COVID-19 & Communications: Mandy McWherter's Perspective

How have things changed for your communication style or plan over the last few months?
Catch Des Moines focuses our PR efforts in three areas: promoting the Greater Des Moines region to national meetings and event planners, promoting the destination to leisure travelers, and promoting our organization's relevancy locally. Early on during the shutdown, we pivoted (annoying buzzword alert!) our ad spending and marketing efforts to focus on supporting local businesses and particularly our partners in the tourism and hospitality sectors.

We launched a resource hub with resources for meeting planners, blogs to support local businesses, hopeful PSAs and fun videos, and virtual activities for families. Over the summer, we launched a hotel bond campaign that emphasized our organization's relevancy by sharing messages discussing the value that hotels contribute to the local economy and our quality of life.

You might have seen our collaborative effort with the Greater Des Moines Partnership to launch the viral #DSMLocalChallenge. The challenge was wildly successful and saw several evolutions since its inception to adjust to changing consumer trends and keep the engagement going as the state began to reopen.

Throughout the state's reopening, Catch Des Moines' marketing and communication strategies have evolved along with changing consumer sentiment and comfort levels with travel. We're in a unique position now where Iowa is one of the states with few restrictions for travelers and gathering size. This presents an opportunity to attract other events we may never have been able to secure otherwise, such as the Nike Tournament of Champions basketball tournament in July.

Twice annually, we publish the Catch Des Moines Visitor's Guide, including listings for hotels, restaurants, attractions, and retail stores. Typically, the guide highlights Greater Des Moines' famous festivals, the Farmers' Market, sports events, concerts, and other large events; this year, we took a different track for our fall/winter guide. When none of us knew how long to expect the shutdown to last, it was difficult to plan the next week, much less plan content for six months later that was then expected to have a six-month shelf life. Without knowing if events would be back by the time we published, we decided instead to highlight the history of iconic Greater Des Moines landmarks that demonstrate our community's enduring spirit. 

What has been the most challenging or interesting thing you've encountered as you've shifted your communications due to COVID-19?
We know from a study conducted for the Greater Des Moines Destination Master Plan that it is our events that are the largest driver of tourism to the community. We've had to get creative in promoting our destination when the largest visitor attractor all but vanished from our marketing arsenal.

In the absence of events and activities to promote at the beginning of the pandemic, we transitioned our local marketing to sharing the positive stories of people helping others, so was born the "Des Good News" newsletter. Additionally, Catch Des Moines has weekly TV and radio appearances where our president discusses upcoming events and things to do over the coming weekend. To preserve our valuable airtime, we proposed a schedule or appearances with Catch Des Moines partners giving them an opportunity to share what exciting things they have going on and further solidifying how vital tourism and visitors are to our community. 

Luckily, Greater Des Moines already had a great legacy of investing in quality of life amenities, such as outdoor event spaces, an extensive trail system, an abundance of public art, and notable progress on the Central Iowa Water Trails project. Now it is our outdoor events and activities that are the focal point of our messaging and how we're attracting restless leisure travelers.

What advice do you have for communicators dealing with changing communication needs or crisis communications?
For us, it's been extremely beneficial to try to keep our team's brainstorming interactions as frequent as possible despite not being in the same space together. We all benefit immensely when we're able to bounce ideas off each other and keep innovating in the marketing space to help our partners and keep demonstrating what makes us an attractive destination to leisure travelers, sales leads, and event clients. It's especially important to keep the creative juices flowing amid budget cuts and finding ways to communicate with our audiences in new, more economical ways.

Furthermore, on the topic of collaboration, we highly value the opportunity to partner with other organizations that share similar goals. Our relationship with the Greater Des Moines Partnership allows our region to present a unified voice. We also formed a unique partnership with other Midwest convention and visitors' bureaus to promote the heartland at large. While we wouldn't typically share marketing efforts with "competitor" destinations, we realized there is far more value in times of crisis in coming together to support and promote the industry at large.

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