With the help of Zoom, industry professionals create lasting friendships, connections during uncertain times

On a Thursday in May, I logged into my Zoom account for the umpteenth time that week. This time though, was different. I was joining a group of industry professionals, the “Tourism Lunch Bunch” as they call themselves, to witness for myself the power of virtual connections.

The group, I learned, has met every single workday during the pandemic, beginning last March and continuing to this day. For nearly a year and a half, the same group of people, give or take, located across the country and sometimes the world, have logged in to chat, commiserate and celebrate. They learned about each other’s lives, both personally and professionally. They talked about the pandemic, how long it might last and how it had affected their organizations. They mocked each other’s pandemic hairstyles. They talked about Tiger King and Dancing with the Stars. Some logged in while on the road, giving each other a glimpse of what their destination has to offer. A few even virtually tagged along while another got COVID tested. They kept each other up to date on their vaccination progress and even helped each other locate vaccination centers. During the holidays, they celebrated Christmas together with a virtual party and Secret Santa gift exchange. When travel started to open up again, they celebrated each other’s wins like they were their own.

Frances Manzitto, director of tourism & sales at Visit Clarksville Tennessee, started the Zoom calls in March 2020.

“Those of us who are in tourism sales and the group market, we are a friendly, outgoing bunch of people and knowing that, with our personalities and being stuck home, many of our travel partners live by themselves with nobody to talk to,” Manzitto explained. “My thought was, we need this to be able to not go crazy. We need that interaction.”

A true tourism family

The Zoom calls started out with Manzitto and a couple of her close industry friends and grew from there. A core group of individuals have been part of the Tourism Lunch Bunch since its early days and refer to themselves as the Dynamic Destinations Group, but others have joined in, too, including tour operators.

“Most of the core group has been there most of the time,” Manzitto said. “Some days it might be two people, some days it might be 12 people. It’s whoever shows up.”

The core group is made up of Manzitto; Heather Egan, director of leisure and international sales at Grapevine Convention & Visitors Bureau; Rich Gilbert, travel trade sales manager at Maryland Office of Tourism; Linda Jeffries, director of sales at Greater Beaufort – Port Royal Convention and Visitors Bureau; Todd Stallbaumer, travel development manager at the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department; and Wendy Dobrzynski, executive director at Circle Wisconsin.

Tourism Lunch Bunch
Dynamic Destinations Group sales mission Photo: Frances Manzitto

“It’s not a one-person success,” Manzitto said. “We’ve used the term ‘tourism family’ for years and years, but this little group has become family.”

Before joining the Tourism Lunch Bunch, many of the attendees admitted they didn’t know much about their industry colleagues.

“The six of us have seen each other at all the shows and we’ve waved or maybe had a beer or two with one of them, but we never as a group really knew each other, but we knew of each other and respected one another,” Dobrzynski said. “This past year, we sat in our homes and commiserated and celebrated things, and I came away with a whole new group of friends. When I get to go to the shows again, I get extra hugs from these people as well, so I value that on top of all the business relationships we’ve built here.”

“When you see these people for an hour or more every day, in the midst of a pandemic, you become friends, even if it’s just through a computer screen,” Manzitto added.

Jay Smith, president of Sports Travel and Tours, a packaged sports travel company based in Hatfield, Massachusetts, is one of the operators who has frequented the Tourism Lunch Bunch.

“There were certain days when you were late or you had something else to do and it was like oh my god, I just want to go in for five minutes, just to say hi because I missed everybody,” Smith said.

Unexpected business opportunities

Toward the end of 2020, Manzitto had another idea — partnering with her new friends to do virtual sales calls.

“I reached out to the partners in the Lunch Bunch and I said, ‘you know what, we have something really unique here,’” Manzitto said. “We decided that we’d start doing a virtual sales call, one a month, where we’d send lunch to the tour operator, and each of us would invite an operator that we work with, and the thought process behind that is, since we’re all from different parts of the country, we have different relationships.”

One such contact was Rhonda Bilbrey, president of Bilbrey Tours in Abilene, Texas.

Dynamic Destinations Group with tour operator
Photo: Frances Manzitto

“I didn’t really know her at all before this, and she was just in Clarksville last week with 66 people,” Manzitto said. “There’s business happening because of this group.”

“Frances just knocked it out of the park,” Bilbrey said. “We just did a mystery tour to her area with two motorcoaches and then in about 2.5 weeks, we’re about to hit Wendy in Wisconsin and Todd is always a great resource for us in Oklahoma. Heather and I have a long-standing relationship, and now we’re hitting South Carolina and Maryland and other places, too. I think this group is seeing the fruits of its labor because we’re going and we’re putting product out there.”

The Dynamic Destinations Group also partnered together to share a booth at United Motorcoach Association EXPO 2021, and a week later, a few partnered on a sponsorship at NTA Contact.

“UMA was the first in-person show many of us had been to since the pandemic,” Manzitto said. “We exhibited at the show and before it started, we did sales calls together. For me, it was great because I made new contacts. None of us are first-tier destinations. We all have a big guy next to us that gets all the attention, and we share the same outlook. It just seems to be working.”

Because those in the Dynamic Destinations Group don’t see each other as competitors, the sales missions they’ve done together have been unlike those they’ve done in the past.

“We had the camaraderie, but we didn’t have the competition,” Jeffries said. “Our business partnerships made it economical for us to jump-start our budget and get back out there, see and be seen and that’s what we need to do. We’re a people industry, we gotta get back out there and see the people.”

“We don’t see each other as competitors, so it’s nice to have other colleagues and other people to bounce ideas off of,” Egan said. “In this industry, it’s always great to cross state borders, because we know the motorcoaches are.”

The Tourism Lunch Bunch hopes to continue their Zoom calls even after the world is back to normal. The calls might not be as frequent as in the past, but it was clear to me that this group of tourism professionals have created a lifelong bond.