What started during a time of vast uncertainty became a valued, reliable routine for a collection of NTA members. The Lunch Bunch was formed by Frances Manzitto of Visit Clarksville in March 2020, when the pandemic halted travel and grounded tourism professionals, who thrive on personal interactions.
“On our daily Zoom calls, we might have three people or we might have 20,” Manzitto says.
Among the revolving cast of call-in participants is a core group of six DMOs from six different U.S. states: Manzitto (Tennessee); Rich Gilbert, Maryland Office of Tourism Development; Heather Egan, Grapevine CVB (Texas); Todd Stallbaumer, Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department; Linda Jeffries, Greater Beaufort-Port Royal CVB (South Carolina), and Wendy Dobrzynski, Circle Wisconsin.
“The calls during the pandemic were therapeutic,” Dobrzynski says. “It was good to be able to share the ups and the many downs of the last year with peer friends, whether they were operators, suppliers, or DMOs.”
At first, conversations during the noontime gatherings focused on COVID-19’s challenges and changes, says Stallbaumer. “The best part of the calls was to know how we were all in this together, and every little light we could see at the end of the tunnel was celebrated,” he says. “We even did a virtual Dirty Santa Christmas Party.”
As the Zoom group’s relationship deepened, talk turned to topics outside of the industry, such as family, shared interests, and the latest shows to binge on Netflix. “Although I wasn’t on every call, it was always comforting knowing they were there,” Dobrzynski says.
Not even a pandemic could keep true professionals down forever, though.
“We talked about the challenges we were all facing, but then one day we said, ‘Why don’t we do virtual sales calls together?’” Manzitto recalls. “We represent different parts of the country and work with different operators, yet we don’t see that we’re in competition with each other.”
The Lunch Bunch created a branch brand.
“Dynamic Destinations came to be because of our rapport and common work goals as DMOs,” says Dobrzynski. “The six of us realized we could bring something new to tour operators by working together. With all of us being in different regions of the country, our group is a one-stop shop for operators to gather information for a multitude of itinerary options.”
Stallbaumer says the Lunch Bunchers realized they had a lot in common, including knowledge of each other’s destinations. “It was easy enough to share with travel planners what we had learned from each other during those many months of Zoom calls,” he says. “Referrals were easy, too, as we all had different contacts in the industry we could share.”
And when travel opened up this spring and NTA conducted an in-person Contact in Memphis, the power of cooperation within the Lunch Bunch reached a new level, as three members—Visit Clarksville, Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department, and Greater Beaufort-Port Royal CVB—teamed up to sponsor the opening reception.
“Part of the excitement in Memphis was simply the novelty of the group,” Stallbaumer says. “Whoever thought communities across the country could cross-market themselves and support the industry at the same time … without feeling the pressure of losing business?”
And as daily Lunch Bunch calls continue, the business beat goes on, too, according to Manzitto.
“We are really embracing the partnership we have established,” she says. “We plan to continue to do a monthly sales call with an operator that will meet with all of us in one virtual appointment. Additionally, we are planning in-person sales missions that any or all of us can participate in.”
The benefits of belonging to the Lunch Bunch are not limited to business, though, says Dobrzynski.
“With all of the negativity of the past 14-plus months, the relationships we built during these calls—
both personally and professionally—have been one of the most positive outcomes of the pandemic,” she says. “I especially believe that working with Todd, Frances, Rich, Linda, and Heather to help promote our Dynamic Destinations is going to be one of the highlights of my career in this industry that we all love … and it all started with getting on a Zoom call.”
And who knows where it will end. Because as Manzitto notes, this unique team continues to open doors.
“When we’re together, it’s never a cold call.”
To get more information about the Lunch Bunch, email Frances Manzitto.
Top photo ©Antonio Rodriguez/Adobe Stock