As president of Tulsa Regional Tourism, Ray Hoyt represents the community to attract conventions, conferences and sporting events to Tulsa — activities that can drive a huge economic impact. One example is IRONMAN Tulsa, originally set for May 31. Due to COVID-19 the triathlon, which is expected to generate $10-12 million for Tulsa, is rescheduled for May 23, 2021.
We talked with Hoyt on May 5 about how local tourism will weather the pandemic.
Describe your role.
My job as the president for Tulsa Regional Tourism is to lead the business of tourism for Tulsa and the region with respect to the business development, the community outreach and the community branding of tourism for Tulsa, through our staff, and with our private investors, which are many of the major corporations in the community, and with the Mayor’s Office and City Council and all of our attractions.
We have a big job. We serve a lot of masters, but that’s pretty typical, I think, in the world DMOs (destination marketing organizations). We serve the hotel industry, the attractions. The restaurants have a lot to say about who we bring to town because they visit their restaurants. We really are positioned such that we represent the community when it comes to sports and tourism and conventions and conferences. It’s our job to bring those to the community and to drive that economic value and impact to the community so that our restaurants are vibrant and well visited, and our convention center and arena and Expo Square. We help support driving business to their venues. That economic impact creates vitality for our community and prosperity.
COVID-19 largely stopped tourism in mid-March. How did your priorities shift?
The good thing is we have a lot of business in the pipeline. We have a lot of things planned for next year and the year beyond and the year beyond. A lot of times we work with clients on multi-year programs and business deals. And cycles — a lot of times we do things like the NCAA, where it’s two and three and four years in advance. And we have other types of businesses. We have Big 12 for the next three years in wrestling. So the good thing is, we really try to fill up our pipeline in the future. So we really sell the future.
We lost a lot of business in March, April, May and June, but we have tons of business in the fall. Our focus when things came to a halt was, OK, let’s figure out how we postpone activity and not cancel things altogether in the community, and then try to work with our venues so we can reschedule those conferences and those events like IRONMAN. Let’s get those scheduled so they’re right back here next year, or even in the same year, if that’s possible and the dates are available. So we’ve worked really closely with our folks at the convention center and the arena to make sure that if we can postpone these events and get them back here in five or six months, then we did.
We also focused on our team. When this recovery really starts to catch momentum, we need to be selling the future so that our recovery is shorter and not drawn out. Communities that don’t focus on the recovery and stop selling for next year — it’s just going to extend or slow their recovery. So what we’ve really focused on with our sales team and in our communication with our attractions and with our partners is, we’re still selling next year. So if it’s not this year, let’s talk about 2021, 2022. Don’t go away; let’s just figure out a better time for you.
We focus on the future knowing that, at some point, the economy will start to come back. And we have to have business in place at these big buildings and in our hotels so that whenever the start date is or whenever we start to reopen, we need business ready. We need people coming to the market. We can’t change the immediate future because of COVID, but we can sell the future. That’s been really positive for our team to focus on.
What is your office doing right now to support hotels and attractions who have had very little revenue, if any, coming in?
We’re (virtually) hosting the Tourism Recovery Task Force. We’ve been working with the attractions. From an operations perspective, they’re talking about what it looks like to reopen. One of the things they’re really talking about is conveying a very clear and concise message to our residents and our day trippers and our visiting friends and relatives. “Clean and safe” is going to be really important for everybody to understand — that these venues and attractions, the zoo, the aquarium, all these people, are really focused on making sure they provide the cleanest and safest environment for the return of our tourists and even our residents. That’s been really a big discussion on what that looks like.
There’s some demos coming up on companies who have the ability to spray surfaces and to be able to kill germs. And then protocols and what we call SOPs (standard operating procedures) — we’re really working on what those look like so there’s a really clear message of “clean and safe” and then we demonstrate that. Where you see people wiping things down and cleaning things. We’ve talked about the gym mentality, where you go into a gym of fitness center and exercise, and the first thing you do when you get off a treadmill or a bike is what? You grab a spray bottle and a paper towel, and you wipe it down. We’re really trying to figure out how we create that mentality in a lot of our places, where possible.
The other thing in the Task Force is that we’re breaking the groups down into chat rooms where we’re going to talk about operations, marketing and how we market our destination. We’re also talking with our hoteliers: How do we message and market to our clients, our conventions and associations, that the hotels are open and ready for their business to return? And we’ll have a lot of groups really focused on hotels, messaging and the hotels’ recovery and what that looks like.
Our goal is to bring all these groups back together and then start talking about each group’s understanding and process, and then we can kind of put that all together in one kind of tourism destination marketing package. As this group coalesces around these four or five strategies, then we’ll start to deploy them when things feel right, when you see Phase 2 or Phase 3, when the economy is getting such that business travelers need to go see their clients and airlines start to pick up, and people feel like they need to get out for the weekend.
What can we expect to see as we reopen?
The industry is basically saying tourism is going to come back (in circles). That first ring of visitors is going to be residents and locals. The next ring will be what we call daytrippers or visiting friends and relatives that come in from outlying communities, or drive markets such as in Springfield, Joplin or Wichita, or Oklahoma City, or Bentonville, Fayetteville or Siloam Springs. Our message to them is that Tulsa is well positioned as a smaller, drivable market to welcome visitors to our many wide open spaces when they are ready to hit the road again. We can’t wait to welcome visitors back to our special city, and we are focused on partnering with the Tulsa Health Department across the industry to standardize a clean and safe experience for visitors.
Everything we’ve read on blogs, and (seen on) webinars is the leisure traveler, the day traveler, is going to come back first. The next ring is going to be regional people, where we do four to six hour drives for catching people that are doing a drive trip. And then we start marketing Route 66 because it really is an outdoor kind of driving experience. It’s not an experience where you have to be in a large building or facility with lots of people. You can actually kind of take it at your leisure, you can drive Route 66, and we’re going to market that kind of opportunity.
So we’re really focused on the things that we know we can message to people to reach them at a fairly high level, and that we can really communicate to them about how we’re prepared for their day trip or their short weekend or long weekend. I really feel like that’s where we’re going to start with that marketing message.
We think there’s going to be pent-up demand for daytrips and for what we call staycations. We’ll be working with TravelOK and Lt. Gov. (Matt) Pinnell. We’ve already spoken to him about, “What’s that look like? How can the state kind of market inside itself — market to Oklahomans to do staycations and travel within the state and spend money in the state?”
We’ve also been reaching out to stakeholders and equine partners about, can we create new shows? Is there something we can do for you that brings your association to the market? What’s that look like, and how can we do that? So we’re going to be very deliberate about kind of sticking to that regional daytripper driver until we really get that built and we have a lot of confidence in that space. … Once we see that market start to get solid and stable, then we’ll start to expand that next marketing message to drive the next kind of market. So that’s the plan. Now that could change tomorrow. We could see it really become relaxed, and we get to Phase 2 or Phase 3, and then we’ll just follow that lead by our elected officials and our city governments and health departments. And then they kind of predicate this process, so we won’t do anything contrary to that directive. Because again, we want the community to be ready for that, for the community to feel safe and to feel like it’s time to invite visitors. And then we’ll move forward.
We will work with this Task Force, this tourism group — there’s a bunch of people in it. It’s a pretty big group. We feel confident with all these industry folks on the call, we feel like we’ll come up with some great strategies that we can then message around to get Tulsa back where it was and to get it started on recovery.
Tell us about rescheduling IRONMAN Tulsa.
The number of participants we were shooting for was 2,400, and we were at that number. Every participant brings about three 3.2 or 3.5 visitors, so 2,400 turns into over 9,000 people. So we had been obviously planning for it, we had our sponsors and our investors all ready to go. We had the courses set and our team, (TRT Vice President of Experience and Events) Matt Stockman specifically, had been really working with them. (IRONMAN Tulsa representatives) had been coming to the market every month and sometimes twice a month. So we were ready to go as the pandemic became a bigger issue.
We’re always going to err to the side of safety and caution for their attendees and for our community. And the decision was made together. It wasn’t them making the decision or us. It was really us sitting down as partners and talking about not knowing what the future could hold because it was changing so rapidly. We talked about, when you think of an event of that size, 9,000 people coming to the market, either driving or flying, and then how easy is it for them to do that in the middle of this, even if we could pull it off? And then us having to marshal 3,000 volunteers — realistically, is that even an option at this point with COVID going on? And then thinking about all those people coming together for one day, and tens of thousands of people being on the course to cheer them on in downtown and on Riverside … It was obvious we needed to postpone.
We never talked about canceling it; we talked about postponing it. Originally we thought we could postpone it to the fall, but then when we looked at calendars, and what we had going on in the fall here in Tulsa with other activities already planned, and then with what they had planned, it just seemed to make the most sense, to just postpone it to next May. The nice thing is we amended our contract so that we still have (IRONMAN) for three years. We didn’t lose a year, so it’s ’21, ’22 and ’23.
We were saddened by the fact that we weren’t going to have it this month because it really was opening the world’s door to Tulsa. We were going to be front and center, one of 41 cities in the world to have an IRONMAN. So we were really excited about Tulsa being on that stage and partnering with IRONMAN. But you know, there’s things we can control and things we can’t.
We’ve already got everything in place for next year. I think we’ll be even more prepared than this year. Now we have another year to really kind of hone on our interest in the things that we need to get done. And with St. John as our medical provider, they’ll have time to recover from this pandemic and they’ll be a much stronger organization to help us next year. They can be totally focused on it, where I think this year it would have been a huge distraction for everybody. So it was the right thing to do.
And what about the estimated economic impact? And maybe a better way to phrase this question is not necessarily what did we miss out on this year, but what can we look forward to next year in terms of potential economic impact for IRONMAN?
It’s between $10 and 12 million, depending on the number of attendees, the number of family members of athletes. Based on what’s going on this year and the postponement, I think you’ll see a big demand in next spring for extreme sports like IRONMAN and racing, so I think we’ll have great numbers. …
That economic impact is vital to our recovery. It puts all those people in hotel rooms and restaurants, and we need the support with all this COVID stuff going on. It seems like a long way away, but you know, it’ll be there before you know it. Again, gives us time to get prepared for it, to get everything back open and running and community back at 100% like we were prior to this. We need that vibrancy for all those attendees to see what a great city this is. Our attractions, Gathering Place, and Philbrook and Gilcrease, all those people need time to get back on their feet, and this gives us the time to do that.