For three days in July, the Association Executives of North Carolina (AENC) visited Wilmington for its annual meeting, aptly themed “Reunite,” and gave the area a chance to re-establish itself as a destination for conferences, vacations and day trips.
John Sneed, vice president of sales and services for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, explained that the AENC meeting is the largest annual meeting for the organization outside its annual trade meeting in Raleigh.
Many changes have taken place in the Wilmington Convention District since 2013, the last time AENC held its event in Wilmington, including new hotels.
“The bulk of what we were highlighting was in the convention district,” Sneed said. “Outings were designed to bring the rest of the county in focus and show all aspects of the county.”
Outings included a trip to Porters Neck Country Club and a scenic boat tour of Wrightsville Beach for the event’s more-than-200 attendees.
“It’s a key organization for us. So many movers and shakers and decision-makers as far as in-state meetings. This was a great opportunity to get this back here with its history of having record numbers,” said Connie Nelson, CVB spokeswoman.
Fredia Brady, general manager of the Wilmington Convention Center, said the event “went very well” despite some of the challenges the center has faced because of the pandemic. Participants spent a day-and-a-half at the center.
The AENC event was just the second of the new fiscal year for the convention center, but it is one of many it has already hosted and one of dozens it has on the books.
“We are off and running. It is like riding a bike. It has been a struggle with staff, bringing staff back after 16 months. We had been in such a routine and then; we are back to training wheels, but we just do what we do, providing excellent customer service,” Brady said.
As a result of running short on support staff, administrative and management staff have stepped up helping with housekeeping, especially in light of the extra hands needed to maintain the center’s high-level sanitation practices. Their facility management company, ASM Global, has provided additional staff, as needed, from other areas of the country.
“We have a great network. On our weekly general manager call, we see who needs assistance and who is available to help out. It is a benefit of a company with multiple facilities and multiple resources,” Brady said.
Event organizers said they felt the difference that the convention center and other partners put in place following strict COVID protocols.
In addition to the Wilmington Convention Center, attendees visited multiple partners throughout the city and county who all prepared for the event with “state-of-the-art safety protocols,” said Rich Phaneuf, CEO and executive director of AENC.
“They thought every single thing through; both indoors and outdoors was amazing,” Phaneuf said. “The satisfaction and confidence given to our members showed how these partners went above and beyond the call of duty to make it safe that they were able to enjoy the entire event and fundamentally know that they were safe from COVID-related issues.”
“The parking was safe and secure and well-lit; the hotels were clean with safety protocols in place. It all just blew us away,” Phaneuf said. “I cannot imagine a better experience, and I look forward to coming back as a biggest fan.”
As events and tourism return to the Cape Fear region, officials remain cautious.
Local officials and planners are keeping a close eye on the impact of the COVID-19 delta variant, although no major cancellations had been announced as of press time.
Sneed and Nelson said they are encouraged by the numbers of people returning, and they credit the variety of options that visitors have in the Wilmington area.
“Whether you want to be alone on a kayak or at a concert with 7,000 people, we have that and everything in between,” Sneed said.
Sneed shared a term he has become familiar with recently, “revenge tourism,” which is having an impact on the Wilmington area. The phrase refers to people spending more money and time on vacations after not being able to travel previously because of the pandemic.
“People are so tired of being at home, and we are seeing that on the leisure side and reaping a lot of benefits from that,” Sneed said.
Considering a recent uptick in COVID cases in North Carolina and across the country, tourism officials say Wilmington remains well-positioned to provide those seeking respite depending on what they are comfortable doing.
Nelson said, “Whatever their comfort zone is, we have a way to accommodate them.”