Sometime during the second week of March 2020, the tourism and hospitality industry in Ireland shut down. It was swift and sudden and it was very hard to take it in, much less process and understand it.
There was a flurry of announcements, restrictions, regulations, explanations followed by a host of online webinars to announce, restrict, regulate, and explain some more.
My head was reeling and my heart was reaching out to all the tourism business owners I have had a great pleasure of working with over the last 10 years or more. I felt helpless yet had a huge wish to help.
What could I do for anyone who was at that very time living the trauma of shutting doors, locking gates and trying to manage the inevitable letting go of staff and colleagues?
I talk and listen for a living so I did the only thing I felt I could do. I posted on LinkedIn that week and invited people to ‘connect, talk, share, ask questions and support’.
20 weeks later, The Recovery Room Huddle, as it came to be known, was still going twice a week. More than 160 people joined in over this period and usually we had about 25-30 on any given call.
For the first few weeks, all Huddles were just about processing the whirlwind of happenings during the day. As the restrictions and eventual lockdown continued, it became slightly more structured. Usually, I would post a Focus Topic on social media in the day or two before the Huddle, I would share some ideas on the topic to start each session and then open up and let the conversation flow organically. On a few occasions, a guest speaker would join or one of the regular participants would share their expertise on a special topic of interest.
It was a relaxed, informal and conversational space with just a few guidelines:
And that was it! Set up the zoom meeting, share the link and then just let the magic happen.
Often, we just shared our thoughts and feelings and listened to those of others. We didn’t search out solutions on these days, just enjoyed the connection.
On other times, there were some really practical, tangible elements to The Huddle. Evenings where people just shared how they had managed signage and face coverings, how they were planning to ease their staff and visitors back, how to manage rosters, and understanding what business supports were available.
There were some fun, light-hearted evenings where we smiled at the idiosyncracies of the newly exalted domestic visitor and reflected on our own childhood holidays (if you were lucky enough to have had one) in what seemed like very innocent bygone times.
There was much business networking and even business deals done offline between people who had only ever really met online in The Huddle. For example, one tour operator from the USA started programming Northern Ireland for the very first time based on connections made in the Huddle.
We had a number of consultants and trainers who joined the Huddle regularly and also quite a few people who worked in state agencies or in a local or national tourism authority. These people brought specialist expertise and insights always generously shared.
We had Huddlers from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Italy and the USA and this real-time sharing of different international perspectives – with each country at different points in the unfolding Covid story – was one of the great features of The Huddle.
The Huddle almost accidentally had created a space where the competitive mindset had evaporated and those with expertise, knowledge, and wisdom (and we all have some in our own little niche) generously shared and generously listened. It was also just a good chat and there was always room for plenty of banter.
That said, what I suspected the real value of the Huddle might have been was confirmed for me in a quick survey I did late in July. Almost unanimously, what people said they valued the most was the ability to connect with their peers in a comfortable and safe space where it was ok to talk and ok to listen. They valued that it made them feel less alone. They also really valued hearing from experienced individuals and from accomplished guest speakers and found this motivational.
Comments revealed that this ability to connect helped with their mindset and perspective. In a time when ‘what was true this morning may not be true this afternoon’, that connection was described by quite a few participants as ‘a lifeline’.
Ironically, for all its ability to host and welcome, the tourism and hospitality industry can prove to be a very lonely work environment – even in the best of times! With just a facilitator and a zoom connection, The Huddle is something that can bring true treasure to those on the coalface.
What was abundantly clear to me through The Huddle is that the greatest leadership in the greatest crisis came from those in the trenches, those who had to react and innovate and pivot just to survive. We can create spaces where those leadership and entrepreneurial qualities can be shared and valued widely.
I have decided to make this an even greater focus of my work in the future: creating spaces where we can lean into each other for strength and support, where we can draw on each other for inspiration and motivation, where we can count on each other for perspective and mental boosts, where we can just learn about how to do the everyday things a little bit better.
It's been the inspiration behind our new membership Network which includes The Huddle every Monday evening (amongst other supports for tourism businesses). Right now, you can try it out with our 30 Day Free Trial - no obligation, no strings attached. Just visit www.thetourismspace.com/tourismnetwork. We would love to see you there.