The state’s chambers of commerce say they want to be the ones to step up and oversee regional tourism promotion, now that the state of Connecticut has defunded its tourism districts.
The last budget round preserved $15 million at the state level for tourism marketing, but removed funding from the three regional offices charged with coordinating local efforts.
Led by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, a series of public-private partnerships around the state are now seeking to step into that void.
The Eastern Chamber has long promoted its own efforts as an alternative to the Eastern Regional Tourism District in marketing the state’s busiest tourism destination.
But while the organization may change, it’s not likely to leverage more public money.
“There’s no new state money that’s going into this effort. We’re just refocusing some of the efforts internally,” admitted Randy Fiveash of the Department of Economic and Community Development. He was speaking at a press conference earlier this week.
“This summer was spent looking at a lot of what ifs,” said Tony Sheridan, the CEO of the Eastern Chamber. “We know the state is going through tough financial times. There are people who are in the field, who have skin in the game, who recognize that $15 million is minimum.”
The Greater Mystic Visitors Bureau, whose board Sheridan chairs, has leveraged a further $6.5 million dollar budget from private resources, which it said will also be used to promote the region. The Bureau will now be folded into a new body, the Eastern Connecticut Regional Tourism Committee.
Steve Coan, president of the state’s largest tourism draw, Mystic Aquarium, stressed that it’s important to examine the data on what works. He said recent efforts by Connecticut to advertise itself in New York have borne fruit.
“Almost every tourism-related entity in the state has seen growth from the New York metro market,” he said. “Individually, very few of us can invest in that market. It’s the most expensive media market in the country. The state has had a concentrated effort in the New York market for the last several years, and we’ve seen the results.”
Small tourism businesses also hope they may be able to work through the legislature’s new tourism caucus, to change minds on funding. One possible avenue is seeking to divert some of the revenue from the state’s hotel tax to establish a dedicated fund for tourism.
Kevin Dodd, who runs the Essex Steam Train, is also a director of the Connecticut Tourism Coalition, a body that represents smaller businesses. He urged lawmakers to recognize that spending on promotion is an investment.
“With the highest occupancy tax in the nation, pretty much, we need to see that those dollars are returned,” he said. “Tourism dollars are not superfluous dollars. They’re not goodwill dollars. They are a return on investment that comes back to the state directly.”
Although defunded, the tourism districts are still a reality in legislation. They’re expected to lobby in the upcoming session to have their funding restored.