Matt Harrington: Time to invest in tourism marketing funding

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Recently, I was asked to step up and become chair of the governor's Travel and Recreation Council (TRC), a position formerly held by Vicky Tebbetts.

The TRC is responsible for advising the secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development on matters relating to state travel and recreation policy, state travel and recreation promotion programs, and other programs managed, implemented, run by the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.

As chair of the TRC I want to encourage all businesses and citizens of our region in Southwestern Vermont, as well as the state of Vermont and its people to consider the idea that 1) marketing Vermont benefits everyone and 2) it costs money to market.

Marketing Vermont benefits everyone because the more people we can attract here, the more our restaurants, lodging, recreation, and even service industries prosper. Our businesses need to employ people to help them accomplish their goal (make a good dinner, clean rooms, fix flat tires, etc.). Additionally, the more we can attract people here for a vacation, the more likely we are able to attract them to stay for a lifetime.

The Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing is currently testing out this with their Stay To Stay Program. Here are some of those successes just locally here in Southwestern Vermont: since the beginning, Bennington County (with a location in Manchester and in Bennington) has welcomed 16 participants. Of those 16, we've had four move to the area. Of the remaining 12, four more are very likely to become Vermonters in the next year and we have had one from another Stay To Stay community find a career in Bennington. We have over 40 registered to visit Bennington County in 2019.

Additionally, the brand awareness that the state of Vermont has received has been terrific. Vermont is marketed as a place to live and work and we have received significant national media for this one initiative.

Let's go further about the economic impact of tourism in in Vermont. In 2017, out-of-state visitors brought in $2.8 billion in total economic impact to the state. Spending by out-of-state tourists also generated $391 million in total tax revenue for the State of Vermont from the hospitality industry and $189 million in rooms and meals tax. This yields about $1,450 in tax savings for the average Vermont household. In terms of jobs, the tourism/hospitality industry provides 32,000 jobs for Vermonters. Next time you see someone who provides a hospitality service, thank them!

However, for those of us who work in Vermont's tourism sector it doesn't take long to realize that we severely under fund our biggest asset: Vermont. This isn't just my opinion. With a $3.2 million tourism and marketing budget, Vermont ranks 49 out of 50 states in spending money on marketing ourselves.

Marketing and advertising is usually the first thing to go when finances get tough, but I always like to remind people that one of the most recognized brands on earth, Coca-Cola, still spends $4 billions a year on marketing. It's one of the most recognized brands and yet they know they still have to invest in communicating their brand, their story and their asset. They get it!

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The state funding for tourism marketing has been stagnant for years. Level funding equals a decrease every year as expenses go up (just like other businesses). Businesses know that if you're not growing, you're dying.

Meanwhile, many other states and countries (we compete globally) are investing more and more each year in tourism marketing, especially our neighboring states. They're reaping the benefits of greater tourism dollars being spent in their locations.

Thankfully, we've been fortunate to maintain most of our market share because of the strong 242 year-old Vermont brand. We have developed and collaborated with the collective creativity of the public and private sectors to adopt new marketing strategies with limited budgets. I think we have some of the most progressive, innovative tourism marketing because when you don't have a lot of money you get very creative and results-oriented in your marketing (am I right, small businesses!).

What's more, we do rely heavily on regional partners like chambers and destination marketing organizations and they are tight on funds as well. Chambers, along with marketing partners like Cabot Creamery and Vermont Ski Areas Association, cannot continue to subsidize the marketing that helps create a catchall for Vermont.

The challenge: We are in an ever-increasingly global market and Vermont cannot be stagnant about funding anymore. We cannot rest on our laurels. We must invest in tourism marketing. That is the only way we will be able to continue to compete for the global tourism dollars.

As chair of the Governor's Travel and Recreation Council, I want to help communicate that need to our chamber members, our communities and beyond. We need to support increased funding for tourism marketing. Supporting bills like H. 298, a dedicated fund for tourism marketing, helps us support the tourism fund in our state. Following in the footsteps of the State of Maine, the bill would take a percentage of the revenues generated from tourism (2 percent of the revenues raised by the Vermont rooms and meals tax) and direct that percentage into promoting and marketing Vermont as a tourist destination.

I look forward to representing our industry and its organizations as chair of the Travel and Recreation Council. Please let the council and me know how we can be of service to you.

Always Onward.

Matt Harrington is chair of the Travel and Recreation Council and executive director of the Bennington Regional Chamber of Commerce.


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