Whether through Facebook, GroupMe, Slack, Reddit, or other platforms, virtual communities that connect people based on common interests, identities, ideologies, and geographies have become increasingly popular. Some local virtual communities, like the Conway Convention & Visitors Bureau’s #ConwayToGo group on Facebook, were created in direct response to the pandemic. Others, such as the “Ask Conway, Arkansas” Facebook group, have existed for years but have experienced a surge in membership as people sought answers and connection during a time when social distancing is encouraged to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
#ConwayToGo: Crisis creates an online community of customers
By the time Gov. Asa Hutchinson closed dining rooms in restaurants across Arkansas last spring, it was already clear that the hospitality industry was headed for uncharted territory. The COVID-19 crisis had only been visible in Arkansas for less than a week, but those few days would be the last “normal” days of business for the foreseeable future.
“Conway restaurants went from record highs to record lows almost instantly,” said Rachel Shaw, executive director of the Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Many of our restaurants were immediately confronted with either closing or completely changing their business model.”
Restaurants were among the first-hit and most visible economic casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to an awareness among loyal customers and a desire to help. The challenge became how to quickly communicate local restaurants’ modified way of doing business during a pandemic.
In March, the Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau launched the #ConwayToGo group on Facebook. Since then, membership has grown to more than 10,000 individuals throughout the region. While restaurants frequently post daily specials and provide updates, the majority of posts are customers sharing how they’re feeding themselves and their families while supporting local restaurants. Shaw said that the program’s success has stood out in Arkansas.
“It is by far the largest of several efforts around the state to promote restaurants during this period of restricted business. I think the success is because you have restaurants and their customers sharing content equally. Both sides are benefitting – one financially, the other with good information and convenience.”
Another unexpected benefit of the #ConwayToGo promotion was the participation of minority-owned restaurants and/or newly opened restaurants.
“I think, for a lot of reasons, some of our most active businesses within the Facebook group are our newest and locally owned restaurants. And a large number of them are also minority-owned businesses,” said Shaw. “It’s ironic that in a year so hard on the hospitality business, we’re seeing an explosion of new restaurant options, particularly those specializing in ethnic or culturally inspired cuisine. The #ConwayToGo group is helping people discover all of the new options we have.”
A quick review of one week’s recent posts revealed authentic Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Latin American, and soul food options. She says while it is a challenging time to run a restaurant, she’s hopeful that all of Conway’s dining scene will come out of the pandemic stronger than ever.
“Our restaurants really are a regional amenity and an important part of our quality of place. #ConwayToGo is a place to celebrate and discover everything they have to offer.”