Social media connects local tourism to potential visitors during pandemic

Wayne Buchholtz speaks to visitors about the stingray exhibit. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

Keith Rahe said the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring left the local tourism industry shocked and searching for answers.

“When it hit in March, it took everybody’s breath away,” said Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque.

Even into May, Rahe said, visitors shied away from venues and destinations — either because of mandated lockdowns or personal safety concerns.

“Now, we’re trying to turn a challenge into an opportunity,” he said. “This is the situation we’re in, and how do we evolve with it? What can we do to get visitors here and be safe?”

Rahe said social media and websites are at the forefront of sending the message that tourism is back in business — even if it is in a slightly altered form.

“That’s where people go for information,” he said.

Social media can be an effective way to answer potential visitors’ questions related to the pandemic and its impact on attractions.

“What’s open has been a big question, and what safety precautions are in your community,” he said. “We’re really using (social media) to get out that message. What we’re seeing, even at the welcome center, which we reopened July 1, is that people are coming from all over, including from the Chicago area and the Milwaukee area, and they are looking for a safe getaway.”

Rahe said Travel Dubuque has used social media to highlight the area’s many outdoor activities and destinations, such as trails.

“People want to be outdoors,” Rahe said. “Our apple orchards and pumpkin patches have been rocking it this season, and the Field of Dreams (movie site) has had a great season.”

Ali Manson, executive director of Manchester (Iowa) Area Chamber of Commerce, said social media has become an essential tool in spreading messages about local retailers.

“Especially now in Delaware County, since the numbers (of cases) have been skyrocketing,” Manson said. “Everybody’s hours are different now, and we get some complaints that people will Google (a business) and the hours appear to be still the same, even if they have been changed. They haven’t been updated.”

Manson said retailers in the Manchester area recently compiled their updated opening and closing information and the chamber is relaying the information to potential visitors.

“Our retailers are busy working, so it’s our job to get the message out there for them,” she said.

Manson said the chamber’s Facebook page has been important in relaying information about temporary business closures due to COVID-19 exposures.

“With COVID, they don’t get much of a heads up, so we’ve been putting that (information) on Facebook because it’s instantaneous,” she said. “We’re doing anything we can do to help (our retailers) do better.”

Tourist attractions also have used website and social media means to connect with potential visitors as the pandemic limited in-person interaction.

“We felt an immediate sense of panic that we could no longer use our primary method of sharing our mission through interaction with on-site guests,” said Wendy Scardino, director of marketing and communications at National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque.

Scardino said one of the challenges of the pandemic has been addressing questions from potential visitors about the facility’s hours and coronavirus-related protocols.

“People are having a difficult time trusting the information they read on social media and the information they find in Google searches or on websites regarding business hours and health and safety measures,” she said.

Some businesses might not consistently update their websites, leading to confusion.

“People don’t trust that what they read on Friday will still hold true on Saturday,” Scardino said. “So no matter how well or how frequently you communicate some of this basic information, you still wind up with a lot of phone calls and a lot of inquiries from individuals asking the same questions. Being here in Dubuque, we’re at the crux of Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Every state has its own mandates, and the City of Dubuque has its own mask mandate.”