When budgeting, note the return on investment of tourism marketing

In these tumultuous economic and politicized times, it is important that we look beyond the rhetoric that, on its face, may make sense but, in reality, debilitates our state and local economies.
Few on either side of the aisle disagree that tourism is a bright spot in an otherwise struggling economy. On the state level, visitors create a $4.5 billion economic impact each year that supports 46,000 jobs and brings in nearly $530 million in state and local taxes. But tourism is not a field of dreams: If you build it, they will come.

Critical to the economic success of tourism and the state economy as a whole is marketing — getting the word to potential tourists and companies about what West Virginia has to offer.

While everyone is in awe, but perhaps weary, of hearing about the success of Pure Michigan, there are striking similarities.

Before the Pure Michigan campaign was hatched, Michigan suffered the lowest hotel occupancy rates in the country. Like the current West Virginia economy, Michigan's industrial base was eroding in the mid-2000s. Also, while those of us fortunate enough to live in the beauty and excitement of West Virginia know about our tourism offerings, the fact is there is low awareness among those out of state — not dissimilar to the Michigan situation in the last decade.

Michigan's Division of Tourism had suffered continued cuts — from $8 million to $5.7 million. The tourism industry lobbied for and won considerable attention, and Michigan's tourism budget began to recover.

After the first return-on-investment study, it was apparent that investment in tourism marketing was working. The public-private partnership of government and the private sector was truly an investment that paid off in successful businesses with more customers and an increased tax base.

The Pure Michigan campaign and funding model started under a Democratic governor and was so successful her successor — a Republican — called for consistent tourism funding of $25 million per year. Michigan now funds tourism at $38 million that is leveraged with the private sector.

As the marketing increased, Michigan began to see tourists from Texas, the southeast, California and, to their surprise, New York.

New York visitors began what became a boom in vacation homes — cheaper than what they could afford in the Hamptons, yet more enjoyable.

Most remarkably, a more recent study of the impact of Pure Michigan's national campaign by Longwoods International revealed the 'halo effect.' The campaign had caused incredible growth in the general public's and business community's positive perception of Michigan for reasons beyond only tourism. The campaign incited increased positive reactions that Michigan was a good place to live, start a career, attend college, retire, buy a vacation home or start a business.

I am gratified that we in Charleston are investing in our future economy. Between 2013 and 2018, we will have seen more than $200 million in tourism infrastructure improvements. Investment in both the private and public sectors has meant new and improved hotels, improvements in public facilities, new business openings and, not the least of which, an expanded and dramatically improved convention center.

Thanks to a visionary mayor and supportive city council and citizenry, we are poised to attract more people to stay longer and spend more money in Charleston.

We also recognize, it is not only 'If you build it, they will come.' Rather, it is 'If you build it, you must tell them about it.'

The Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau, which derives its operating and marketing budget from a portion of the lodging tax imposed on visitors staying in our hotels, works closely with the West Virginia Division of Tourism. Our long-standing partnership and the Division's matching investment in our marketing and advertising activities have meant that Charleston and West Virginia have an increased voice in a very busy marketplace.

I am elated that the governor proposed and the West Virginia Legislature agreed to restructure the West Virginia tourism office to reflect the Pure Michigan model. This new structure will provide a more consistent and powerful message for the state and the many localities that will leverage dollars in a more efficient and effective manner to reach visitors in a much bigger arena.

Now is not the time to reduce tourism and economic development marketing. While on its face it appears as just another government efficiency cut, in reality it is a cut to bringing in more visitors and more businesses to the Mountain State. Business-incentive agencies need the tools in the tool box if we are going to see high returns on our tax base.

As the former head of Virginia Tourism Corporation, I saw firsthand what increased marketing for tourism, film, economic development and historic tax credits did for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Now is the time for lawmakers to be courageous and let us tell our story. Differentiate between blanket government cuts and support for the very agencies that can help build our tax base and our economy.

I urge everyone to support the governor's proposals for marketing. If we tell them, they will come.

Alisa L. Bailey is president and CEO of the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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