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Tourism Agencies Reach For Creativity After Losses Of Funding, Leadership

Brad Kane

June 14, 2010

After losing more than 70 percent of their funding and nearly five decades of combined leadership experience, the two agencies responsible for bringing visitors to Greater Hartford are reverting to creativity to accomplish their missions.

Over the past two years, the combined public dollars for the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Connecticut Central Regional Tourism District dropped from $3.4 million to $1 million. Already short-staffed, both agencies lost their leaders in May and the 45 years of expertise that went with them.

Facing the daunting tasks of filling Greater Hartford’s hotel rooms, restaurants, attractions and convention centers, the staffs at the two agencies will focus on cheaper, more direct marketing, utilizing the Internet to get their message out. They also will team with partners in the tourism industry to function as a cooperative unit.

“The notion of having television advertising is completely gone,” said Peter DeMallie, chairman of the Board of Directors for the Central Regional Tourism District. “As for the less expensive radio advertising, that is out of the picture as well.”

To top it off, the funding to promote tourism statewide tourism is down to a single dollar. The Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism’s budget to promote the state to visitors dropped from $4.9 million in 2009 to $1 for this year. Next year’s budget is $1, too.

“It puts us at a risk compared to neighboring states when our customers are choosing where to go,” said Robert Winchester, president of the Waterford Hotel Group, which includes the Hartford Marriott Downtown and the Hilton Hartford. “The more effort you have in marketing your brand as a destination, the more successful you will be.”

The Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau was founded as a private division of the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce in 1964, but the organization has run on public dollars since 1975. Its role has evolved over the years, but as the state government started its own tourism promotion agencies, the GHCVB found a niche marketing to the convention crowd and business travelers.

The organization still receives private funding from membership dues and visitor guide sales, but more than 60 percent of its budget comes from the Connecticut General Fund. In the 2009 fiscal year, that General Fund appropriation totaled $2.4 million. It dropped to $1.2 million this year and will be $500,000 for the upcoming fiscal year starting on July 1.

As a result, the GHCVB closed down its Washington, D.C. office and no longer attends trade shows to promote Hartford. The marketing reach has been scaled back, too, with cities like Chicago no longer on the organization’s radar. The organization no longer directly markets the Connecticut Convention Center, leaving that to the facility’s manager, Waterford Venue Services.

In a staff purge that reduced personnel from 15 to 7 over two years, the GHCVB Board of Directors terminated president Scott Phelps, who had been with the organization since 1977. His last day was May 27.

“A number of people had to be let go,” Phelps said. “I had a really good run with the CVB.”

The Central Regional Tourism District also lost its executive director in mid-May. Paul Mayer had been with the organization 12 years and left for a job in the private industry.

“He was our in-house ad agency. He was able to put together a whole marketing program by himself,” DeMallie said. “Is it a loss to the region? Absolutely.”

Mayer’s departure comes as the state government reduced the number of regional tourism districts from five to three. The central district had 29 towns to cover last year and is now up to 65 including the New Haven area.

State funding for the districts through the Commission on Culture & Tourism dropped from $1 million two years ago to $500,000 this year, leaving the central district with half the money to cover more than twice the area. Two years ago, eight people covered marketing for Hartford and New Haven tourism; now two people share the responsibility.

The central district board of directors has formed a committee to find private funding for the first time in the organization’s history, but results could take years.

“These times are tough to ask for money from companies,” said Anne Lee, acting executive director for the central district. “We have to get more creative in how we get our name out there.”

The least expensive way to reach a broad audience is through the Internet, Lee said. The agency has dolled up the Web sites Greater Hartford and New Haven and will produce videos for the sites to entice people to the areas.

At the same time, the district will continue to publish its visitor guides — done in collaboration with the GHCVB — to market area attraction. To save money on delivery, the district organized a brochure swap where representatives of various attractions met in one central location to exchange their promotional items.

“We produce these nice marketing pieces, but if we can’t get them out there, then they are no good,” said Lee, who is organizing a statewide brochure swap to include the two other remaining tourism districts.

The GHCVB has relegated most of its marketing to the Internet, too. To save money on printing and mailing, the organization does e-marketing of its brochures, sending electronic versions to select people and groups important in the convention industry, said Michael Van Parys, GHCVB acting president.

Roping conventions into Hartford is an important part of the tourism industry, especially to hotels, restaurants and attractions during the slower part of the year, said Dino Dimattia, general manager of the Sheraton East Hartford.

“The CVB does a lot for us,” Dimattia said. “They help us, and we will continue to work with them to land city-wide conventions.”

With the Connecticut Convention Center relying solely on its manager to provide marketing to bring in the largest conventions, the center has to be more direct in its marketing, said Terryl Mitchell Smith, director of marketing and public relations for the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which controls the convention center.

Rather than attending large trade shows to find a broad audience, CCEDA and Waterford Venue Services will seek out individuals with influence in bringing conventions to the area. The bureau may attend smaller, more strategic trade shows looking for certain customers, Mitchell Smith said.

“We have to figure what can we offer this organization or association for its convention that would be more appealing to them than Buffalo, N.Y. or Raleigh, N.C.,” Mitchell Smith said.

The Connecticut Convention Center hosted the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association in 2007 because the AOPA had a lot of members living in the area and liked the two airports in the area — Bradley International Airport and the Hartford-Brainard Airport. The organization is coming back in 2011.

The Connecticut Science Center celebrated its first anniversary on Saturday. In those first 12 months, the center attracted 365,000 visitors with 16 percent coming from out of state; numbers the organization would like to see grow.

Since the science center’s inception, it has worked with the GHCVB to find the best way to attract visitors and work with the Greater Hartford community, such as partner with hotels and restaurants to offer discounts, said Aaron Wartner, science center director of marketing and communications.

“City branding is really important; that is why groups like the CVB, the tourism district and the Waterford Group that are trying to bring huge groups of people to the area are so important,” Wartner said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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