Tourism Council expected to be an improvement over WADMC

jojacobs@vagazette.com

A board made up of elected officials and tourism destination representatives. Tax money from hotel stays. A mandate to market the Historic Triangle to overnight tourists.

On the surface, the newly minted Tourism Council and the entity it was created to replace, the Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee, appear fairly similar. One would be forgiven for thinking everything old is new again in the world of Historic Triangle tourism marketing.

But several tourism officials say the Tourism Council, with more money than its predecessor and an improved organizational structure, has the makings of a more effective venture.

“We have the players there that can make the good, sound decisions based on what is needed to bring tourism into this town,” said Neal Chalkley, president of the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association.

Enough money

In 2004, WADMC was founded to market Williamsburg, James City and York as a regional destination to overnight tourists. It was never quite what it could have been.

That’s due, at least in part, to its limited financial resources.

WADMC, which funded its regional marketing campaigns through the $2 transient occupancy tax, could only muster about $3 million annually.

That figure doesn’t include money allocated to the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance by localities for marketing or the money spent by individual tourism destinations in marketing themselves.

Williamsburg, James City and York earmarked $6.9 million for tourism marketing in fiscal year 2017, the majority of which was allocated to the chamber, WADMC and local tourism destinations. Colonial Williamsburg spent $4.6 million on marketing in 2016, according to its Form 990 for that year, the latest available.

WADMC’s resources were a pittance compared to similar regional marketing entities in destinations local tourism officials identify as rivals of the Historic Triangle. Savannah, Ga., has a budget of about $10 million, while Virginia Beach has budgeted $29 million for 2018. Asheville, N.C., and Charleston, S.C., have budgets of $17 million and $13 million, respectively, according to a Tourism Council staff report expected to be presented to the board at its Oct. 16 meeting.

“Did we have a bad plan? No, we had a good plan. The problem with the plan was we were being outspent,” Chalkley said. “What we didn’t have was reach and frequency. And that costs dollars.”

Chalkley is a member of the Tourism Council and was a member of WADMC.

In 2017, the last full year WADMC collected the $2 transient occupancy tax, it collected $3.3 million. In July, the $2 transient occupancy tax revenue was redirected to the Tourism Council when Senate Bill 942 went into effect as law. WADMC collected $3.3 million in 2016 and about the same amount in 2015, according to WADMC’s publicly available financial reports on its website.

Enter the Tourism Council and the Historic Triangle Marketing Fund it manages. The new entity was created by SB 942, which also levied an additional 1 percent sales tax on purchases except groceries in the Historic Triangle localities to provide the funds to market the region.

The Tourism Council expects to collect about $10.4 million for marketing in 2019, according to a Tourism Council staff estimate based on 2017 sales and transient occupancy tax revenue collection.

If that projection bears out, localities will receive the same amount of revenue. SB 942 splits the tax revenue 50-50 between the Tourism Council and Williamsburg, James City and York based on where the taxes were collected. Localities are free to use the funds as they see fit.

With limited resources, WADMC basically concerned itself with marketing the region as a summer destination to a limited audience, focusing on television advertisements primarily in four markets — Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Raleigh — and occasionally New York City, Chalkley said. A larger amount of money means the Tourism Council will be more able than WADMC to attract tourists and expand its reach to new markets.

Better organization

Like the Tourism Council does now, WADMC, which held its final meeting in June, had an elected official member from Williamsburg, James City and York, as well as representatives of major tourist attractions.

But elected officials on WADMC had two votes each, which weighed its actions too heavily toward the locality representatives, who didn’t bring tourism expertise or a relevant background to WADMC, said Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association. Kirkland was a ex-officio member of WADMC and an alternate representative on the Tourism Council.

WADMC’s money came almost exclusively from the area’s lodgings. But the makeup of its board was mostly elected officials and representatives of other sectors of the tourism industry. The creation of a sales tax revenue stream means other areas of the tourism industry — including restaurants, retail and attractions — now also contribute, Kirkland said.

“It’s an improvement and we’re generally happy about that,” he said.

As WADMC conducted its marketing campaigns, the chamber, which oversaw WADMC, spent money marketing the region in non-summer months. The end result was a marketing effort with separate resources and staffs.

“You had two organizations who sort of worked together but they didn’t. One’s doing summer, one’s doing other times of the year,” Kirkland said.

Asked whether WADMC ever considered revamping itself to be more effective, such as an expanded executive body or creation of an executive marketing director position, Kirkland said there was “not a lot of appetite” for the legislative process that would effect the former, and not enough money for the latter.

Changes at the chamber itself are expected to set the Tourism Council up for greater success than its predecessor.

The chamber recently reorganized to have a Business Council and a Tourism Council, each with its own executive director. Previously, a single president and CEO oversaw the entire chamber. The delegation of responsibility will give tourism marketing the undivided attention of an executive, Tourism Council interim executive director Bob Harris said.

The Tourism Council also assumes all tourism marketing activities the chamber did while WADMC existed. The Business Council will have a hand in supporting tourism businesses, but won’t concern itself with the marketing side of things, Harris said. The sales tax revenue and $2 transient occupancy tax revenue go only to the Tourism Council.

Both the Tourism Council and WADMC have many of the same regional players on their executive boards, though the Tourism Council increases the range and number of represented organizations and tourism attractions.

Each locality has a representative, as do tourism attractions such as Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens and organizations including the Hotel and Motel Association and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Localities have just one vote.

The Tourism Council also features two new organizations in addition to the old guard of WADMC: The Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association and the Colonial National Historical Park.

“I hope it helps us build more awareness of what we’re doing,” Harris said of the expanded membership. “Everyone comes and they share a different perspective on every single project that we do.”

Kym Hall, superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park and member of the Tourism Council, said her organization brings a different perspective than the majority of the Tourism Council.

“I think we tend to focus on storytelling and emotional connection,” Hall said, adding that as a federal entity, the park isn’t as concerned with the money making that’s a factor for much of the tourism history.

Otherwise, the Tourism Council will have the same lower-level staff resources WADMC did, and also shares some staff with the Business Council. The staffs of either unit could increase should their executive directors decide to do so in the future, Harris said.

Harris said the new system has a better capacity for longevity and means to grow since the sales tax increase is a percentage and not a fixed tax. If more tourists can be brought in, and those tourists spend money, there will be more money to use and the system will sustain itself.

Tourism Council officials have expressed an interest in tracking specific tourism metrics, which could include hotel stays and ticket sales, to establish a baseline profile of the local tourism industry. Those figures would be used to gauge the effectiveness of the Tourism Council’s efforts.

“If you’re not continuing to support and grow and feed the promotion of that, and other destinations around you are starting to grow and feed and do more, we just get outspent in a big way in the market,” Harris said. “It’s a huge improvement and a step in the right direction.”

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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