The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) was scheduled to hold its annual show in New Orleans in February 2021, with a community service event planned at the New Orleans Second Harvest Food Bank as part of its program. When NADA had to cancel the show due to COVID-10, its leaders made good on their commitment to the food bank with a generous $25,000 donation, but there was still a hole left by the loss of NADA volunteers who would have spent time working at the facility.
That’s where the team at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center stepped in to bridge the gap. Staff members spent a day in March — using their personal time off — at the food bank, rolling up their sleeves to sort and package groceries.
Their efforts were sorely needed. Not only are food banks dealing with an alarming increase in food insecurity as a result of the pandemic — in New Orleans, Second Harvest has nearly doubled its food distribution compared to pre-COVID times — but a shortage of volunteers. Some of those volunteers have been local residents, unable to spend time at facilities because of COVID restrictions. And some of those absent volunteers would have come from in-person events, which have made community service activities a regular part of their programs at host destinations around the world.
“Starting last March, we had to cancel all in-person volunteering completely, as well as stop receiving in-kind donations,” said Linda Mitchell, chief communications officer for Mary’s Place, a Seattle, Washington, shelter that provides services supporting women, children, and families on their journey out of homelessness. “Since most of our programming has been based on volunteers and donations, we had to rethink everything we do to address how we could continue to meet the needs of our guests. While many of our services went virtual — computer training, resume development, housing applications, legal clinics, etc. — there are some services that simply cannot be done over a computer. We have had remote volunteers making masks, handmade cards, isolation/quarantine kits, blankets, etc., but there is no replacement for in-person collaboration and partnerships. Our work has been severely impacted by the lack of corporate partnerships we are accustomed to with outside organizations like Amazon, as well as meeting and convention groups brought in by Visit Seattle.”
Kelly Saling, vice president of sales and services at Visit Seattle, told Convene that “community contributions, such as partnerships with local organizations like Mary’s Place have been a significant focus for many of the meetings and convention groups we welcome in to our city.” Saling said that many groups want to “engage with and provide support to the local community in tangible and lasting ways when they are here for their meetings.”
However tangible and lasting those efforts might be, the social good in-person events do has often flown under the radar in destinations. “In our local communities,” said Keith Backsen, Destinations International’s chief sales and services officer, DMOs “have to continually tell the story of why meetings mean something to our destination [beyond] the heads in beds.”
When Backsen was president and CEO of Visit Omaha before joining Destinations InternationaI in 2020, he said that when an event was coming to the city and would be participating in a community service initiative, like working with Habitat for Humanity on projects in a poor neighborhood, he would make a point of telling local officials. “By being able to connect that this organization was going to go out and help build for a day,” he said, his “15-minute coffee became an hour-plus with that elected official.”
Backsen said he wonders “how many of those kinds of things have we lost because we’re not doing face-to-face meetings right now — the social good that meetings bring to a local community and what’s happening when that’s not happening right now. Because how many times does the food bank get a group of people in the local community from meetings that come during the year — whether it’s sorting food or doing a food drive, or helping out at a local shelter in collecting clothes?” Backsen recalled in particular how participants at a quilting event donated quilts to one of the local homeless shelters, and swimming groups donated to local pools in impoverished neighborhoods to facilitate youth scholarships for swimming lessons.
There are lots of ways that face-to-face association and sporting events benefit communities where they meet “that don’t always get told,” Backsen said. “I think there’s a message that’s important for people to be reminded of — what our meetings have done in our local communities beyond the fact that they filled restaurants, they had a good time, and that some attendees might come back again and visit on their vacation time. But also: What was the footprint they left afterwards?” Saling said that there are many things she is looking forward to when in-person events resume in Seattle. Chief among them: “impactful philanthropic contributions made by groups.”
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Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.