CVB wrestling with less state aid, declining hotel tax
CHARLES TOWN – The new head of the county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau told the Jefferson County Commission that potential cuts to grant programs the agency relies on could affect its new strategy for marketing the county.
Visitors’ bureau CEO Annette Gavin said Jefferson County’s wide diversity of tourist destinations and activities are tremendous assets but are difficult to market in a simple, unified fashion.
[cleeng_content id="454856831" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]“We understand that this county has so much to offer,” Gavin said. “It is really hard to brand it. It is really hard to send one clear message.”
Gavin said it is necessary that the CVB develop a “clear message” before it begins spending money on marketing.
The outlines of that message are becoming clearer, she said. The CVB has so far developed two tag lines that they hope will be effective for marketing the county’s assets: “Washington’s Playground” and “Escape the Rush Hour, Discover the Rush.”
Gavin said the CVB has been good stewards of the county’s money having only spent
$25,000 as a deposit to Nashville, Tenn.-based web and social marketing agency, Paramore, to begin improving the agency’s website and social media exposure. The Commission awarded the CVB $150,000 last year.
“[Paramore is] going to take our website and make it great and beautiful. We have hired a photographer and we are going to get some wonderful pictures,” Gavin said. “But the website is only as good as the number of people you drive to it. And the true way you can do that right now is through social media.”
Gavin said the CVB is hoping to transition away from print advertising toward a greater focus on digital advertising.
But Gavin told the commission the CVB’s efforts face two serious challenges: declining hotel occupancy and potential cuts to state’s programs that help them leverage hotel/motel tax revenue.
“The CVB is funded by hotel/motel tax. We have always been able to leverage those dollars with the MAPP program,” Gavin said in a later interview. “I think it is no secret [hotel/motel occupancy] numbers are down across the board in a lot of counties similar to ours and a lot of destinations similar to ours. We need to combat it.”
MAPP stands for Matching Advertising Partnership Program, a state Department of Commerce program that provides grant funding for state and local promotional advertising.
“The MAPP program is in trouble,” Gavin said. “I think that it is important that not only the state understand how cuts to this program would be detrimental to this county, but that all of our county officials and our senators and delegates understand it.”
The MAPP program was originally structured as a 50/50 matching grant program, meaning that for every dollar of hotel/motel tax revenue the CVB received, it could apply for another dollar of state funds. The program has since been cut to a 60/40 match, and Gavin worries further cuts may be in the offing.
Rebalancing the matching ratio has the effect of creating much larger reductions in the grant funding than may be readily apparent.
Shifting from a 50/50 match to a 60/40 match — the change which has already happened — amounts to reducing the matching grant funds by a third. Shifting to a 70/30 match, which Gavin worries state officials may be contemplating, would amount to another reduction of more than a third.
“We are not able to leverage the dollars that we are taking in with hotel/motel tax the same way that we used to,” she said. “So, at a time when competition is tougher – we have a lot more competition in the area, especially Maryland Live! – we’re now not having the same funding that we used to have to be able to market the area. So it is kind of a double-edged sword.
“Jefferson is the leader in tourism in the state, and it is also the leader in generating video lottery dollars. And so it is kind of taking money out of us when we are looking for more funding to market ourselves.”
Gavin expects the new rules to be announced within the next several weeks.
Commissioner Walt Pellish was effusive in his praise for the efforts of the CVB to promote tourism in the county.
“This county has a very, very bright future in front of it, but the only way it’s going to get to live that future is by generating new revenue,” he said. “In the past weeks, you’ve heard and read a lot about budget shortfalls, cash flow issues, etc. There are only two ways to resolve those problems. One way is you increase revenues by taxing your current tax base more. [The other way is] generating new revenue.
“Your efforts, and the efforts by the economic development authority, are the solution to the problem. Whatever you accomplish in partnership with Mr. Reisenweber is what brings in a broader revenue base and broader revenues. You’re the answer to the future, and I have the utmost in confidence in what you are doing.”