Kristen Pironis

It’s only been about four months since Kristen Pironis was named executive director of Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County (VAAAC). For the past 16 years, Pironis worked with the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation, most recently as executive vice president of marketing and communications. Today, she’s laying the groundwork for VAAAC as the world begins to pull out of the pandemic. The current mission includes designing a post-COVID-19 plan that looks a year-to-18 months ahead, then a long-term strategy for the next five years.

Describe how the summer season has started?

We’re off to a good start. I know because I overheard people commenting about Memorial Day weekend traffic. That’s a sign of progress that people are traveling. Business travel is still down and the official numbers are lagging, but we have anecdotal information that we’re heading in the right direction.

Were you surprised at the strong numbers from Memorial Day weekend at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport?

I was not because I’ve heard good news from our BWI area partners. The U.S. Travel Association recently stated that nine out of 10 Americans plan to travel within the next six months. Many are flying and many more are driving. Simply stated, people are tired of being at home. Luckily for us, Anne Arundel County has many open spaces and waterways so travelers have plenty of options here to choose from, including our parks and trails.

What do you foresee for the rest of the summer?

Continued steady growth in numbers and activity with even more outdoor events. People really do want to get together while still having a little space between them.

Do you think the industry will recover faster than predicted?

I do. I think many of us had measured expectations of what the recovery would look like in the county. Following the medical advice of experts, many events were cancelled or postponed. We then got vaccinated and it’s making the recovery even better, to the point that I think, and hope, the chances of a fall spike are diminishing. All told, we’ve done what we needed to do to help ensure the safety of area residents and visitors.

What’s your office’s budget?

We’re wrapping fiscal 2021 now. Like many of our colleagues, we were conservative in our projections and our spending. For fiscal 2022, we’re ready to push forward and come out strong. We project that our budget will be about $3 million for 2022, just about $500,000 more than 2021.

What is your media spend for the rest of the summer?

Our summer media buy will be about $400,000 including $175,000 in July and August. Advertising is supplemented by our social, video, podcast, blog and web tools, as well as our presence in the region with our traveling Arundel Ambassador trailer. Our goal with everything we’re marketing is increased visibility for the destination and our partners.

What’s new?

We’re operating in a completely different environment. We’re not going back to 2019 and we don’t want to. The expectations are higher now and I think we’ll fairly quickly return to our previous financial level. The difference is, we expect our outcomes will be even greater.

Some experts say the industry won’t fully recover unit 2025. Do you agree?

I take it as the lasting economic effects of the pandemic and closures. Staged recovery of this industry, in particular, will be with us for a very long time. And I think that’s right. While we all want to move beyond this moment and say it’s over, the outlook – while hopeful – is still uncertain.

How’s the hiring for tourism and hospitality going?

In June, we launched an information session and virtual hiring event with Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp. because the market needs service workers. However, even before the pandemic there was a dearth of skilled labor. Now it’s even harder for our partners to locate, hire and retain staff.

But we knew we needed to also have an enduring resource so we launched a job board on Nearly 30 businesses seeking to fill more than 300 positions are using the website thus far. This effort represents how VAAAC needs to pivot in our role to best support the industry.

How is the VAAAC investing in the future?

We’re developing an internship program with local community colleges and partners that will debut this summer. In addition, we plan to unveil a hospitality and tourism fellowship program in early 2022.

How does your work at the USNA Alumni Association Foundation help in your new position?

What I did there absolutely translates to this new position. Every industry, every job is about relationship building and serving a mission. I’ve been fortunate to come at a time when the industry is building back up. I know we have a lot of work to do but we can see the path we need to take to harness these emerging and new opportunities to further our work.

What do you hear from VAAAC members that surprises you?

I’m not sure if it is surprising or just encouraging, but with staff, partners and visitors, conversations revolve around how much potential Annapolis and Anne Arundel County have. We’ve also heard we need to capitalize on more long-term opportunities for attracting groups. Curated experiences and itineraries can be used to attract various audiences, including weddings, family and school reunions and more.

How did you address a tough time in your career?

The economic downturn from 2008 was a tough time for all industries. I try to be as forthright with information and expectations as possible. During difficult times, it’s important to focus on your core mission and purpose. When you do that, you’ll do right by those you serve.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

I don’t think I’ve had it yet. I’ve enjoyed and learned throughout my career, and especially at the Alumni Association. I met and learned from so many good people. However, I really do hope my greatest moments are still ahead of me.

By Mark R. Smith | Senior Writer |  The Business Monthly | July 2021 Issue