2019 was a tough year for organizations promoting tourism. Elected officials tried to pull funding for Visit Florida—a state that collects more than $80 billion each year in tourism spending. Mexico Tourism Board closed altogether. Pure Michigan’s budget was cut to zero when caught in a political battle between the legislature and governor. Even Brand USA, the national tourism promoter, faced a contentious political debate about funding its outreach efforts. What does the constant struggle for budget by destinations mean for meeting professionals who rely on their services?
It is a big loss, says Jack Johnson, chief advocacy officer with Destinations International. “The health of destination organizations is critical to the health of an event,” he says.
A Double-Edged Sword
Johnson calls the leveraging of conferences to influence public policy the “weaponization of tourism.” It isn’t helping anyone, he says, pointing to the disruption a travel ban can impose on an event.
John Lambeth, president and CEO of Civitas and an attorney who specializes in setting up tourism improvement districts, quotes statistics showing that travelers contributed almost $1.1 trillion in gross domestic product in 2018 and employed 5.29 million people. Those are jobs that can’t be offshored. It is also a sector that is growing faster than any other in the United States.
Historically, most funding for organizations that support tourism has come from discretionary grants. Even when tax dollars have been specifically approved for tourism purposes, cities often get creative by saying that tourists need police or clean streets and shift funds to those areas. “While that may be true at a philosophical level, it doesn’t support the meetings outreach or other investment activities that CVBs were created to provide,” Lambeth says.
A Need for Certainty
Johnson warns that the yearly existential struggle to win political blessings all over again is bad news for events. “Meetings are planned years in advance, so we need long-term authorization that will give planners the certainty that we will be there to fulfill when the event occurs,” he says.
Building new meetings infrastructure has long lead times, too. Before they can commit, investors financing construction of large hotel projects need to know what outreach they can expect over the course of the operation of the building. “If a destination has to wait until the city or state passes their budget, a third of the year could be gone before they know what they can commit to supporting,” Johnson says.
The possibility of a sudden loss of funding can even make it difficult for organizations to keep top team members and senior staff.
Lambeth cautioned that the struggle will probably only get worse when there is an economic downturn—because many cities will prioritize unfunded pension obligations. “It is critically important that the industry look for stable, reliable resources not subject to shifting political winds,” he says. “Travel isn’t a ‘want to have.’ It is a must-have for the health of the community.”
What Can Planners Do?
Lambeth advises focusing on the win-win of tourism. In addition to the economic benefit, resources put in place for conferences, including venues and attractions, benefit all residents of a city. “Let’s talk about and demonstrate our shared community values,” he says. “What is good for conferences is also good for residents.” Studies show that after meeting attendees discover destinations, they often come back with their families to visit—and sometimes buy a home or bring businesses to the area.
When planners share information about their program with the CVB, those are tools the destination can use in the future. Conversely, destinations often have statistics about the economic and social impact of meetings in their area that can help planners sell and evaluate an event with their executive leadership.
A Planner’s BFF
CVBs can be valuable partners to meeting professionals. Let’s count the ways a well-funded CVB helps meeting professionals deliver better programs.
- Connection and coordination to local resources (speakers, celebrities, experiences) for a more authentic experience
- Info about the destination, facilities, attractions and infrastructure
- Promotion of the destination to increase attendance
- Cost offsets and discounts, where applicable
- Personnel to work at the event
- Relationship with local charities to develop meaningful CSR programs