Visitors are once again flocking to the Wilmington area. Room occupancy taxes collected from stays at hotels and short-term rentals in the county totaled nearly $22.6 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year, a record-breaking sum. But one segment of travel remains down from the hit delivered by the pandemic: business travel.
Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, said business travel to the area has started to rebound over the past year, but it hasn’t yet approached pre-pandemic numbers. Hufham identified the continued use of virtual conferencing technology like Zoom as one factor impeding a full rebound for business travelers, who can now attend conferences from home.
“We hope that business travel will continue to increase, but we do not think the use of virtual meetings will disappear,” Hufham said.
This trend is mirrored nationally. A study earlier this year by Deloitte Insights concluded that business travel remains below 50% of 2019 levels. Deloitte estimated a full rebound could take years based on the responses gathered from a survey of 150 travel managers.
While leisure is the main draw for visitors to Wilmington – Hufham estimated it has traditionally driven at least 90% of visits – the visitors bureau seeks to entice business travelers to extend their stay and enjoy area amenities. This mix of business and leisure travel is known as “bleisure.” As part of their bleisure marketing strategy, the visitor’s bureau highlights the Riverwalk and historic downtown adjacent to the Wilmington Convention Center as well as Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville beaches.
Hufham said these amenities make Wilmington more appealing for event organizers.
“Meeting planners have indicated that they have seen a trend where attendance numbers are generally higher when they come to our destination,” Hufham said.
The business and leisure elements are typically distinct in bleisure travel, with business travelers selecting their own leisure activities to add to their trip. But Parker Wilson found that a more intentional blend of the two created powerful results at a recent local bleisure event in Wrightsville Beach.
Wilson, who works as a product director with Charlotte-based Dualboot Partners, was tapped to share professional insights at Raleigh-based Incolo’s Beach Bleisure event last month. More than a dozen entrepreneurs from across North Carolina traveled to the area for three days of content about fundraising strategies, sustainable growth practices, marketing best practices and more.
Unlike a traditional business conference, Beach Bleisure’s organizers incorporated elements of leisure travel into the event. All participants stayed in an oceanfront house at Wrightsville Beach, where they cooked meals together and walked on the beach between sessions. Wilson said this allowed participants to engage in more authentic conversations about how to implement the professional insights shared with them.
“The idea of bleisure is business and leisure together, blending on the concept that when we’re in a place of community and connectedness, a lot of the ideas that come forward are clearer and more effective,” she said.
Wilson attributed transformative discussions among participants at the bleisure event to a more vulnerable and authentic environment than you see at conventional business conferences.
“It was inspiring to see people come out of our standard beer and wine networking events, where we are trying to put our best foot forward and craft our elevator pitch effectively,” Wilson said.
A second bleisure event is already in the works, she added. This one will take place in Western North Carolina in the spring, but Wilson said they hope to return to Wilmington for a future event. She described Wilmington as a great destination for bleisure travel due to its business-friendly environment, with a mix of entrepreneurial transplants and people whose families have nurtured a local business for generations.
She added, “The ocean doesn’t hurt either.”