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Wednesday, 02 November 2011 19:06

Jackson room tax hike threatens Cashiers tourism group

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Cashiers could soon lose autonomy over its tourism marketing efforts if a plan to merge two separate tourism entities in Jackson County goes through.

While Cashiers tourism leaders are fighting to save this independent marketing arm, those in favor of a merger question whether the Cashiers solo approach has hampered overall tourism efforts in the county.

“This is a chance for the county to determine whether it is getting the best return on its investment,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “I just don’t believe there is a lot of cross communication going on. They are focusing on their one area of responsibility, and we are missing out on some opportunities.”

Dual tourism entities — namely the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authorities and the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authorities — are less effective than just one entity would be, according to Wooten.

“It appears to be if we had a single travel authority we would have an opportunity to develop a countywide strategic advertising plan and deploy our resources to focus on the specific areas of the plan,” Wooten said.

Cashiers’ tourism agency has isolated itself from larger tourism efforts in the county. Cashiers does not share its marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the rest of county, leaving the larger Jackson tourism entity in the dark on how Cashiers spends its allotment of tourism tax dollars.

Although Cashiers representatives sit on the board of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority, no one from greater Jackson County sits on the Cashiers board. The result is a one-way street, with Cashiers being privy to the tourism activities carried out by Jackson but not the other way around.

Sue Bumgarner, the director of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority and the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce, was unable to provide basic information about their activities.

• She does not keep an accurate count of visitor center walk-ins.

• She could not provide information about how many web hits or telephone inquires the agency got.

• She said she did not have a list of how the Cashiers tourism authority has spent its advertising budget over the past year.

• Minutes from the quarterly meetings of the Cashiers tourism board were not readily available. They are kept in hardcopy format only in boxes at an off-site storage unit. Minutes have not been provided to the county despite a request to do so.

• A database of prospective visitors who have requested travel literature is not shared with the Jackson tourism agency, despite the Jackson tourism agency sharing all of its leads with Cashiers.

The heart of the issue is how best to spend tourism-tax revenue. A 3 percent tax on overnight lodging in the county raised $440,000 last year. The money is pumped back into tourism marketing and promotions.

Tourism revenue has declined in Jackson County by 12 percent since 2006. Jackson isn’t entirely alone. The recession-driven trend was mirrored across the mountains, although to a lesser extent.

Jackson fared worse than its neighbors, experiencing steeper declines. And while surrounding counties have since rebounded to their pre-recession levels, Jackson is still down.

To improve matters, Jackson leaders plan to double the room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. The extra revenue will mean more money to spend on marketing Jackson County as a tourism destination and hopefully in turn, increase tourism.

A majority of Jackson County commissioners have voiced support for increasing the room tax, with four of the five in favor of the plan.

The debate has now turned to whether there should be a single tourism authority to steer marketing efforts and provide oversight for how the tourism-tax revenue is spent.

Currently, the room tax is split between the Cashiers tourism agency and the Jackson tourism agency. Cashiers gets 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.

By joining forces, the two could save on overhead and administration, freeing up more dollars to spend on marketing, Wooten said.

“Sometimes I think we get caught up in the ‘that’s way we have always done it’ mentality and this may restrict our opportunity to grow,” Wooten said.

Bumgarner would not say specifically whether she wants the Cashiers tourism agency to merge with a single countywide one, saying she would have to consult her board before sharing her views publicly.

“I would rather not get into it until we know for sure what is going on,” Bumgarner said.

But, she did say that a Cashiers-focused tourism agency is better positioned to market Cashiers than a countywide organization.

“Just being here and knowing the market and what people are looking for, it is a whole different area. We are looking for people to come up and buy million dollar homes,” Bumgarner said. “We are marketing to a whole different group I guess you would say. I felt in order to do that we needed to be able to place ads in different kind of publications.”

 

Shotgun advertising

Running advertisements — whether in magazines, billboards, or online — is a key component of tourism marketing.

Bumgarner was unable to provide a list of where she has run ads over the past year. She said she did not keep a list of which magazines she has run ads in or what months they ran. Cashiers spends close to $60,000 a year on advertising.

“I would have to go back and think of which ones I’ve done. I don’t have time to do that. I don’t have time to go back and look at all those ads,” Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner also does not share her advertising schedule with her counterparts at the Jackson tourism entity, despite a standing request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. Knowing which magazines, billboards and other advertisements Cashiers has planned would allow the two entities to maximize their marketing dollars.

Initially, Bumgarner was ambiguous when asked whether she shared her advertising schedule with the Jackson tourism arm. She answered that “they have the same ad agency as us.”

When asked again whether she gave Jackson a copy of her advertising schedule, Bumgarner replied: “I am on the travel and tourism board in Jackson County also.”

When asked a third time, she said the two entities sometimes split the cost of ads in magazines. When asked a fourth time whether she shared her ad schedule with Jackson, she said, “They know our ad schedule.” When asked how, she answered, “because I sit on their TTA board.”

Finally, Bumgarner said she did not provide Spiro with Cashiers’ advertising schedule.

“I don’t give out our whole schedule … not unless they ask for it or want to see it,” Bumgarner said, adding, “It is no big secret.”

Spiro said she has asked to see it, but has never gotten one.

The Jackson tourism entity develops a marketing strategy and advertising plan for the year each spring. Bumgarner gets a copy and so does the county.

The need for niche marketing — marketing that caters to Cashiers’ unique tourist demographic — is the chief argument of Cashiers tourism leaders who want to hang on to their own tourism arm. Cashiers knows best how to market and promote Cashiers, they say.

However, Bumgarner could not provide a list of what that advertising is exactly.

About half of Cashiers’ advertising budget is managed by an ad agency. The agency is contracted to design and place ads on Cashiers’ behalf.

For the rest, Bumgarner places the ads herself. She is able to take advantage of last minute discounts on ad space or buy ads to promote special events that come up over the course of the year, she said.

Bumgarner referred questions about those specific ads to the county finance office, however, which pays the bills when invoices for the ads come in.

Most of the invoices, however, don’t include the name of the magazine, nor the month that an ad ran. The invoices are sent by publishing companies that usually have numerous magazines under their umbrella.

A review of advertising invoices from the ad agency for Cashiers show that it places ads in four magazines over the course of the year for Cashiers: AAA Go, AAA Going Places, Blue Ridge Country and Southern Living. The Jackson tourism entity ran ads in those same publications, according to a review of invoices held by the county finance office.

 

Nuts and bolts

When a prospective tourist requests information about the area, tourist entities mail out a packet of brochures and guides designed to seal the deal on coming to visit.

The Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority shares every inquiry it gets with Sue Bumgarner, the head of the Cashiers tourism arm.

That way, Cashiers can send out its own Cashiers-tailored literature and brochures to prospective tourists, in addition to what’s being sent out on behalf of the whole county, said Spiro. Spiro shares responses that come in from magazine ads, as well as a database of people who have called or emailed to request travel information.

“If I get leads from AAA Go, Blue Ridge Parkway, Southern Living, I just forward those to (Bumgarner) because I don’t know if she has those leads or not, so I just share the leads with her,” Spiro said.

Bumgarner, however, does not share inquiries coming in to the Cashiers office with the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority. Bumgarner was vague initially when asked whether she shared visitor inquires with Spiro. At first, she said “yes.”

But when asked specifically how she shared the inquiries, Bumgarner said that she actually did not share inquires that came in from magazine ads — she only shares inquires from people who call or email asking for travel information.

“Yes, we share those. We email them back and forth,” Bumgarner said.

However, Spiro said she has not received any leads or visitor inquires from Cashiers barring a few times in early 2010 from one of Bumgarner’s assistants. But that person left, and since then, Spiro has not gotten any inquiries from Cashiers despite asking for them from time to time.

Upon further questioning, Bumgarner said she shared inquires with members of the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce who pay an extra fee for the inquiry list.

“We send it out to our members that pay to get the inquiry list every week,” Bumgarner said.

Inns, cabin rentals, golf courses and the like can use the inquiry list to send out their own brochures, peppering the prospective tourists with a litany of travel literature in hopes of luring them to their particular establishment.

But, the list isn’t available for non-chamber members.

“You can’t have it, not from us,” Bumgarner said.

Other tourism entities that get tax dollars for marketing make the inquiry list available to all accommodations owners, since they all help collect the tax.

“The accommodation owners are provided it free of charge,” Spiro said of the inquiry list produced by the Jackson tourism agency.

 

Tracking visitor numbers

The Cashiers visitor center does not keep an exact record of how many walk-in visitors come through its doors.

Bumgarner pegged foot traffic at the visitor center as “close to 10,000” so far this year. Most visitor centers, including those in Maggie Valley, Waynesville and Sylva, use a clicker to count walk-in traffic.

Cashiers uses estimates. Bumgarner was initially vague about the methodology for tracking visitors.

“Just by, you know, daily counts,” Bumgarner said.

When asked specifically whether her office used a clicker to count each person, Bumgarner replied, “we just estimate at the end of the day. I just kind of check off at the end of the day how many we had.”

As for telephone calls or web hits?

“Oh Lord, I have no clue on those,” Bumgarner said.

The visitor center run by the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce in Sylva keeps an exact count of daily walk-in traffic, telephone calls, email inquiries, web page views and downloads.

“All those mediums are ways we can track how well marketing is and is not working,” Spiro said.

Tracking the number of inquiries and traffic from month to month and year to year also provides a picture over time of whether tourism is trending up or down. Bumgarner did not have tracking data accessible to share, saying that it was not saved on her computer but instead existed only on paper and was located in boxes at an off-site storage unit.

 

Meeting minutes

Bumgarner also was unable to provide minutes from past tourism board meetings. She said she does not save notes or minutes from the meetings on her computer. Bumgarner said she types up the minutes from hand-written notes, prints them out, then deletes the file, keeping only the hard copy.

Bumgarner did not have copies of back minutes readily available, however. They are kept in boxes at an offsite storage unit and would be difficult to pull out, Bumgarner said. They are all mixed in with boxes of magazines, Bumgarner said.

The minutes are supposed to provide a record of what the Cashiers tourism board discusses at its quarterly meetings.

The board is charged with developing and guiding a tourism marketing strategy — finding the best way to spend the roughly $180,000 a year in tax dollars allocated to promote Cashiers.

As a public entity, the Cashiers tourism board is required by law to keep minutes of its meetings and share them with the public upon request.

County officials asked Bumgarner to start providing minutes from the Cashiers tourism board meeting earlier this year, but still have not received any.

The Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority shares a copy of its meeting minutes with the county.

Doing so keeps the county apprised of the what the Jackson tourism entity is up to — spelling out its marketing strategy, plan and vision and a snapshot of its activities from the month.

Cashiers’ failure to do likewise is in violation of the county’s original legislation that first created the Cashier Travel and Tourism Authority. By law, both Jackson and Cashiers tourism arms are supposed to provide quarterly reports to the county of its activities. This mandate was included in the original legislation creating the two entities in 1987.

Shortly after county commission Chairman Jack Debnam took office in January, he asked both tourism boards to start making the quarterly reports. Spiro, who already provided copies of her board meeting minutes to the county, began producing quarterly activity reports as well.

Bumgarner does neither. County Manager Chuck Wooten believes Cashiers is not satisfying the county requirement for quarterly reports on their activity.

“It seems to be there would be at least some understanding or expectation they would at least update commissioners on what activities they are doing to try to improve and increase travel and tourism in the county,” Wooten said.

 

Chamber fate

The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the separate Cashiers Chamber of Commerce get a cut of the tourism tax dollars to carry out the job of tourism promotion.

The Cashiers Chamber of Commerce gets $60,000 a year from the Cashiers tourism agency. It accounts for 40 percent of the Cashiers Chambers total budget of $146,000.

Jackson Chamber of Commerce gets $72,000 a year in room tax dollars, plus another $9,000 a year in rent to subsidize the overhead of the visitor center.

If the separate Jackson and Cashiers tourism arms were merged into a single countywide entity, the respective chambers of commerce would most likely continue getting their cut of the room tax money.

“There is no reason to think you wouldn’t continue to utilize the chambers to do those thing you have to do on the ground to distribute the brochures to answer the telephone to run the visitors bureau,” Wooten said. “Someone has to provide the services they currently provide, so my belief is the chambers would continue providing these services and receive support accordingly.”

Wooten said the county would like to see a formal contract outlining the arrangement with the chambers, however.

“There should be some kind of written understanding of what the expectations are in return for the funds provided,” Wooten said.

The Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority has not voted on a contract with the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce since 1987, Bumgarner said, despite the dollar amount awarded to the Cashiers Chamber increasing over the years.

If the plan goes through, the two tourism entities that oversee tourism tax dollars for their respective regions — the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority — would be dissolved and a single entity formed in its place.

Wooten has floated the idea of a nine-member countywide tourism board with cross-county representation.

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