Tourism addressed at board meeting
Tourism was a lengthy topic of discussion at a recent regular meeting of the Union County Board of Commissioners.
The meeting was Friday morning, March 24, at the Union County Courthouse in Jonesboro.
Representatives of the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau were on hand to share an annual report with county officials.
A local winery and lodging business operator also attended the meeting and presented his thoughts on the marketing of Union County.
Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau representatives who attended the meeting were Cindy Cain and Carol Hoffman. Cain is the bureau’s executive director. Hoffman is marketing director of the bureau. Tourism bureau board member Jim Goddard of Union County also was in attendance.
Cain and Hoffman highlighted the tourism bureau’s activities. Issues which had surfaced at recent county board meetings also were addressed.
The issues had been raised by local bed and breakfast operator Andrea Dahmer and included concerns about tourism bureau revenue and spending. Dahmer formerly served on the bureau’s board.
Cain addressed Dahmer’s post on the board during the March 24 meeting. Cain said that a perception of Dahmer having been “kicked off” the tourism bureau board was “inaccurate.”
Cain said that Dahmer had filled a three-year term on the board. At the time when the term expired, the vacancy was filled by a representative of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, which had requested such an appointment.
Cain and Hoffman shared a wide range of information about the work being done by the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau. The impact of tourism on Union County’s economy also was highlighted.
“Tourism plays a vital role in Union County’s economy,” Cain shared in printed material which was included in informational packets which were shared with county officials.
“Tourism is big business in Union County,” Cain stated later in her presentation. She presented numbers which back up that assessment.
“According to the Domestic Travel Impact on Illinois Study, Union County generated $10.6 million in tourism expenditures in 2015, an increase of 1.4 percent from 2014,” Cain shared. The 2015 numbers are the most recent ones which are available.
Tourism expenditures in the county in 2015 “supported over $1 million in payroll for tourism related jobs. The state tax collected from tourism revenue was $730,000 and local tax receipts totaled $290,000.”
Tourism promotion is funded by both a state and local tax that overnight guests pay as part of their total bill, whether they are spending a night in a cabin, bed and breakfast or hotel/motel.
The county anticipates the tax to generate a fiscal year total of about $100,000 to $110,000.
The county board recently appointed a tourism advisory board which reviews requests for allocation of the funding. The board makes recommendations to the county commissioners regarding allocation of the funds.
A portion of the state tax which is collected is earmarked to fund local tourism promotion in the form of a grant to the local tourism bureau – the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau serves Union County. The bureau also serves Alexander, Gallatin, Hardin, Jackson, Johnson, Massac, Pope, Pulaski and Saline counties in Southern Illinois.
Cain explained that the remainder of the taxes which are collected go into the state’s general revenue fund, which pays for education and other state programs and services.
The local tax receipts are utilized by both the tourism bureau and the county’s tourism efforts for marketing the area and luring out-of-town visitors, who spend money in area businesses.
Cain explained that the tourism bureau focuses its efforts in a multitude of marketing areas to attract both leisure and group travelers. Websites, digital and social media, print, videos and exhibits at consumer shows are among the tools which are utilized.
Cain noted that the Shawnee National Forest and the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail are the tourism bureau’s “stronger destination drivers.”
She said the tourism bureau also provides technical assistance for event organizers and owners of lodging and tourism related businesses, as well as local attractions.
Cain’s presentation highlighted Union County’s “many fantastic festivals and events.” Upcoming events also were noted, including State of Illinois and Union County bicentennial celebrations in 2017-2018 and a total solar eclipse on Aug. 21.
The eclipse is expected to bring thousands of visitors to Union County and the rest of Southern Illinois. The region is located along the central path of the eclipse.
Cain concluded her presentation by noting that tourism products and services exemplify and underscore the importance of family-owned businesses to the economies of the county, the state and the nation.
“The return on investment for tourism is more than money in the bank,” Cain continued.
“The quality of life for local residents is greatly enhanced by tourism marketing and development. It’s entrepreneurial spirit at its best; it is capital investment and taxes, preservation, revitalization and sharing our sense of place with others. It’s about opening our door and letting others learn what makes us...us.”
Cain said the tourism bureau appreciates the support it receives from Union County. She said the bureau also welcomes input and change.
The agenda for the March 24 county board of commissioners meeting also included a presentation by J.P. Russell from Rustle Hill Winery near Cobden. The winery also offers lodging accommodations.
Russell suggested that the tourism’s bureau’s efforts have not been completely successful in terms of the number of people who utilize local accommodations – in putting “heads in beds.”
Russell said that there were 45 places in Union County which pay the hotel/motel tax that generates funding to boost marketing efforts. He presented a map showing the locations of the 45 places.
He also shared a document with county officials which outlined proposals for the marketing of Union County tourism, which he shared at the meeting.
The document noted that the “single purpose” of the county’s hotel/motel tax is to expend funds to attract nonresident overnight visitors to Union County by promoting tourism.
Information presented in the document shared that lodging businesses in the county had been asked about their 2016 occupancy rates. Four of the top five tax payers responded with rates of 50 percent, 34 percent, 89 percent and 28 percent.
“If you take out the 89 percent (it’s a special case), this data – and companion anecdotal evidence – leads to this conclusion: It’s well within reason to assume that the lodging business in Union County could grow 100 percent,” Russell shared.
“The goal for the county should be to double the lodging tax revenue to $200,000 a year,” he continued.
“How does the county accomplish that goal? By spending the existing tax revenue in a way that helps the county hotels, cabins and B&Bs double their occupancy.”
Russell stated that “historically, Union County has used surrogates to do its marketing and promotion.” Those surrogates, he said, include the tourism bureau, the wine trail, the wine trail’s lodging association and the Southern Illinois Cabins Association.
He stated that the “primary recipient of the hotel tax revenue” has been the tourism bureau. The “assumption,” he stated, has been that the tourism bureau “was the natural and best choice for marketing Union County.”
“It has been proposed that this assumption is incorrect,” he continued. “There are better ways to spend the Union County tourism money.”
Russell proposed a one-year marketing plan as a way to increase “heads in beds” and to “directly benefit the businesses of Union County.”
His proposal includes:
•The hiring of a director of Union County marketing, “tasked with implementing the singular hotel tax objective.”
•”Every dollar the county spends should first be multiplied by any available tourism grants programs. In the past, this could have increased the available marketing budget by 50 percent.”
•”Build a ‘county wide’ web presence.” He noted that “in today’s internet world, the primary means for increasing heads in beds is a superior online and social media presence.”
•”Hire a webmaster to build, host and maintain a Union County web site.” The site would highlight lodging, restaurants, attractions and other information about the county.
Russell shared other proposals which would be designed to boost the number of “heads in beds.”