In late June, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sought to blot the state’s growing red ink by removing $130 million from the budget. Included in that slice was nearly $1.2 million in funds earmarked for Connecticut’s three regional tourism districts.
Dan Bolognani, board chairman of the Western Connecticut Convention and Visitors Bureau in Litchfield, reacted to the news with agitation. The $420,000 allocated to the bureau from the state had evaporated, leaving it to operate on approximately $80,000 generated from donations and advertising on its website and “Unwind” brochure. The state cuts resulted in the layoff of the bureau’s four employees and a downsizing of its promotional outreach.
“We were certain that we would be in for additional cuts to our budget, just like every other state agency and program,” said Bolognani in a July 21 interview with the Fairfield County Business Journal. “But to wake up on July 1 and find out we were losing 100 percent of our budget … we just weren’t ready for that.”
Six months later, Bolognani is preparing to go to Hartford to get the bureau’s funding restored for the next fiscal year budget. “We have a 35-year history of doing a good job for regional tourism,” he said. “It was something of an anomaly that the budget zeroed us out. That never happened before.”
Bolognani, who also serves as executive director of the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, was uncertain if the budget cuts damaged the regional tourism industry, noting that data will not be available until the first quarter of 2017. “Anecdotally, we know that revenue per available rooms is up slightly, although it is certainly not showing robust growth,” he said. Still, “Not being able to have a bureau operating at full strength had a negative impact.”
The state’s budget cuts for tourism this year were not without precedent. State allocations for travel and tourism promotion have been on the decline for years.
“Spending on tourism was at $15 million when Malloy was first elected” in 2010, said Randy Fiveash, director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism in Hartford. “Now it is at $6.4 million. But according to the last report that came out in 2013, travel and tourism brought in $14 billion to the entire state, with Fairfield County making up 23 percent of that, the third strongest region behind the Mystic and Hartford regions. We are revenue generators. We shouldn’t be considered as debit. We put money into the checkbooks, so to speak.”
Fiveash aims at to get more funding restored to the state tourism office in the next legislative session. “We want to give the upcoming session a real good handle on what it has done,” he added.
Even if state funding is restored, the promotional channels used to draw travelers to Fairfield County’s attractions have become increasingly expensive. Fiveash noted that advertising in the New York television market became so costly that the state stopped running spots last year, while station-domination ads in Grand Central Station and Penn Station also had to be withdrawn due to their price. And very few individual attractions have the wherewithal to afford this type of marketing.
“Advertising on TV in New York is mighty expensive and we cannot afford to do that on our own,” said Dave Sigworth, publicist at The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, which draws many of its out-of-state visitors from the metro New York region. “The whole tourism industry is struggling right now because of cuts in the state budget. We lost that opportunity to have other agencies promote us as an institution and the county as a destination – and there is no agency in the county to handle that. It is a struggle for everyone.”
The aquarium, however, is managing to keep its head above water. Attendance from January through November totaled 446,082 visitors, a 4.8 percent year-over-year increase, and more visitors are anticipated in February when the institution’s IMAX theater offers the Connecticut debut of the educational feature film “Dream Big: Engineering Our World.” And Sigworth stressed that the legislature and the governor have not been completely indifferent to encouraging travel and tourism.
“The state did redo its tourism website, CTVisit.com, earlier this year, and it’s a positive thing,” he said. “And they continue to put efforts behind the website and digital efforts, which is helpful.”
Regarding the state’s tourism website, “We just surpassed four million visits,” said Fiveash. “Our numbers have gone through the roof.”
Yet in the absence of state promotional efforts, some municipalities are taking it upon themselves to attract more travelers and tourists.
“We launched our website, ExperienceFairfieldCT.org, in June to focus on the visitor experience,” said Mark Barnhart, director of economic development for the town of Fairfield. The website launch followed a year of planning with local nonprofits and businesses, he said. “We also developed hard-copy marketing, including a town map, which we published for the first time in a number of years. That is being distributed in almost 300 outlets in the New York metro area.”
In Norwalk, city government is also taking a more proactive approach in attracting visitors.
“In the spring, we developed a new brand called ‘Norwalk: The Sound of Connecticut,’” said Elizabeth Stocker, director of economic development. “We also have a new mobile app with six walking tours of Norwalk and we are working on a new wayfinding program to make our visitors more comfortable here when they come from the train stations and highway exits. We also created walking maps for both SoNo and the downtown and uptown areas.”
“This is something that we determined as an important economic development area, that we’d like to encourage visitors,” Stocker said. “Unfortunately, we cannot make up for what the state has done, but we are doing something on a smaller and more local scale.”