The SAFE Credit Union Convention and Performing Arts Center is scheduled to host events in 2021. (Photo courtesy of SAFE Credit Union/Image Outfitters Photography)

Encouraging Signs

Visit Sacramento’s Kari Miskit on how the organization is helping the tourism and hospitality industry stay afloat

Back Q&A Nov 3, 2020 By Jessica Laskey

Kari Miskit is the chief communications officer for Visit Sacramento. (Photo courtesy of Kari Miskit)

Like many destination marketing organizations, Visit Sacramento has been met with a unique set of challenges due to the global coronavirus pandemic. In a world where travel is suddenly not only difficult but also potentially dangerous, how is a group dedicated to increasing tourism in the Capital Region supposed to do its job? 

Comstock’s spoke to Visit Sacramento Chief Communications Officer Kari Miskit about how the organization has been creative to make sure Sacramento-area tourism and hospitality businesses stay afloat through this trying time, and how it is prepared for whatever comes next.

How did COVID-19 affect Visit Sacramento?

A lot of people believe we’re a government entity, but we’re actually a private 501(c)(6) nonprofit predominantly funded through a hotel tax. The Sacramento hospitality community on the whole was doing really well pre-COVID — (hotel) occupancy was 80 percent and up, which is really good compared to the national average (which was between 50-70 percent from October 2019 through January 2020, according to hospitality analytics firm STR). 

When COVID-19 hit and travel restrictions (were put in place), some hotels closed temporarily and occupancy plummeted into the single digits, which meant we took an immediate hit to our projected budget. We were forecasted to lose $8-9 million, so we had to make staff reductions, and a large percentage of our remaining staff was furloughed from March through the beginning of September. But as the destination marketing organization for the city and the region, we thought we had the responsibility to continue to promote (local) businesses to potential visitors, whether those are convention attendees or leisure travelers. … We had to shift very quickly to (promoting) things like restaurant takeout and virtual tours of museums, but we were lucky that we’d built enough of a localized (social media) following to make that shift.

How have you used online media to keep people engaged?

We launched a podcast during Farm-to-Fork 2019 to highlight the personalities that are part of our food community, and it was really successful as a cool and different way to share Sacramento’s stories. We had big plans to bring it back on a broader, more diverse scale in 2020. … When everything changed, we realized the platform could still be used to share stories of the resiliency of Sacramento businesses. We relaunched a remotely recorded version of the Visit Sacramento Podcast to re-engage our contacts. … We’re also re-imagining our platform. Events aren’t necessarily happening right now, but people can go to the site to be inspired to rediscover gems they haven’t been to in a long time, like Fairytale Town or Bailarín Cellars. … Everyday experiences we took for granted before will be center stage.

The Farm-to-Fork Festival, shown in 2019, was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Francisco Chavira)

You moved the Farm-to-Fork Festival entirely online this year. How did that work?

When we made the difficult decision to cancel this year’s (in-person) events, including the Tower Bridge Dinner, we wanted to find a way to celebrate the farm-to-fork community and support local businesses, especially restaurants. We came up with Tower Bridge Dinner To Go (held Sept. 12-19), which invited restaurants, caterers and food trucks to develop their own spin on the menu and offer it to customers to go (at their own individual locations). … One hundred percent of the proceeds went to the participants, and there was only one rule: All of the food had to be predominantly locally sourced, even beverage pairings. … We received overwhelmingly positive feedback. It gave people the opportunity to try restaurants they hadn’t been to before, and it gave us the opportunity to engage folks who hadn’t participated before.

Visit Sacramento also recently launched the Travel in Place campaign. What does that entail?

We talked to county health (officials) to see what we could do to encourage safe travel to help out tourism-dependent businesses that have been really suffering in the absence of visitors. They said the best (way to do that would be to promote) “staycations.” So we moved away from showcasing ourselves to (long-distance) travelers and instead marketed ourselves to regional people in (places like) the Bay Area, El Dorado Hills and Folsom. … Travel in Place reminds people that they can stay overnight in a hotel, enjoy a meal al fresco at a local restaurant, go to a park, take the kids to the (Sacramento Zoo) — all without traveling too far. … But we want Sacramento residents to know that our community is our first priority. We’re not inviting people here unless we know it’s safe and appropriate (based on Sacramento County health guidelines).

What projects continued despite the pandemic?

Luckily, the SAFE Credit Union Convention Center was deemed a safe and essential construction project, so bringing conventions back to Sacramento is on track. (The center is set to reopen in 2021.) Conventions are booked years out — we just signed a contract for one that will take place in 2028 — so this was not a moment for us to take our foot off the gas, or down the line we would feel the effects. … We were in a unique position when this all started because, unlike so many convention centers across the country, our convention center was already closed (for renovation), which meant we didn’t have to deal with a ton of cancellations.

Sacramento’s convention center, renamed the SAFE Credit Union Convention and Performing Arts Center, is undergoing a major renovation, projected to be completed in time for events in 2021. (Photo courtesy of SAFE Credit Union/Image Outfitters Photography)

How are you preparing for what’s next?

We’re lucky that we have a really solid foundation — if this had happened five or six years ago before all of this momentum, we’d be much further behind. … We’re building for the future now so that when we’re in recovery, we can hit the ground running. … Our sales team is making sure the convention center is “happenin’” from the moment we’re able to open those doors. The Sacramento Sports Commission is working to bring major sporting events to the region. 

We just found out last week that the NCAA awarded us seven events (including the 2023 Division I men’s basketball first and second rounds, 2024 Division II men’s and women’s cross country championships and 2024 Division I men’s soccer championship), which is the most Sacramento has ever been awarded. News like that is really encouraging — it shows a lot of enthusiasm around the city. It means there will be a day when this will be over. … And until then, Visit Sacramento will continue to play a role in bringing fun, joy and those critical tourism dollars into the city.

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