Virginia Meetings: “Coastal Distancing”

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Virginia Meetings: “Coastal Distancing”

By Blair Potter | Jun 8, 2021

“We pride ourselves in creating a comfortable environment for learning when it comes to our members and conference attendees,” says Ivan L. Crosling, MSHRM, MBTI, executive director of the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources (NAAAHR). “Due to the pandemic, we had to shift from the typical onsite experience to a virtual experience and keep as much of the ‘comfortable environment for learning’ as possible.”

The 2021 NAAAHR National Conference was the first hybrid event hosted by Norfolk, Va., since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing 35 in-person attendees (speakers, board members and conference staff) to Hilton Norfolk The Main, accompanied by 200 virtual participants.

“The 2021 conference was very different from pre-pandemic events,” Crosling says. “It was a challenge, but the team at Hilton Norfolk The Main was well prepared and knowledgeable in helping us make a shift in onsite production and finding the right virtual platform. It was a learning curve, but we were able to work together to make sure all parties involved had an enjoyable experience.”

He says he was sold on the city during a site visit hosted by Vianetta Johnson, sales manager for VisitNorfolk, and was excited to share the city’s restaurants, entertainment, shopping, history and waterfront with his attendees.

“It was everything my attendees look for when it comes to their complete conference experience. We missed out because of the pandemic,” Crosling says. “That is why we are keeping Norfolk in consideration for future meetings and/or conferences. I actually plan to bring my family to Norfolk for a summer vacation.”


Dawn E. Whittaker, director of sales for VisitNorfolk, anticipates additional groups convening in the city during late fall and hopes to be “on the road to recovery by early 2023.” She says that while the meeting and convention market was on hold, the city still weathered the pandemic fairly well compared to many other destinations.

“For 18 consecutive weeks, the Norfolk designated market area was ranked No. 1 in the country with an over 60 percent hotel occupancy rate from the leisure traveler market. The soar in occupancy came from a variety of online demographic-specific and travel agent promotions,” Whittaker says, noting that efforts have been made to promote Norfolk’s safety as a meeting destination in order to bring more events to the city.

Groups who haven’t visited Norfolk since before the pandemic have plenty of new options to consider, such as the Glass Light Hotel & Gallery, Autograph Collection, which opened downtown steps away from the waterfront.

“For 18 consecutive weeks, the Norfolk designated market area was ranked No. 1 in the country with an over 60 percent hotel occupancy rate from the leisure traveler market.”

“Set in a reimagined 1912 building, this ‘intellectually curious’ boutique hotel is filled to the brim with glass art from renowned artists such as Dale Chihuly and Peter Bremers, giving the space a modern artist’s studio vibe,” Whittaker says. “Norfolk saw multiple businesses open during the pandemic, including Norfolk Kayak. The owner, Josh Coplin, saw a need for more people wanting to spend time outdoors. A New Orleans-inspired restaurant, Lil Bit of Nola, opened its second location in Norfolk, and COVA Brewing—already in construction during 2020—restructured its existing business model to meet the needs of the community with additional COVID-friendly dining options.”

Whittaker says the VisitNorfolk team learned the art of pivoting during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“We immediately responded to the needs of the community with several resources to keep our citizens, clients and stakeholders informed,” she says. “On, we created the COVID-19 resource hub landing page with real-time information on city services, openings/closings, outdoor dining options, socially distanced options and complimentary Zoom chat backgrounds. As a community, the city partnered together to ensure the safety of every guest visiting the destination.”

Virginia Beach

Sally Noona, CMP, says simply being a coastal destination helped Virginia Beach weather the pandemic.

“Our coastal destination allows for natural social distancing (we endearingly call it ‘coastal distancing’), with many outdoor natural resources from the Atlantic shore to the Chesapeake Bay and the many tributaries in between,” says Noona, director of convention sales and marketing for the Virginia Beach CVB. “We are right at the mid-point of the Atlantic coastline, making us a day’s drive away from major population masses—so when people were quarantining, we were a great destination to escape to or to remote work, school and/or study in. We also developed our VB Smarter program, which involved all of our partners coming together and pledging/adopting World Health Organization/U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines along with extra touches to keep our visitors and delegates safe.”

Noona says the LEED Gold-certified Virginia Beach Convention Center already offered touchless features and has MERV 13 air filters (considered hospital grade), which made adhering to new protocols seamless. The center has also served as the region’s COVID vaccination center, providing more than 3,000 vaccinations per day.

“If anything, this pandemic has shown us all how connected we are and that we are in this together.”

She believes that hybrid/multichannel events will be the norm in Virginia Beach in the foreseeable future and says some sporting and consumer events that the city has hosted recently have helped pave the way for a broader welcoming of meetings and conventions.

“The consumer and sporting events allowed us to perfect the social distancing and extra cleaning aspects (i.e., F&B protocol, more cleaning of high-touch areas, control of entries and egresses) along with online features to promote even more touchless options for ticketing at gatherings,” Noona says.

A couple of Marriott hotels opened recently, increasing group options in Virginia Beach. The 295-room Delta Hotels by Marriott Virginia Beach Bayfront Suites offers 12,000 square feet of meeting and event space and Tin Cup Kitchen + Oyster Bar—featuring an oyster selection representing the eight oyster regions of Virginia. It was preceded by the Marriott Virginia Beach Oceanfront, part of The Cavalier Resort, which offers 305 guest rooms and 25,000 square feet of meeting space off the north end of the Virginia Beach boardwalk.

New group activity options include laser tag, a ropes course, escape rooms and more at Apex Entertainment Virginia Beach and rock climbing at Latitude Virginia Beach.

Noona says one of the major lessons of the pandemic is the importance of the hospitality industry and how it touches so many people on so many levels.

“If anything, this pandemic has shown us all how connected we are and that we are in this together. So coming together as a team is essential and learning to do things differently can be exciting and liberating,” she says. “Quarantining made us realize how important alone time can be and how invaluable together time is. Adversity offers the chance to evaluate, grow, become resilient and retool. And our industry has absolutely done that!”

COVID vaccination center, Virginia Beach Convention Center.
National Association of African Americans in Human Resources 2021 National Conference, Norfolk



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Blair Potter

Blair Potter is director of media operations for MPI. He likes toys and collects cats (or is it the other way around?).