Tourism: Out of Luck With Just a Buck

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State destinations discover that silence is anything but golden

By Melissa Nicefaro

When the state budget for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years had exactly one dollar earmarked for tourism marketing, the answer could have been simple: Take that dollar to one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions — Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun — and turn it into millions. Crisis averted.

Instead, losing $4.2 million in marketing dollars left the state’s tourism industry frustrated and scrambling for ways to keep out-of-staters coming to Connecticut. Late in September three knights in shining armor — a/k/a Connecticut’s three gubernatorial candidates — each promised to reinstate funding to support tourism marketing. But those who work in tourism marketing here in the state know better than to get their hopes up.

Former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy proposes a $15 million budget for marketing the state if he’s elected governor. That amount would be come from increases in the hotel occupancy tax. The Democrat would like to see those funds matched with an equal amount of private investment from attractions, hotels, businesses, developers and Realtors.

Barbara Malmberg, director of marketing for Visit New Haven, says it’s been a difficult transition: “We’re missing an opportunity,” she says. “We’re getting trounced by Massachusetts, which is spending $7 million a year, and New Jersey, which is spending $9 million.”

But then again, New Jersey does have reality-television shows like Real Housewives and Jersey Shore to burnish its reputation.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley said he’d up the ante to $15.25 million, according to published reports.

Of the $14 billion spent annually on tourism and culture in Connecticut, the state receives $1.7 billion in state and local taxes/revenues. There are 170,000 jobs in the tourism and culture industry. Hotel tax receipts annually brings in some $15 million.

Connecticut, known by visitors for Mystic Seaport and Aquarium, the casinos, Yale, Long Island Sound beaches and shoreline, saw sale of tickets at attractions statewide fall 18 percent this year compared to last year, according to Malmberg. Part of that’s a stalled economy. But silencing the state’s marketing message clearly has played a role.

“New Haven is seeing decrease in sale of tickets for attractions, but not a decrease on the hotel side because we have so many large, stable businesses that are attracting visitors,” Malmberg says. “We’re not entirely reliant on the leisure traveler.”

In the early 1990s, there were 19 discrete tourism regions across the state and now they’ve been consolidated from five, and then again into three. In January, Coastal Fairfield and Litchfield Hills were combined, and Greater New Haven and River Valley were amalgamated. (The Eastern Region remains unchanged.)

“The budget was at almost $900,000 for each of the five regions and then was cut down to $600,000 for each of the three regions before being eliminated. In addition to having a greater area to cover, the tourism regions had less money to work with,” Malmberg says.

The Statewide Marketing Fund that now sits at $1 is Connecticut’s budget for tourism. That includes all advertising, marketing, public relations and direct sales efforts, among other outreach efforts. In other words, none.

When the Greater New Haven Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) and River Valley were merged, the CVB staff was brought under the umbrella of the Regional Growth Partnership. The group has since rebranded and operates under the Visit New Haven/REX (Regional Economic Xcelleration) Development cover.

“That was important because the 15 mayors of the South Central Regional Council of Governments understood that tourism is an economic driver. They are supporting us,” Malmberg says. “We agree that we can’t afford to do big print marketing — even at the state level.”

Juline Mills, hospitality management professor and program coordinator at the University of New Haven, says paring the tourism budget is bound to cause long-term ramifications.

“It may not be immediate, but there is long-term fallout because it means people’s image of the state lessens,” says Mills. “There is no imagery, no marketing to expose individuals in the state and externally.”

The consensus is that print marketing is important, but it needs to be streamlined.

Malmberg and Mills agree that social networking such as Facebook and Twitter bring an added advantage since they’re sending information to people who have requested it.

“It’s a great way for friends to tell friends,” Mills says. “Having a solid Facebook page that links communities together, or having a proper website for a state tourism organization is one that allows visitors to select New Haven and do a virtual tour. Then they can look at Madison and then move on to another spot. It’s an easy way to link a state’s attractions.”

The state-run Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism (CCT) was forced to eliminate all national and in-state advertising campaigns, including Greater Metro New York and New Jersey. As a result, the number of people coming to the state to visit is falling, according to CCT Director Karen Senich.

“You could attribute that to the economy or the lack of advertising,” she says. “Advertising does change all of the time and we’ve been able to focus on our website and do some creative things to keep the name of Connecticut out there.”

Senich says she and her department are maximizing efforts with limited resources, but notes that products don’t sell without advertising.

Having New York as a neighbor both helps and hurts Connecticut, according to Mills. “It’s huge competition for us, but because it’s so close, we can draw on who’s coming to New York. The only way to draw on those travelers successfully is by marketing,” she explains. Of course, New York media is among the most expensive in the country for ad buys.

Mills says Connecticut is a destination that is under-marketed internationally as well as to other states: “People don’t really know much about Connecticut — we’re looked at as ‘the ‘burbs’ because of places like Greenwich. The problem comes from a lack of understanding about tourism marketing and a lack of understanding of the true figures that will enhance or guide the region.”

“Marketing must answer the question, ‘Why should I come?’” says Mills. “Find what your niche is as a state and market the hell out of it so people would begin to look at us.”

Marketing tourism is important for three reasons: how Connecticut is viewed internationally, how we’re seen by the rest of the country and how residents who live in the state’s 169 cities and towns view their state.

“You cannot underscore the value of marketing, even for the people in the legislature and other decision-making roles,” Mills says. “It’s another way for the community to think positively about what its administration is doing.”

If Malmberg had a wish list, she says she’d have tourism recognized as an economic development tool and she’d like to see the state move tourism back under the aegis of the state’s Department of Economic & Community Development (DECD).

Piggybacking on Malloy’s idea, she’d like to see the hotel occupancy “oc” tax that was put into place to help fund tourism marketing be redirected so that it no longer goes into the general fund, but is set aside to go solely to tourism marketing.

“We’re in the hole now and if that money had been appropriately allocated there was an opportunity for us to tighten that budget gap,” she says.

“We need the appropriate funding — between $12 million and $15 million — and the best means for distributing those funds,” Malmberg says. “Three regions is not the answer. But right now there’s no point deciding how to split up something we don’t have.”

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