Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read September 2021 — In an interview with Invest: Gil Langley, president and CEO of Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, talked about the impact the pandemic has had on the economy of the island and the unique circumstances that the local hospitality industry finds itself in. He also talked about what the council has done to support small businesses throughout the pandemic.
What have been some successful strategies implemented by your organization during the pandemic?
The pandemic is something that no one has ever seen before and, hopefully, something we’ll never see again. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had a famous saying: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” The unknown and the unexpected have presented our biggest challenges. We’ve taken on new roles and new responsibilities that, as marketing agencies, we’ve never had to deal with. For example, when the governor put restrictions on visitors from “hot spots”, the county came to us as the expert team best suited to create and implement a system that would be embraced by our lodging partners. Our solution allowed us to comply with Executive Orders while protecting privacy rights. It required daily program execution for almost three months.
We developed programs training the hospitality industry and our other stakeholders on how to comply with and implement the regulations, guidelines, and best practices making their businesses safe for consumers and employees.
Due to its flexibility and efficiency, we used social media to communicate and promote every program and benefit available to the community.
When we experienced a second spike just before the summer season, we cancelled all marketing and public relations efforts to stop enticing visitation and limit demand. We were fortunate that the Concours d‘Elegance auto event had moved to an earlier date – the weekend before everything shut down. Immediately following Concours, all visitor attracting events for the remainder of 2020 were cancelled in an effort to slow contagion.
With vaccination rates improving and consumer confidence growing, we’ve seen record visitation. The main challenge now is preparing for future growth in the shadow of another spike as COVID again is becoming an issue.
What was the impact of relief loans on the industry?
Our organization is a small, nonprofit organization. We are not equipped to manage large social assistance programs. Our solution is to partner with those that do. For example, Barnabas provides assistance to displaced hospitality workers. We made a cash donation of $50,000 so that they could help displaced hospitality workers get by until the economy started to recover. The Nassau County Commission matched that donation, which Barnabas was then able to leverage from a private donor – making the total support $200,000. Eighty percent of the people who benefited from the program worked in the hospitality industry.
As a small business destination that doesn’t have a lot of large franchises, we created an online island marketplace, selling products and goods over the internet on behalf of businesses who lacked an internet presence. We handled technical and operations requirements and we covered all the costs. These efforts provided enough support that, while not flourishing, our small businesses survived.
Have you faced any problems with labor shortages and what strategies are you following to mitigate that issue?
In April of last year, the Omni Amelia Island Resort had 400 job positions that they needed to fill, and the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island had over 100 positions available. The same challenges faced all our lodging providers.
Smaller staffs resulted in lodging providers putting a cap on occupancy levels. An unintended consequence was strong demand leading to higher priced rooms. The lodging industry raised prices in order to reduce visitation, but people yearning getaways with family and friends still came. So, the result is revenue is at an all-time high.
However, due to fewer hospitality workers available, we still have challenges delivering the high quality of service we are known for. For example, small privately owned businesses have closed a few days each week because they don’t have enough staff to fill shifts.
There’s a perception that hospitality jobs are low paying, and that people can make more relying on unemployment benefits. That perception is stopping a lot of people from returning to work. When we partnered with the North Florida Hotel & Lodging Association to hold a couple work fairs we had only a handful of people who qualified for jobs.
What is your near-term outlook for the organization and the industry in general?
It’s hard to know what will happen even three to five weeks from now. Meetings and Events are still getting canceled in the short term. Uncertainty makes it hard to plan ahead. We remain vigilant against over-promotion because we’re still in the midst of the pandemic. As a strategic initiative, our goal has always been to limit visitation, focusing on high yield customers who generate maximum return on investment.
Compared to many destinations, we are not your conventional tourist bureau. We’re a marketing agency, with a responsibility to develop programs that benefit our community while enticing visitation. We aggressively guard our “Come Make Memories” brand and develop new products that residents embrace, and consumers can enjoy.
We are anticipating continued leisure demand in 2022. As noted in many industry reports, we expect the meetings industry to recover by late 2023.
For more information, visit: