Tourism and government bureaucracy

Recently I attended presentations by staff people employed by the New Hanover County (NC) Tourism Development Authority (TDA). During a two-hour self-promotional session they touted a “Marketing Plan” for the year ending June 2015. I noticed mostly women in the audience (and on staff), consistent with the statement on page 14 in the Plan: “The majority of Facebook fans continues to align with our target audience: women ages 35-44.” One female staffer said she stays busy “reaching out.”

The TDA operates with a bureaucracy called Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). The Authority has a 16-member “Board of Directors” including two paid county employees, the mayor of Wilmington (NC), the three beach town mayors, real estate people, a representative of the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, and hotel and restaurant operators. This nonelected group takes credit for all the tourist activity in the County.

The TDA and CVB mission presumptively “represents New Hanover County, North Carolina, in the solicitation and serving of all type of travelers to the area…bringing together the interests of government, trade and civic organizations, and individual ‘travel suppliers.’” I noted that nothing was mentioned about the “interests” of the tourists—the cash cows for all this hierarchy.

The Bureau employs 13 full-time and 16 part-time people operating in the County office building and four “Visitor Centers.” An “Organizational Chart” of the CVB shows the tourism Board over a President/CEO who oversees a dozen vice presidents, directors, managers, administrative assistants and “Specialists.” The insiders affectionately refer to the trumpeting of tourism as a “Destination Marketing Organization,” or “DMO.”

This gang gets the 6 percent room occupancy tax (appropriately identified by the acronym ROT)—confiscated from tourists—collected by business people in the County. They distribute the $9.4 million take: Wilmington Convention Center, 29 percent; beach erosion, 29 percent; beach towns, 24 percent; and 18 percent to the Bureau, according to a pie-chart in a 116-page “Marketing Plan” document.

The Plan includes a 2014/2015 Bureau budget of more than $4 million spent on “Marketing/Promotions…Administrative…Visitor-Inquiry Fulfillment…Convention Center Marketing” and beach town “Activities.”  The figures don’t add up because it appears that the Bureau actually spends more than 40 percent of the tax collected, but I probably missed something in this overblown, confusing report: most of it consists of “Reports & Analysis…Research, Trends & Issues…Product Overview…Marketing & Sales” and a three-page “Action Calendar.”

These people relish bureaucratic jargon: “Portal website traffic…search engine referrals…industry partners…referring domain…especials and qualified audience as registered users…cost per click…Content Management Systems…integration of ad positions…very qualified traffic…segmenting out the site to individual domain…campaigns have been steadily optimized and focused…opportunistic posts…maximize the ability of visitors and search engines to find content…high domain authority links,” and on ad nausea. Wading through the nonsensical verbiage and complexity in the report it’s clear that CV Bureau people want to compete with bigger fish—larger and higher taxed destinations such as Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Myrtle Beach with a population of nearly 290,000 has a $32 million tourism budget propped up by 12 percent room and 10.5 percent food taxes. New Hanover County has a resident population of 213,000 and a 6 percent room tax.  It figures that the Myrtle Beach tourism budget is 8 times more than the CVB budget.

It’s interesting that available rental room numbers listed for Wilmington and beaches in a recent “Destination Analysis Chart,” on page 30 of the CVB Marketing Plan, show more in this County (7844) than those available in Myrtle Beach (7805). Meanwhile, City of Wilmington officials have been desperately trying to subsidize more rooms. Does this make sense?

Charleston, S. C., another “Competitive Destination,” according to the CVB Plan, has a population (400,000) twice that of our entire County. It operates on an $11 million tourism budget—nearly 3 times larger than the CVB—with a 6 percent room tax similar to ours. In my opinion, Charleston has much more to offer tourists than does New Hanover County, N.C.

In fact, according to an “Activities” chart in the CVB Plan, 72 percent of overnight visitors come to coastal North Carolina for the “Beach.” And nearly one-third comes here “Visiting relatives”; 24 percent “Visiting friends”; and 28 percent come for “Shopping.”  These people probably have no need for a tourism bureau. But they’ll pay for it anyway; good and hard.

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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