by ASIF LAKHANI
With 29.2 million visitors in 2019, Charlotte maintained its stronghold as the No. 1 travel destination in the Carolinas, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. Domestic travel expenditures in Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, accounted for almost $5.7 billion that year.
CHARLOTTE’S PANDEMIC RESPONSE
In response to COVID-19, the CRVA closed multiple venues under its jurisdiction such as the Charlotte Convention Center, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and others to help slow the spread of the virus. The group also established an internal task force to establish return-to-work guidelines based on federal, state, and local safety protocols. The city is in Phase 2 of its reopening, which mandates face coverings in public spaces and allows restaurants to operate at a strict 50-percent capacity for on-premise dining. Bars, nightclubs, gyms, and play-grounds remain closed, and gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors.
Hospitality industry professionals throughout the state also have committed to the Count on Me CLT program in collaboration with the state’s Division of Tourism, the North Carolina Restaurants & Lodging Association, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Hu-man Services to ensure all patrons that businesses are undertaking social distancing and hygiene best practices to a greater extent than CDC guidelines recommend, Mike Butts, Executive Director of Visit Charlotte said.
Charlotte also is working to get obtain Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR Accreditation for its convention centers, the NAS-CAR Hall of Fame, and other buildings in its portfolio, while also encouraging local hoteliers to do the same so meeting planners and attendees can feel safe and comfortable when coming to town in the future, Butts said. The certification signifies that businesses and employees have been trained properly on best practices for biohazard response.
SMALL BUSINESS PROTECTION
North Carolina small business owners were eligible to apply for the state’s COVID-19 Rapid Recovery Loan Program to help bridge the gap until a full recovery is achieved; repayment is required by a more stable source or once the business is profitable again. The Mecklenburg County Office of the Tax Collector has said it will absorb debit, credit, and eCheck fees for payments on tax bills during the duration of the pandemic.
The CRVA also designated portions of its website charlottesgotalot.com to promote local businesses during the quarantine. Offerings included a list of restaurants offering takeout, ways to shop online and help small businesses, take virtual fitness classes from top in-structors in the city, and iconic local food and cocktail recipes that people could make at home.
QUEEN CITY’S FUTURE
Despite the current circumstances, the future of the Queen City is promising. Visit Charlotte has booked 528 events for future years totaling 443,298 room nights, according to the CRVA 2019 Annual Report. Charlotte is already home to marquee events such as the ACC Championship football game (until 2030), major NASCAR races, and multiple NFL games annually. The city was to be the home of the 2020 Republican National Convention in August, but COVID-19 forced North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to downsize. The event was moved to Jacksonville before eventually being canceled. This left Charlotte event organizers scrambling to hold individuals and organizations with millions of dollars in breached contracts accountable, while also still being expected to execute a modified convention.
The move also undoubtedly affected the Charlotte MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area), a 10-county (seven in North Carolina, three in South Carolina) cluster that represents the largest number of tourism employees and the largest payroll in the state of North Carolina. There are more than 140,000 leisure and hospitality jobs in the region, which is its fourth-largest industry. Of course, sacrificing human capital for financial gain (pandemic or not) isn’t a sound leadership strategy, but there is still a lot of potential in the Queen City for future development and prosperity beyond the curveball that is 2020. While relocating the Republican National Convention cost Charlotte lots of money, there would be no way to make up for lives lost due to eased restrictions on large gatherings.
For one, Charlotte has extended its Charlotte 10 program, in which Visit Charlotte and participating hotels each give meeting planners $5 back ($10 total) for every occupied room night, through the end of 2021. The rebate offer is only valid when Charlotte is competing with another city for meetings and generally works better for attracting small-to-medium groups, Butts said. The latter will presumably dominate meeting and event formats in the near term.
A second selling point of Charlotte as a top city – globally – for overall quality of life, according to a study from Numbeo, the cost-of-living database. Property also is affordable. The city is primarily known as a FinTech hub but is becoming an emerging destina-tion for advanced manufacturing, automotive, IT, and health care. Its airport also is one of the busiest in the nation. All of these – commerce, hospitality, and leadership – will play a factor in America’s economic recovery once the pandemic is over. Few places are set up to succeed in the long term like Charlotte is, Butts said.