The 2018 Connecticut Governor’s Conference on Tourism, held May 9 in Hartford, was “really great,” according to Randy Fiveash, director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism (COT). “We had attendance in the low 400s from the travel and tourism industry from all over the state, including a good-sized contingent from Fairfield County,” Fiveash said.
A day later, the state legislature finalized its $20.86 billion budget – which included slashing the COT’s budget from $6.4 million to $4.1 million.
“It means we need to focus on the most effective and efficient ways to maximize the reach of our message,” Fiveash said. “We’re evaluating all of our strategies to ensure that we can remain successful, and to work with the money we have in the most effective ways we can.”
That Gov. Dannel Malloy used his remarks at the May 9 conference to question whether members of the legislature or the gubernatorial candidates from both parties fully understand the importance of the tourism industry was another sign, Fiveash said, that he’s “been a great tourism supporter and a great tourism governor.”
Indeed, Malloy’s own budget proposal included $8.3 million for tourism. He signed the legislature’s budget on May 15.
Fiveash and the department have become used to operating under a yoyoing budget, arguing that any figure is preferable to the $0 it received in 2011 — though $4.1 million is of course a far cry from its most recent high, 2012’s $15 million.
In any case, Fiveash said that the state’s tourism industry is thriving. Although its most recent data — stating that tourism contributed $14.7 billion to the state’s bottom line — is from 2015, the COT is in the process of compiling its biennial figures. “We believe the number will go up some, although we can’t say by how much as we haven’t completed the work yet,” Fiveash said. “We know that it’s not going to go down.”
He estimated that the hotel occupancy rate in 2017 was up by only about 1 percent, and has essentially remained flat at about 61 percent since 2015. Lodging tax revenue, however, increased from $112.9 million in 2016 to $116 million last year, according to the Department of Revenue Services.
“That proves that tourism is a revenue generator, not a debit,” Fiveash declared. “The tourism industry can help to balance the (state) budget as a tax-revenue generator.”
Even so, the industry faces some heavy going moving forward. Fiveash said that due to the budget cuts, the department is doing no television advertising at all within the state’s borders, although it is still running ads in the Boston, New York City and New Jersey markets.
As part of the Discover New England tourism consortium, of which Fiveash is chairman of the board, Connecticut is able to reap some benefits on a regional basis. According to that group, overseas visitors to New England have increased by 25 percent to 2.2 million people since 2012, spending $2.1 billion in the region during that same period.
Fiveash said that Aer Lingus, which began offering year-round flights between Bradley International Airport and Dublin Airport in late 2016, has been a particularly valuable partner of the department, developing joint marketing ventures; the airline was also one of the gold sponsors at the May 9 conference.
Asked about the potential impact upon Connecticut tourism of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing state-authorized betting on professional and college sports, Fiveash said he’d prefer to wait to see what the Connecticut legislature does before venturing an opinion.
Likewise, he declined to speculate on what impact a casino in Bridgeport could have, though he voiced approval for the East Windsor casino that has been proposed by Mashantucket Mohegan Connecticut Venture joint venture between the tribes that operate the state’s two existing casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.
“We’re excited about what they’re doing there,” Fiveash said. “We have a great partnership with them.” Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun were platinum sponsors at the May 9 event.
As for the potential impact of rising gas prices this summer, Fiveash said it could actually be a net plus for Connecticut, as motorists who might otherwise choose a vacation spot outside the state could end up taking in Nutmeg State attractions instead.
He also expressed enthusiasm for “Connecticut Open House Day,” which his department is sponsoring on June 9. The event features free or discounted admission to a number of attractions around the state.