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Promoting tourism just one part of the job

November 09, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

As the former president of a nonprofit's board of directors, I have great sympathy for what chairman Ron Vitkun and his colleagues are going through on the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Even in the best of times, nonprofit boards face unanticipated problems like staff members who don't get along and members of the public who believe, no matter what you do to convince them otherwise, that your stated mission is a fraud at worst, or poorly planned and executed at best.

These offices rotate and it was Vitkun's bad luck - and the public's good fortune - that he was at the helm when a financial review turned up issues that have led to a police investigation. Under his leadership, the group has been as open as it can be about what has happened.

In a letter to the editor earlier this week, Vitkun said "the system worked," that the review mechanism in place detected the problem.

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Vitkun and Gigi Yelton, CVB's director of Leisure Travel Sales, spent two hours this week talking to Herald-Mail editors and reporters about what CVB actually does.

The short version is that it promotes attractions and events that already exist.

It does not work to develop new events or improve existing ones, except through hospitality training - making sure that hotel clerks and others who meet the traveling public know how to direct people to the Hager House and Antietam Battlefield.

Getting people to visit this county involves a combination of approaches, including answering inquiries made to the Web site - www.marylandmemories.org - and actively lobbying tour directors and bus line operators to add Washington County to their tours.

It's not cheap or easy to do that persuading. Yelton said that just one event like the National Tour Association can cost $1,000 just to register. It's worth it, she said, because she's able to meet one-on-one with 40 to 50 tour operators.

"What we do now determines what we get next year," she said, adding that it's just one of a number of events she attends each year to sell Washington County. Sometimes it takes two years just to build a relationship with a tour operator and persuade him or her to make this one of their stops, she said.

How effective is this activity? Although CVB staffers track Web site inquiries - and follow up each one with a phone call - the only real indicator of CVB's success is the increasing amount of room tax money collected, according to Yelton

Other measures might help, but a motor coach tracking form sent to all 18 local hotels is only returned by three of them, making it an unreliable measure of tourist traffic. Yelton said that's because some hotel managers are leery about releasing any information their competitors might use. The three that did answer reported 450 room nights during the past summer, she said.

"What is so hard to track is ancillary income," she said.

She said that while tourists are here for an event, they may purchase something at a local store or eat at a local restaurant, but when they pay for either, there's no way to tell if they're tourists or local folks.

In a letter to the editor printed this past week, Vitkun said that from 1998 to 2002 - the group has been in existence since 1997 - the CVB's share of the room tax take went from $449,861 to $514,141, a 14.3 percent increase, even though the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks hurt tourism all around the U.S.

"The staff, to their credit, took it as a challenge. In April 2002 (Executive Director Ben) Hart reported that Washington County was up in both the hotel/motel tax and occupancy," Vitkun said.

The occupancy rate of local hotels has also increased steadily, Vitkun said, even though new hotels are being built all the time and the average cost of a night's stay has gone from $47 in 1997 to $60 in 2003.

Vitkun said he's proud of the fact that the increasing amount of room tax helps fund things that don't just help tourists. Though CVB gets 45 percent of the revenue, the county commissioners use the balance to fund economic development and a variety of projects.

In 2002, for example, $20,000 - $10,000 apiece - went to help fund town libraries in Boonsboro and Smithsburg. But if you look at the other 12 projects funded, you get a sense that there's not a vision of how these grants will contribute to tourism development here.

Some, like the $25,000 grant for the rehabilitation of the Antietam train station in Sharpsburg, will provide one more stop for people visiting the Antietam Battlefield and associated attractions.

Others, like the $3,000 granted for playground equipment in the Rohrersville town park and $10,000 to the Hagerstown Soccer Club for the improvement of its H.B. Mellott complex, are certainly worthwhile projects, but their connection to tourism is tenuous.

Soccer could certainly be a tourism draw if someone capitalized on it. In 2001, that same soccer club brought 72 teams and 5,000 people to the area for their 11th annual Mason-Dixon Cup tournament. A similar event in Erie, Pa. was turned into a festival that has drawn more than 10,000 visitors.

A few years ago, I asked Hart if CVB could create something similar here. He said he didn't have the staff. Now I know that marketing events, as opposed to developing them, is what CVB does.

That leaves the County Commissioners, who get more than half the room-tax money. It's time for them to create a plan for what they hope to accomplish with all the cash they hand out.

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