Barry Biggar

Barry Biggar, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Convention & Visitors Corp. (aka Visit Fairfax), tells Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce members July 14, 2016 about the national, state and local economic benefits of tourism. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

Fairfax County economic-development and tourism officials have pivoted during this year’s pandemic and tried new ways of bolstering job creation and promoting the county to visitors, whether for business or recreation.

The Fairfax County Economic Development Authority (EDA) has undertaken a talent initiative, including virtual career fairs, to connect unemployed people with businesses that have been hiring during the pandemic, said Victor Hoskins, the agency’s president and CEO.

“We have worked especially hard to link workers in the hospitality, transportation, restaurant and retail sectors with businesses in the logistics, warehousing and distribution, grocery and even tech sectors that are hiring,” he said. “Every job we save, every job that we help people get, that is a family saved, a household saved. And as you save households, you save communities.”

Thousand of jobs – about half in the technology sector – have been available in Northern Virginia, even through the public-health crisis, Hoskins said. The EDA on Oct. 8 will hold a “Hiring and Reskilling Virtual Career Fair” featuring 20 companies and organizations, including major names such as Amazon, Walmart and Wegmans.

The Northern Virginia Economic Development Alliance, of which the EDA is a member, recently finished a 12-part Webinar series that gave companies information, resources and guidance to survive the pandemic and succeed in the future, Hoskins said.

The Board of Supervisors also has allocated $57 million in federal CARES Act money, plus $1 million in such funds supplied by the town of Vienna, to finance the county’s Fairfax RISE (Relief Initiative to Support Employers) grant program, which benefits small businesses and non-profit groups.

The Fairfax County Convention & Visitors Corp. (Visit Fairfax) has been promoting local businesses with a campaign titled “We’ll Be Ready for You,” which aims to reassure the public that proper precautions are in place. Fairfax County’s hotels and restaurants “truly have gone over and above” to ensure safe experiences for their customers, said Barry Biggar, its president and CEO.

“We’re now at a point where people are feeling a little more comfortable about traveling,” he said.

Visit Fairfax did not lay off or furlough any employees during the pandemic and continued serving its stakeholders, Biggar said.

“We repositioned, stopped all our marketing and really concentrated inside the county,” Biggar said. “We needed to make sure, first and foremost, that all of our industry stakeholders – hotels, restaurants, the attractions, retail and the like – all had the necessary information they needed to continue to have their doors open and employ people.”

The pandemic likely will have far-reaching effects on how and where people work, he said. Teleworking’s popularity likely will continue even after the pandemic abates, said Biggar.

About 20 percent of people who have been working from home during the crisis say they’ve never been happier with their jobs, Biggar said. This shift in the workforce also will alter future commuting patterns and decrease roadway backups, he said.

Teleworking has plenty of advantages, from monetary savings to potentially increased productivity, but operating from one’s actual workplace can be beneficial, too, Biggar said.

“I’ve been coming in ever since this all began and as a result I think my outlook on life and my general, overall emotional well-being, have been more positive and happy,” he said. “If I was staying home this entire time, I think I’d get a little stir-crazy.”

Increased reliance on virtual meetings may herald a sea change in business travel. Companies will be less likely to fly employees long distances to meet with clients when a Web call would suffice, Biggar said.

“Corporate travel as we once knew it is indeed now going to be permanently affected by all of this,” he said.

The pandemic also has clobbered the airline industry, which now is running only at about one-quarter of its potential, Biggar said.

“Travel and tourism is so dependent on access,” he said. “The leisure travel will certainly come back first. People are still traveling, but they’re taking trips of a shorter distance.”

Corporate travel, upon which hotels largely depend, likely will not recover until 2022. Conventions and conferences have switched mostly to a “virtual” format – and have seen significantly more participation because of the increased convenience and decreased travel costs.

“Annual conventions are costing organizers a quarter of what it would be if they were to do it person-to-person,” Biggar said. “And in almost every case, they’re seeing higher attendance. So it’s going to take a while for that to come back.”

Industry watchers expect travel and tourism will not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2023; Biggar more optimistically pegged the recovery at a year earlier. Student travel likely will not return to normal levels for another two to three years, he predicted.

[Sun Gazette Newspapers provides content to, but otherwise is unaffiliated with, InsideNoVa.]

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