In his first public comments on how Charlottesville’s tourism agency responded after a violent rally there led to a fatality, Kurt Burkhart had this message for other convention and tourism bureaus: Plan ahead and be prepared.
Burkhart, executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau, said destination-marketing agencies “are on the front lines” when violent incidents occur because the public wants to know when and if a city is safe.
That’s why it’s important to have a crisis communications plan.
Burkhart talked about crisis communications and what his agency learned from the events of Aug. 11-12, when a “Unite the Right” rally was held in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a city park. He spoke during a panel discussion Tuesday at the VA1 Tourism Summit in Norfolk.
The panel was one of several on the closing day of the three-day conference, an annual event that drew 500 travel professionals from around the state to the Hilton Norfolk the Main.
Dealing with crisis has been top of mind for Virginia’s travel industry since a 32-year-old counter protestor in Charlottesville, Heather Heyer, died after a man at the rally drove his car into a crowd, striking her. Then on Oct. 1, a gunman staying at the Mandalay Bay casino and resort in Las Vegas killed 58 people and wounded nearly 500 others during a country music festival.
In Charlottesville, Burkhart said his operation, a city agency, took its lead from the city, which was handling the preparations and advisories for the rally. In the days leading up to the event, social media was abuzz with posts about who was coming and what type of weapons they planned to bring, but “traditional media gave little credence to the event,” said Burkhart.
“We were monitoring this very carefully,” he added. “As this was unfolding, the community was bracing for the worst.”
After the tragedy, the Virginia Tourism Corp., the state’s tourism agency, offered its support and assisted Charlottesville with messaging, Burkhart said. “Rita McClenny [the CEO of the Virginia Tourism] called and said, ‘The state is behind you. Anything you need, let us know.’”
Burkhart added that his agency pulled radio, television and digital advertising for a week “out of respect for the fallen on that day. “ The convention and visitor’s bureau also kept a low profile on social media. “It concentrated on telling the public that Charlottesville had had a difficult weekend, and that there would be some difficult days ahead.”
Some positive messages also started to come out, with Charlottesville saying that it was a city of love, not hate, in keeping with the state’s tourism slogan “Virginia is For Lovers.”
Another event that helped the city’s recovery was a concert held shortly after the rally that included some local talent, such as Dave Matthews, and other well-known performers who wanted to show their support for the city.
Burkhart said his agency is seeking and reviewing crisis communication plans from other convention and visitors bureaus around the country because it wants to beef up its plan. “We want a plan that goes beyond internal operations,” he said, adding it will adhere to best practices through the Destination Marketing Accreditation Program, a globally recognized program.
In terms of what he has learned from the Charlottesville tragedy, Burkhart listed these things: Consult with the Virginia Tourism Corp., stick to the facts and keep the agency’s stakeholders informed.
Another panelist, Jennifer Sigal, media relations manager for Visit Loudoun, said her agency has implemented a crisis communications plan. “Luckily, we haven’t had to use it yet … But when you are in that hectic moment, you have something to turn to. A crisis can negatively impact tourism.’’
Sigal added that it’s important to have a single point of contact, a person who will respond to the media, to keep the messaging consistent.
Mark Hubbard, a senior vice president at McGuireWoods Consulting in Richmond, also spoke to the group. Hubbard’s work focuses on crisis communications, which he described as involving “an event that’s unexpected, and the narrative is out of your control. It means you’re playing defense instead of offense. That’s difficult for the travel industry, which is usually on offense telling their stories of why people should come to their destinations.”
Hubbard’s advice was to have a plan and to practice it before a crisis hits. “You have to plan ahead, have a crisis strategic plan and you have to put it to the test.”