners.

“Almost all are focused on the driving distance to the meeting host location, as well as condensed, shorter timeframes to book this meeting business,” Willard says.

For example, Texas Regional Counselors sent Beaumont an RFP for June 2022, leaving about a six-month lead time. This same trend has been true for SMERF (social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal) markets, as well as state associations and government groups, Willard says.

Beaumont has always targeted the driving audience for meeting attendance because of the city’s accessibility. Located on Interstate 10 in southeast Texas, it’s considered drivable from 80 percent of the state. Once COVID-19 forced meeting planners to consider smaller markets, Beaumont refreshed its marketing materials to play up its appeal as a drivable, more affordable location well suited to handle groups with lower attendance while still offering ample space to accommodate health and safety concerns.

“The pandemic and COVID restrictions with meeting in person was a challenge itself,” Willard says. “However, the Beaumont CVB saw the changing meeting landscape as an opportunity to update our image and show how meeting here was still viable.”

A win for the CVB came in February 2021 when Cheer America moved its Cheer Bowl Nationals competition to Beaumont, citing a preference for a smaller, drive-in market over a big city because of pandemic restrictions.

Beaumont will continue to highlight its drive-in appeal in its marketing efforts, as it continues to be a key decision factor for meeting planners and attendees, particularly because there are still air travel uncertainties and cancellations. “Ease of driving to the meeting location is still a strong factor for all markets for Beaumont,” Willard adds. “While we are finding that long-distance travelers such as speakers, board members, and some attendees are flying, the predominance of meetings are still focused on the meeting location.”

Driving into Knoxville, you'll notice the 26-story Sunsphere, a skyline icon since its construction for the 1982 World's Fair.
Driving into Knoxville, you’ll notice the 26-story Sunsphere, a skyline icon since its construction for the 1982 World’s Fair.

Picking up the mantle

Even as more planners and attendees are venturing back out into the world, drive-in meeting business continues to be critical for markets like Fairfax, Va., which is within a day’s drive for about half the U.S. population. Dean Miller, national sales manager for Visit Fairfax, says it could be a while before larger groups return.

“Corporate America is still not back on the road, and it may be another year or more before they are,” Miller says.

Hotels that previously filled up with corporate travelers and meetings are looking to smaller groups and regional meetings.

“That means the mantle falls on our shoulders to go develop more group leads for the hotels to follow up on,” Miller says. “We have dramatically increased our presence at trade shows this fall and into spring.”

Another challenge is that big national groups that called off events in 2020 and 2021 are going back to the cities where they cancelled to book their next events. This means markets like Fairfax will have to wait a little longer for their shot at booking those events.

“By the time everyone gets through the make goods, it might be three to four years before they get an open date again,” Miller notes.

For now, Fairfax is going after more modest events and groups that are in closer proximity. “It’s the smaller stuff that’s coming back first because they can work on a short schedule, they don’t require as much space, and the logistics are simpler,” Miller says.

At the height of the pandemic, Fairfax pulled back on advertising while people were hunkered down and worried about getting sick.
“Now, we’re getting ready to roll out a new campaign for planners that they can book here and have a great meeting, and we can help them take the worry out of getting a group together,” Miller says.

Miller is encouraged to see monthly occupancy rates ticking up, with rates reaching 50 percent to 60 percent, versus 20 percent to 30 percent this time last year.

“Talking to the planners, people want to get out,” Miller says. “People want to get back together.”

Incentivizing planners

Drive-in meeting business continues to be critical for Fairfax, Va., which is within a day’s drive for about half of the U.S. population.
Drive-in meeting business continues to be critical for Fairfax, Va., which is within a day’s drive for about half of the U.S. population.

While Spartanburg has always marketed itself as a drive-in destination, the CVB leaned into that strategy even more during the pandemic.

To attract new business during COVID-19 and into the recovery, OneSpartanburg created an incentive program rewarding meeting planners for bringing business to the community.

Last year, the organization also focused on connecting with meeting planners who had previously hosted events in the city and were familiar with the market. Along with email marketing and one-on-one sales calls, the CVB held small sales events in key cities within driving distance to promote Spartanburg’s incentive program.

So far, Spartanburg’s efforts appear to be paying off. Bush says there’s been positive feedback from planners at trade shows and events, and there are clear signs that things are moving in a positive direction.

“We’ve seen an increase in RFPs compared to last year, and I think that speaks to a positive shift in the market,” he says.

Bush expects the CVB will continue following some of the marketing strategies from last year.

“I don’t think our marketing is really shifting that much,” Bush says. “We attended trade shows and hosted sales events in key markets, and those are things we will continue to ramp up as we work to bring more meetings to Spartanburg to drive our visitors economy.”

Adapting to keep pace

As a perennial drive-in destination, Winston-Salem, N.C., has seen a faster return of state and regional association conventions and smaller meetings from the national market. With its location five hours from Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and two hours from Raleigh, N.C., and Charlotte, N.C., Winston-Salem didn’t have to shift its marketing strategy to reach that segment of groups during the pandemic. Now that larger groups are coming back, the destination’s marketers have had to adapt to keep pace with the ebb and flow of group sizes and market segments.

Winston-Salem's 150,000-square-foot Benton Convention Center has provided flexibility to adjust meeting accommodations for group sizes and event needs.
Winston-Salem’s 150,000-square-foot Benton Convention Center has provided flexibility to adjust meeting accommodations for group sizes and event needs.

“The challenge was knowing when to adjust our marketing message and mix as business returned from various sectors,” says Christian Schroeder, director of sales and services for Visit Winston-Salem.

The area’s 150,000-square-foot Benton Convention Center has provided flexibility to adjust meeting accommodations for group sizes and event needs. Since the start of the pandemic, Visit Winston-Salem has hosted more than 25 in-state groups, including national and regional board meetings.

Although Schroeder sees pent-up demand for meetings and events, he believes destinations like Winston-Salem will have to think creatively to succeed in the new market landscape, especially as the recovery goes on.

“Across the board, the meetings and conventions postponed during the pandemic have impacted preferred-date availability,
but the expansion of meeting space in the Benton Convention Center and the addition of more hotel rooms has created more opportunities to host meetings in Winston-Salem,” Schroeder says.

Moving forward, drive-in markets are poised for continued popularity as the health and safety aspect continues to be a draw for destinations that are accessible by car and less densely populated than their big-city competitors.

“Coming out of the pandemic, I would say the main appeal of drive-in markets is the ability to limit health risks from close-quarter exposure and the risk of delays or disruptions sometimes associated with air travel,” Schroeder says.

With this in mind, he is optimistic that groups and meetings will gain momentum—both in his market and elsewhere—throughout 2022.

“The meetings and conventions industry is remarkably resilient,” Schroeder says, “and compared to last year, we see that the market is headed in the right direction for a return to pre-pandemic levels sooner rather than later.”

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