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Champaign County group rethinks tourism plan altered by COVID-19


Destination 2023 is Visit Champaign County’s plan to improve residents’ and tourists’ experiences in the county. President Jayne DeLuce said COVID-19 hit a month after the plan was revealed, forcing the agency to adapt to far less travel and tourism. Courtesy Visit Champaign County

In Feb. 2020, Visit Champaign County revealed its Destination 2023 strategic plan to make Champaign County a better tourism and residential location. 

The goal, they said, was to realize the plan within three years, and then revise it every three years moving forward.

When COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. a month later, the organization had to adapt to a new world without travel, said Jayne DeLuce, Visit Champaign County president. 

“Everyone stopped traveling, and so our industry was the first to feel the impact,” DeLuce said. “So when you look at a mission that is about bringing people to the area, to visit, to work and to live, and no one's traveling, that's a pretty tough goal.”  

Destination 2023’s initial plans were to enhance the county as a travel destination, improve visitor and resident experiences and “elevate Visit Champaign County to be embraced as a community-shared value,” according to the agency’s website

After COVID-19 hit, DeLuce said, the organization became a voice for residents and local businesses. 

“Our priority then included: 1) a compassion for people; 2) a support for the hospitality industry; 3) organizational survival; and then 4) readiness to welcome visitors when the time was right,” she said. 

Past Chair Laura Weisskopf Bleill was the chair of Visit Champaign County at the time it revealed Destination 2023. 

During the beginning of COVID-19, she said, the agency shifted its focus to increase its support of local businesses.

“What we did, especially during the early days of the pandemic, was all about supporting local businesses,” she said. “And we did that through various different means, social media, as well as the website as well as just, you know, how we were connecting, of course at those times, and really promoting local businesses, local people.” 

One project the agency worked on during the early days of the pandemic was its relief fund to support workers in the hospitality industry, DeLuce said, which was one of its biggest achievements during that time. 

An ongoing project is the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail, she said, which was inspired by a mural request. The trail’s mission is to educate residents and visitors about the Black history in Champaign County.

“We were asked to create a mural that would celebrate Black history in the area,” DeLuce said. “And a mural led to a full-on project that we will facilitate on behalf of our community, and that's the development of the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail.”

Another of the agency’s successes was its partnership with the Illinois Conference Center to transform the facility into a vaccination site after its expansion in 2020, Bleill said. 

“While it didn't serve its purpose of gathering people for celebration and fun,” she said, “it actually served a very important role in the early days of the pandemic as being a great place where we could safely vaccinate our community.” 

“It was an interesting time to open, and not exactly how we saw that facility opening, but it actually played a very important role in the pandemic.” 

DeLuce said the agency will begin discussions about a new strategic plan, Destination 2026, starting this summer.