Resilience and flexibility: How Visit Florida built wellbeing into remote working

We’re facing one of the greatest global health challenges of the last one hundred years – but how can we promote social and mental wellbeing during a year of uncertainty? We spoke to Dana Young, CEO and President at Visit Florida, to understand how lessons learned from their continued fight for survival allowed the organisation not only to thrive during the pandemic, but to support the wellbeing of their employees throughout the stress of the last six months.

Thank you for joining us, Dana. I have to start with the biggest question, which has to be around COVID-19. What was the biggest  learning for you and your team from the crisis and the early steps of recovery?


Clearly COVID-19 wasn’t something that any of us saw coming – maybe we should have, but we didn’t, and certainly no one saw how long and how devastating this would be on our economies and our daily lives. The name of game is uncertainty, right? We’re living in a very uncertain time.

For Visit Florida, we’re in a very unique position to deal with uncertainty. When they talk about making lemonade out of lemons, that’s pretty much what we’ve been able to do. We ’ve been an organisation which has had to deal with tremendous uncertainty over the past four years, and the last two years dealing with government and legislative issues that may have made our organisation completely go away. So with that, we’ve become a very stream-lined, very focussed, and very resilient organisation – and we’ve learned to be incredibly flexible in how we do business.


That actually leads on quite neatly to my next question. Many destination marketing organisations are facing serious financial challenges in the coming years. As a DMO which has been quite visible in your advocacy and your fight for continued funding, do you have a top tip for organisations looking to diversify or to secure their current funding? 


In terms of funding, there are many models out there. We’re funded by state dollars, at least half by rental car surcharges, so our money does come from the state government and then we match that one to one. And yes, we’ve been very involved in advocacy for funding and, frankly, for existence for the last four years.

I guess my top tip is to start collecting data – and I’d hope that they’re already collecting data now! Advocacy has to be based on data, DMOs need to be able to show their worth, show their ROI, and that always needs to be back up by irrefutable data. Collect the data that you need down the road now, so that you’re ready to use it later?

We study everything we do, and everything we do is tracked and backed by data. We’re tracking KPIs on every single piece of content that we put out there. We track sentiment analysis. We look at the ROIs on the ad campaigns – we’re able to show that we spent $1,000, and we gained £1,000,000 in value. That’s quite a compelling argument, though it’s just an example. Being able to track the success of various campaigns is really critical, and it takes a lot of work, it costs money to do it, but we found that it’s an investment worth making because we can show that even those who are not easily convinced that what we do is important.


Looking forwards then – and you’ve mentioned already that you’ve been increasingly flexible in your approach over the past few years anyway - are you rethinking your internal structure to be more resilient in the future?


I think any organisation should always be looking to the future and be trying to make themselves better, and more efficient. COVID-19 or not, that should be a goal of any organisation. But as I mentioned before, Visit Florida has been put into the streamlining mode in the past few years and in fact, in a little less than two years, I’m at 50% of our staff. That has really forced us to really think about our mission, to be very goal-focussed, and as decisions present themselves, to always be putting it through the lens of ‘does this help us to accomplish our mission.’ And if it does, then we figure out how to do it and we do it well, and if it doesn’t, then there are things have gone by the wayside.

Our agency structure that we’ve revised over the past few years is very scalable, and so that’s allowed us through very good times and very rough times to keep same agencies in place and do the same types of projects with them, but in a scaled way depending on the environment. With the staff now working remotely, we are very focussed on communication, and making sure that we’re communicating across silos, and that everything is done for the accomplishment of our mission: to bring people to Florida, and now with our in-state campaigns, to get Floridians to travel within the state of Florida, and to harness the pride that Floridians have to live in such a wonderful place to support our local businesses.

 

I’ll come back to your in-state campaign in a moment, but  you also mentioned having your staff working from home. As the CEO and President, what has been the hardest shift for you as you moved from the office into any number of homes across Florida? Are you planning on adapting your workplace when it becomes safe to return to the office based on this?


It’s been a learning curve, as I assume for it has been for most organisations out there. Very few organisations are 100% remote all the time. I have to say, I always appreciated our IT team, but I never appreciated them as much as I do today. For one thing, they were extremely proactive. From early February, they on their own said “We may need to be working remotely. We probably won’t be, but why don’t we start that process? Why don’t we start making sure everyone’s laptops are up to speed and have the most current software, that we have enough internet hot spots for people without good internet in their homes?”

The efforts of our IT team made that transition so much easier than it would have been otherwise, because when we did go remote, we were ready. We had the laptops for everyone. We had the equipment that we needed. We had Zoom and other options already in our bag of tools. Then it was just a matter of getting used to multi-time daily zooming, but being able to get that right – even just people learning to get their laptop set right so they weren’t looking up or down was a huge help.

We are thinking about changing the way we work. We don’t have any answers yet, but our lease expires in April 2022 in our current location. We had planned to probably relocate, but now we’re having to think really hard about what the next office would look like and how it would function, and how much space would we really need. We haven’t missed a beat when working remotely, so it’s a question – and it’s not answered yet – of what do you need at headquarters, and what can you accomplish remotely. Our timing is pretty good, because we can figure out what does work and what doesn’t, but so far, it’s all worked fantastically.

As an organisation, Visit Florida is still working 100% remotely. I’ve been in the office a little bit, and some of our executives come in and out for various reasons, but for the most part we’re still remote and will be for quite some time. It’s a decision point that I need to focus on soon, which is when will we be ready to bring everyone back. It’s still to be determined. We’ve got children – there’s a variety of in-person learning for school children and zoom based learning and parents make that decision. It’s really rocked the world for several of our employees, particularly those who have several school aged children at home. It’s tough to talk about coming back to the office when you might have four children learning virtually at home.

 

The experience of the pandemic has been very different for individuals. Have you been able to do much as an organisation to help support your employees throughout the stress of the past six months?


Our employees are the heart of our organisation and we have a lot of very talented, creative, wonderful people. When we were in the office, we were very close and personal organisation, so the challenge – which I believe we’ve met very well! – is to try and preserve that personal connection that’s so important to Visit Florida. As we’re constantly on calls, we try to do zooms rather than conference calls so we can see each other, but we also try to do things that are fun, we try to celebrate important life events, like birthdays or the birth of a child – the things that are important and that if we’d been together, we absolutely would have had cupcakes to celebrate together.

We’ve had a few after hours wine and zooms to toast one another after the workday. We had a pet parade that someone organised – that was fun! Everyone had their pets with them and introduced them to the group. It was a fun event. I think just having some fun even if we’re remote. Remote working doesn’t mean truly remote – we can still stay connected, and we’ve been really working to do that.


Do you have any other suggestions for CEOs who are looking to support their employees’ mental wellbeing through the pandemic and  beyond?


I’d just reiterate that just because an organisation is working remotely does not mean that you have to lose the personal connections that keep your organisation at its best. Making sure that the organisation is constantly in communication across all departments and siloes is very important. We’ve actually refined some of that working from home even better than when we were all in the office because we took for granted that we were cross-pollinating and that people were sharing information, and maybe we weren’t doing it as well as we could have been because now we’re doing it in a very robust way and it’s working well. So my suggestion is for people to look for ways to keep communication strong, and not to lose that personal connection.


I was reading that ‘quality of life’ was going to be a major element of your plans going forwards. Can you tell me more about what this will mean for your strategy?


Pre-COVID, we had just completed our strategic plan for the coming several years, quality of life was incorporated as part of that. This is a living, breathing document that we’ll continue to refine with our board and our committees, but the idea is that Florida is the best place to vacation, and that Floridians are so fortunate to live here. That’s the core of our in-state marketing campaign that’s in market right now. We live here, because we love here.

Tourism impacts every Floridian in a positive way by improving their quality of life; there are more restaurants to go to, there are more cultural assets available, there is more funding for those things that make a community liveable like good infrastructure, parks, schools – all those things that contribute to quality of life. Here in Florida, tourism is our number one industry, so it’s also the key to quality of life. What we’re trying to do in this strategic plan and in our marketing campaigns going forwards it to even better connect the dots between tourism in the state of Florida and quality of life for our residents here. We’re very fortunate to live in the place where the world vacations.

Destinations within the state of Florida are constantly looking at ways to reinvent themselves and make themselves new and fresh again. We never want anyone to feel like they’ve been there and done that, we’re always looking to provide that fresh view. We’re looking at not only reinventing the destination itself in terms of the way that it’s marketed, but also looking at making sure that the destinations are able to effectively communicate how they contribute to their individual communities. As I mentioned earlier, our instate campaign is really looking to re-awaken the pride that Floridians feel for living in the state where the world vacations, and reminding people how fortunate they are. Even with COVID, here we are in this beautiful, sunny place surrounded by water and beaches. It really lends itself to being outside in a wonderful, safe environment. So, reminding Floridians how lucky they are and then using that to connect in their minds why tourism is important.

We’ve been really looking at ecotourism in recent years as an area that’s important particularly to our international travels, pushing that conservation message that is so important in Florida. If we don’t have clean water, if we don’t have pristine beaches, if we aren’t taking care of our environment then we wouldn’t be the amazing destination that we are. So making sure people understand why it’s important to keep our state clean and preserve the environment people enjoy spending time in is also key to our messaging.

 

Lastly, are you hoping to collaborate more with other organisations during your recovery – either with your key stakeholders or with other destinations?


Collaboration is the heart of our model, that’s how we market. We have over 13,000 industry partners here in the state of Florida. Some are very large destinations like Disney, Universal, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville – big areas of the state – all the way down to small players like a kayak rental organisation or a small, old motel on the beach that’s reinvented itself. We have partners throughout the spectrum, and we have very robust marketing programmes that are available to everyone.

In addition, during the COVID rebound, we are co-investing at an unprecedented level on media for our rebound campaign. It’s a level that I doubt is seen much in the world right now, but we’re here to support our partners and they are financially challenged right now. We as an organisation – and with amazingly stable funding right now! – are able to step in to lift up the whole state and collaborate across all spectrums of the tourism industry in Florida.


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