Connect Travel’s “Staying Connected” virtual roundtable last Thursday was held in the heart of Black History month and drew considerable interest on the part of those who “attended” the event. More than 40 questions and/or comments were posted as the event was taking place. Those taking part in the panel discussion, which focused on the need for partnering, included:
Lezlie Harper, founder, Niagara Bound Tours;
Ally Spongr, interim director, Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center Museum;
George Scott, resident, Colored Musicians’ Club; and
Shari Bailey, vice president of Connect Travel and general manager, Travel Connect Events, who served as moderator of the panel discussion.
1. Taking note of the fact that all of the panelists at the session were from small organizations, one participant said that, for them, it is “all about partnerships,” because those involved in Black tourism (it was and is the middle of Black History Month and of major of interest to the panel) are promoting and working toward a common cause—cultural tourism and the Black experience in the Greater Buffalo area and the Underground Railroad, which ends after one crosses the Niagara River and enters the province of Ontario, Canada.
2. Staffing can be a challenge for small organizations. One participant’s employees numbered 10, but only one was a full-time employee. Another panelist had a one-person operation, and a third depended primarily upon volunteers.
3. Although the global pandemic has basically shut down school programs involving travel, non-profit operations have found that students and their schools respond positively to the virtual tours used by small nonprofit organizations such as those at the roundtable. Schools are enthusiastic about such products, as they all have an educational component. As for school involvement in cultural tourism and products dealing with the Black experience—all three of the panelists are part of it and enjoy their work.
4. Marketing is not as it is known about larger entities. All three organizations use normal channels of promotion—mostly through the social media and by partnering with other organizations whose interests and audiences intersect with each other. In the case of the Underground Railroad, there is the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State (https://www.urcnys.org/ ), a coalition of organizations across New York State with programs and sites related to the Underground Railroad that preserve and celebrate its history.
5. Everyone confessed to what is called “Zoom fatigue,” which is what one experiences from attending too many Zoom webinars and conducting exchanges through the widely used communications channel, and everyone looked forward to the resumption of face-to-face live meetings with their colleagues.
6. When will recovery come? The travel and tourism industry is still in a state of flux, and no one seemed ready to suggest an itinerary or calendar that would show us the path from where we are now to business as we used to know it, although all were hopeful that vaccines to treat the COVID-19 virus would accelerate the process. However, one panelist suggested that a full-scale recovery might not arrive until 2022, or later.
Shari Bailey: “Truly, I think now more than ever we need to partner together to move forward and to help each other because we’ve all taken the hit.”
Lezlie Harper: “It’s very refreshing for me to be in business, to be a part of a group where I can just sort of breath and I don’t have to be guarded … we can have open conversations and it’s just a wonderful partnership because we want these sites to survive.”
Ally Spongr: “We have a virtual tour platform. It’s a program called Matterport (a 3D platform). I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the right language is to explain it but it’s like when you are looking at rental homes or buying a house and you can like see that the 3-D and go through it. It’s very easy. We have that so that our staff and our tour guides can take people through.”
Ally Spongr: “Because of the school groups and group tour bookings and because were into Black History month—which is always so busy for us—we’ve actually hired a few contracted virtual remote educators to help us because our staff couldn’t handle the capacity of incoming tour requests. So, we are actually in the process of training some completely virtual and remote part-time positions.”
Lezlie Harper: “With these virtual visits, people can see what they’re actually going to be seeing, so I don’t think virtual is going to disappear. I think it’s going to stay. I think it’s definitely getting more deeply planted into the psyche of people who travel.”
George Scott: “We’re even getting people from out of state and out of country looking at these virtual tours now and most of them—once they are able to fly—they will come to Buffalo … yesterday I got a call from a lady from Miami, Florida. And I’ve heard from a I person from Thailand and different places like that.”
Lezlie Harper: It’s not just Black people who are interested. So often it’s like, oh well, we don’t have anybody or nobody interested. That’s not true. When you travel, you want to see and hear about the people who live in a specific area. Well, that’s what this is all about. To the tour operators out there, in 2019 the African American travel market alone spent 109.6 billion dollars worldwide. That’s nothing to sneeze at. That’s more than the student market, which always gets lots of attention.”
George Scott: “Our job really is to try to keep people here as long as we can. So, when you can bring up other avenues of history here, instead of being here for a day, now they can be here for three days or four days a week, so it’s not just coming to the (Niagara) Falls.”
Shari Bailey: “I think this conversation is really interesting because it’s not what we consider traditional marketing. It’s not what we consider traditional networking. You’re reaching out through unions and through associations. And you’re really exploring some different ways to get the word out there, which is what we totally need right now.”
Lezlie Harper: “Major marketing? I don’t have major marketing. I use grocery money. I do well.” (Laughter)
Lezlie Harper, founder, Niagara Bound Tours – [email protected] –
Ally Spongr, interim director, Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Centre Museum – [email protected]
George Scott, president, Colored Musicians’ Club – [email protected]
Shari Bailey, president, Connect Travel, general manager of Connect Travel Events – [email protected] has a account
Betsy Cooper, director of TourOperatorLand.com and partner engagement at Connect Travel (Tour Operator Land is event sponsor) [email protected]