2020 hit the tourism industry hard. Traveling was discouraged, entertainment venues were closed, and events were cancelled. We took a bullseye hit. As Watertown’s tourism director, it was unsettling to say the least. But all was not lost. After a year into a world-wide pandemic, it’s time to look back and address the successes. Watertown kept rolling. Our businesses pivoted and turned, created and recreated in their fight to stay open. The public gained a sense of responsibility in shopping small, local establishments. My office transformed into “communication central,” keeping the public informed on the weekly/daily/hourly changes that were occurring. And all of our efforts paid off.

Retail Pivots

The Chic Boutique in Watertown was the perfect example of the pivots and changes needed to continue business. The owner, Amber Smith, immediately offered curbside pick-ups and ended her day by personally delivering items to customers that preferred less contact. She set up an online store of merchandise, and often held Facebook live video streams so customers could view her inventory. It was entertaining, engaging, and felt reassuring to see her showcase the things that made us feel “normal.”

Girl Holding Shop Small Sign

Amber Smith promoting “Shop Small” in a live video stream

Downtown businesses accommodated similarly. Curbside pick-ups turned into the norm, and customers shopped via video streams on social media. Some retailers offered private shopping opportunities, or would “zoom” with a customer, walking them through the store via video conference.

Our downtown bakery, Sweet Talkin’ Treats, created cookie decorating kits to-go. Customers received a box of cut-out cookies and several icing colors, acting as a craft project and a tasty treat.

Cookie Kit Ad from Sweet Talkin Treats

Cookie Kit from Sweet Talkin’ Treats in 2020

Restaurants Evolved

Another success story could be found in Watertown’s food establishments. Mullen’s Dairy Bar was just heading into their busy season when mandates changed the way they did business. They quickly began curbside service, and even implemented a delivery service. Not an easy feat for an ice cream shop! Main street was hopping with curbside activity, and new restaurants were hitting our radar with their vigor to promote themselves to new audiences.

I personally tried several new establishments, getting hooked by their mouth-watering ads. How could I resist that picture of the bacon topped black angus burger from Bigg’s Bar and Grill? I couldn’t! I’ve been back several times since. I also reestablished my love for Chinese takeout, trying Chinatown Restaurant and Bamboo Kitchen for the first time. Yum! That isn’t to say I gave up my old favorites. Movie night at home? That deserves an ice cream cookie sandwich from Mullen’s Dairy Bar. Need replenishment from all that yard work? Shrimp tacos from El Mariachi should do the trick. Need a lunch break from computer fatigue? Sushi from Sake House for the win! Yes, getting takeout was a pandemic survival tactic, and I was grateful for the restaurants’ ability to provide us with the best kind of comfort in trying times…GREAT FOOD!

Fried Shrimp in a takeout container

General Tso’s Shrimp from Bamboo Kitchen

Entertainment Venue Success

While retailers and restaurants were rapidly evolving, event venues could not do the same. They were non-essential and spent many months with their doors closed. One bright spot was the pivot/create/evolve moves we saw from The Towne Cinema. Movies were a no-go, but concessions were a yes-go! They held regularly scheduled pop-up shops with curbside service. Simply park in front of the theater and put in your order for popcorn, pretzel bites, nachos, slushies, etc. It was a HIT!

Towne Cinema Marquee

Pop-up shop ad on Towne Cinema’s marquee

Communicating Changes

Staying on top of the evolving practices of hundreds of businesses was challenging. Travel was discouraged, but our hotels were still serving essential workers. They had needs, too. Marketing materials were quickly created to inform our guests where they could get food and essential items, even breaking it down to businesses that could deliver directly to them. Yes, we had pharmacies and grocery stores delivering. Pivot/create/evolve.

Watertown Tourism’s social media pages turned to the locals. Posts were made about the city’s history, encouraging people to enjoy self-guided historic walking tours. Trails and parks were promoted. I posted instructions on how to reserve a socially-distanced tennis court or batting cage. I was ecstatic to promote the new tourism-funded kayak rental program in the city. It brought a fresh recreational opportunity when we needed it the most. My worst task was communicating all of the closures and cancellations. My best task was engaging with Tourism’s audience through comments and messages.

Watertown, WI dining flyer

An evolving list of dining options in 2020

A Look Ahead

I’m sure we can all agree we do not want a repeat of 2020. However, looking back I can’t help but feel a sense of pride for my community. Businesses, organizations, and citizens adopted the hashtag #watertownwill, and used it to show solidarity and support for one another. Watertown Will indeed. We had and have the “will” to be victorious through an experience that hit hard and fast. I’m proud and can’t wait to see what this community can do with a pandemic in the rearview mirror, “roaring” into the 2020’s.