Honorable Mention Chapter Award
Honorable Mention Chapter Award

Baltimore welcomes Destinations International as the city’s first major event since start of the pandemic

Jul 15, 2021, 09:17 AM by Michael Pinchera
For Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destinations International (DI), he proudly and triumphantly brought the organization’s annual conference to his hometown, the Charm City, with more than 800 in-person attendees.

Call it homecoming week in Baltimore.

For Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destinations International (DI), he proudly and triumphantly brought the organization’s annual conference to his hometown, the Charm City, with more than 800 in-person attendees.

DI 2021-don

For the city of Baltimore and in particular, Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, welcoming the first major conference since the COVID-19 pandemic began 17 months ago sent a message that the city is ready to welcome business meetings back, a definitive affirmation that the meeting industry recovery is forging ahead.

“To say we’re happy to be in Baltimore would be an understatement,” Welsh told attendees at the conference’s opening session this week. “We’re here, we’re thrilled, we made it. This has been a long time coming. We will never take another annual convention for granted again.”

The conference, taking place at the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor hotel and the adjacent Baltimore Convention Center, was not only the first major event in Baltimore since the pandemic, but also gave the meeting industry another much-needed boost for a vital business sector.

Behind a theme of Embrace Disruption, the conference offered a range of topics, education and networking aimed at helping attendees rebuild their destination business.

Along with 200 professionals participating through the digital experience, the more than 1,100 industry professionals embraced the 28 education sessions as well as the return of face-to-face meetings, a staple of the global economy prior to the pandemic, focused on re-energizing an industry that contributed US$1.03 trillion in direct spend in 2017, according to the last Global Economic Significance of Business Events report. The study also showed more than 1.4 billion participants from more than 180 countries attended meetings and events.

The pandemic brought this critical industry to a halt. The U.S. Travel Association reported that travel’s economic footprint in the United States shrank a staggering 42% last year, from $2.6 trillion to $1.5 trillion.

DI’s conference, coming a month after MPI brought 1,238 industry professionals together in-person for its World Education Congress in Las Vegas, indicates there is clear momentum for the return of face-to-face business meetings and events. MPI had a presence at DI as president and CEO Paul Van Deventer spoke at the conference’s closing general session.

DI, the organization serving destination marketing and management professionals, and Visit Baltimore overcame tremendous odds in delivering the annual conference, which was originally scheduled to be in Chicago.

Just eight months ago, Welsh approached Hutchinson about setting up shop in Baltimore.

“When we first started talking with Don and team, Baltimore was closed, nor did I know when we could be open, so I rolled the dice on this one,” Hutchinson said. “I said let’s commit to it without really knowing where we’d be as a community. We looked at the health plan and brought (local) health commissioner to the table to understand the protocols in place. Things got better every week, every day. It’s been a journey, but a true partnership.”

The result was a win for both DI, its members and the city of Baltimore.

A hot, humid evening did not deter the enthusiasm during the opening reception at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles Major League Baseball team, where Welsh was presented with a jersey from his hometown team.

The energy was evident as attendees spread throughout the inner harbor following the opening reception to sample well-known delicacies, including the famed blue crab, and it continued at the opening general session and a powerful keynote from Baltimore native Wes Moore, the best-selling author, entrepreneur, television producer and CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, one of the largest anti-poverty organizations in the nation, who shared his story of overcoming adversity as a youth.

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The enthusiasm continued further when it was standing room only for Paul Ouimet’s 2021 Futures Study: Key Opportunities for Destination Organizations. The president and partner at MMGY NextFactor delivered his fourth major study on the most significant trends affecting leisure tourism and business events along with strategies for organizations and destinations.

He focused his presentation on the key findings around:

  • Greater industry, community and government alignment driving destination competitiveness and brand.
  • Travelers seeing more personal enrichment and wellbeing.
  • Travelers wanting assurances of high standards of cleanliness and hygiene.
  • Greater demand for more dynamic outdoor experiences.
  • Business event customers wanting better collaboration with destinations to achieve greater business outcomes.

“We want to provide you with new tools for the recovery because we know the road to recovery is going to take time,” Welsh said. “Our theme is Embracing Disruption and you’ve all embraced disruption and done a great job for your destinations from a business standpoint. You’ve faced budget cuts, social unrest and injustices, natural disasters on top of the global pandemic. You rolled up your sleeves and served your community. We believe we’re already seeing the global recovery.”

For Visit Baltimore, the conference was an opportunity to get infrastructure back in place for the hospitality industry, among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Travel-supported jobs fell by 5.6 million in 2020 (16.7 million to 11.1 million). Travel and tourism had supported employment for 11% of the U.S. workforce prior to the onset of COVID.

While the industry is still struggling to fill many positions, the conference was a boost for the city’s employment as much as its moxie.

“I’m so happy to see you here,” said Hutchinson, who has joined the leadership line for chair of DI behind 2022 chair Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock CVB.

“I appreciate the confidence you had in this great city,” Hutchinson said. “I want to celebrate getting our workers back to work in Baltimore City. Our team has never been more excited to welcome you to our great city.”

DI’s health and safety protocols included a daily health screen for all attendees before being allowed into the conference with a colored wristband that had to be worn all day while at conference events. Masks were optional for fully vaccinated attendees and those who were unvaccinated were asked to continue wearing a mask indoors and practice social distancing. 

DI honored several industry professionals through the conference.

Larry Alexander, former president and CEO at Visit Detroit; Deb Archer, former president and CEO of Destination Madison; Wayne Chappell, former executive director of the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Marion Frances Szurek, former executive director of the San Angelo Convention and Visitors Bureau, were all inducted into the DI Hall of Fame.

Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, was recognized with the Destination Organization Leadership Award.

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