The pandemic’s silver linings playbook – hope for recovery as the economy reopens

By Heather Evans

Research surveys conducted of C-suite executives by CommerceRI found that the two stories that drew the most engagement were about Health Equity Zones and the state’s pledge to move to renewable fuels by 2030, which could influence economic development strategies in a post-pandemic world, focusing on placed-based health and resilience.

Rhode Island has so much more to offer than many Rhode Islanders realize. That is one of the things I learned in my year serving as chief marketing officer at Rhode Island Commerce, where I was responsible for attracting visitors and businesses to the state. With this perspective, I’d like to share some hope for the state’s recovery as the economy reopens.

Accelerating millennials’ move into the state

Across the country, young adults have been moving out of large metro areas like New York and Los Angeles to lower cost, less dense ones, including Providence. The coronavirus pandemic may accelerate this trend.

Note that the Providence metropolitan statistical area [MSA] includes all of Rhode Island and some of southern Massachusetts. Few people here realize that Providence is the only metro area in the entire Northeast that experienced net millennial inflow from 2012-2017, according to the Brookings Institution. Rhode Island offers these young adults the No.1 natural environment, according to U.S. News & World Report, while being the No. 2 most affordable for families, according to WalletHub.

The pandemic has hit densely populated Boston and New York City especially hard, and many have already decamped from New York to summer homes in Westerly and Block Island. They can work here remotely while enjoying access to the nearby beaches, waterways and hiking trails. As companies reconsider their need for expensive Manhattan offices and encourage remote working, some are likely to make this move permanent. Others may follow.

Resetting our tourism economy
As the economy reopens, we have the opportunity to build a more sustainable tourism economy. That means attracting bigger spenders. In 2018, we hosted 25.4 million tourists, only 16 percent fewer than Massachusetts. However, our visitor economy is a small fraction of our neighbor’s [$6.8 billion vs. $24.2 billion]. That’s because the average tourist spends only $268 in Rhode Island vs. $804 in Massachusetts.

What’s behind this huge difference in tourist spending? Overnight visits. Only 30 percent of visitors to Rhode Island stay overnight compared to 80 percent of Massachusetts’s visitors. Millions of visitors to our beaches, festivals and attractions use our natural resources and public services [think sewage treatment and garbage collection] while contributing almost nothing to our economy. While a day visitor to the beach or an outdoor festival may spend only enough to park their car, overnight visitors support hotels, rental houses, restaurants, attractions, retailers and local transportation.

To build a more sustainable tourism economy, we need to attract more overnight guests. A challenge is that we have a limited number of rooms and houses to rent, and our occupancy rates have been fairly high. As the state recovers, it will benefit from events and programs to attract visitors Sunday through Tuesday, when occupancy is low throughout the state year-round, as well as to beach communities in the winter.

I believe that fewer, smaller events – as forced by the pandemic – will have a greater impact on the economy than festivals with tens of thousands of attendees whose numbers vastly exceed our capacity to house them. The Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau had previously done an excellent job attracting small and mid-sized events and conferences to fill hotels in the city and nearby Warwick year-round. Rhode Island Commerce’s Hotel Week RI promotion is another example; it drew national attention to the reasonable winter rates at our top hotels. [Editor’s Note: The Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau reported on May 29 that the state’s tourism industry has lost $48 million during the pandemic to date.]
What will attract favorable attention from business leaders?
Everything will change as Rhode Island struggles to adapt to life in a post-pandemic world. Research I conducted in February of 2020, focused on a survey of national “C-suite” executives – CEOs. COOS, and CFOs – provided some glimmers of what may drive future attraction.

Previously, business leaders elsewhere didn’t have a negative impression of the state as a Northeast business location – it turned out they just didn’t know anything about Rhode Island. In fact, about half of non-Rhode Island “C-suite” execs I surveyed knew too little about the state to consider locating here.

Less than a quarter had a negative perception of the state – primarily that it’s not a top 20 MSA [Providence is No.38]. The quarter with favorable views most often cited natural beauty and proximity to major Northeast cities, aspects that will be even more attractive in the post-COVID-19 world.

To address the lack of awareness, we started boosting articles about Rhode Island and its businesses on Linked In. The articles with the greatest engagement were The New York Times’s story about Gov. Gina Raimondo’s executive order to be 100-percent dependent on renewable energy by 2030, and the U.S. News & World Report story about our national leadership in addressing health equity. Both received outstanding engagement from senior execs across targeted industries – such as tech to bio-innovation to the blue economy. C-suite execs responded to these stories focused on health and resilience – and not much else.

The story in U.S. News & World Report, published on Feb. 18, written by Katelyn Newman, a staff reporter, had the headline, “In Rhode Island, Health Equity Zones Offers Communities a Voice,” with the subhead, “An innovative effort to achieve health equity brings locals to the discussion table.”

“The nation’s tiniest state is leading the way in community health investment by calling on residents to collaborate and help decide what they need to live healthier, happier lives,” Newman wrote. “The R.I. Department of Health’s Health Equity Zones initiative uses a place-based, community-driven model to build healthy and resilient communities statewide. Funds from the program aim to support neighborhoods and municipalities in establishing and maintaining programs that address social determinants of health, such as using a community garden to improve access to healthy food, rehabbing blighted housing or creating a program to help kids walk safely to school with qualified adults.”

The story continued: “The Rhode Island program is the first of its kind in the U.S. to use so-called braided funding, pooling multiple funding streams – such as a combination of federal, state and local dollars, blended with investor and foundation funding – to pay for these community health initiatives.”

Getting things done
The coronavirus pandemic has also drawn attention to Rhode Island’s capability to get innovative programs done quickly. Boosted articles on LinkedIn about two public-private partnerships – one with CVS around testing, and a second with Amazon Web to speed up unemployment insurance processing, generated strong engagement on LinkedIn in April.

Hopefully, some of the more than 350,000 Rhode Island alums and leaders of fast-growing companies who saw multiple articles may consider moving their headquarters or an office to Rhode Island.

Based on my experience monitoring engagement among C-suite execs on LinkedIn, the state will attract their notice by implementing bold, successful programs to improve resilience, health equity and equality of opportunity. Diversity can be a positive asset in attracting companies, as it was for Infosys to choose Providence as the location for its training hub. Successfuly addressing racial inequity is important in itself, and it will attract the attention of business leaders nationwide. How can we leverage the state’s ability to get things done to narrow the education gap and the income gap by race?

A reason to feel proud
The state’s handling of the pandemic may serve to give Rhode Islanders newfound pride in helping to make our economy more resilient. Self-esteem is key to resilience in adolescents. Isn’t it plausible that it will also make residents of a state and their businesses more resilient, too? One of the most difficult aspects of marketing Rhode Island to outsiders has been the headwind from locals.

Rhode Islanders often seem stuck on the state’s history of unemployment, cronyism, high taxes and over-regulation. And they mistakenly believe that outsiders have a similar view. This negativism was reflected recently in the lowest approval rating in the country for the Governor. However, her standing in opinion polls measuring approval ratings for governors has rebounded, giving Gov. Raimondo a positive bump for her handling of the pandemic. [See link below to Dan McGowan story in The Boston Globe, “How long will Gov. Raimondo’s new popularity last?”]

My hope is that this pride translates into energy for rebuilding and conveys enthusiasm to CEOs who may want to relocate from Boston and New York.

Heather Evans is the former chief marketing office at CommerceRI. This article was written for

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Richard Asinof

Richard Asinof is the founder and editor of ConvergenceRI, an online subscription newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island.