With restoration of the state’s three regional tourism districts unlikely to be a high priority this year, the Connecticut Office of Tourism is in the midst of a “listening tour” to determine how it can help cities and towns in their outreach efforts to Nutmeg State visitors.
“We knew that with the defunding of the three tourism districts — Western (which includes Fairfield County), Central (Hartford/New Haven) and Eastern (Mystic/Quiet Corner) — we were facing a tough fiscal year, just as we did last year,” said Connecticut Office of Tourism Director Randy Fiveash. “We felt we needed to figure out some additional ways to make sure that the tourism industry and those individual entities within the state that were previously covered by the tourism districts were not left out in the cold.”
Fiveash and his staff began their own tours of the state in November, “and they’re still going on,” he said. “We want to go out and look at what people are needing and experiencing, what’s happening in the industry. Of course we’re in regular contact with the attractions, hotels, arts and culture organizations, but we felt it was also necessary to look at the situation from a grassroots standpoint.”
Initially 10 visits took place, including stops in Danbury and Norwalk, with new meetings and follow-ups now taking place with smaller groups.
The most immediate results can be seen with the state’s tourism website, CTvisit.com/. Where once that was mostly a depository of information about the state and its major attractions, municipalities can now have partner pages — essentially mini-websites —listing events, photos and other information designed to spread the reach of participating towns’ promotional efforts.
In addition, Fiveash said, “We are connecting with nontraditional constituents” such as chambers of commerce, government councils, business associations and art and culture organizations.”
“Many of these people and organizations didn’t even know about the website” prior to the listening tour, Fiveash said. “We had about 2,000 partners originally and now we have well over 4,100 partners.”
One of those groups was the Fairfield County Business Council. President and CEO Christopher Bruhl said the group regularly meets with Fiveash as a matter of course, but that in this instance the focus was on the Stamford area’s hotel business.
“My overall take was that with the budget challenges facing the state, it was inevitable that tourism would feel financial pressure as well,” Bruhl said. “It was not an industry that was singled out.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy rescinded funds to the three state tourism districts on July 1 last year. Fiveash confirmed his statement in December that state spending on tourism is about $6.4 million, while travel and tourism brought in $14 billion as of 2013, when the last report was made available.
Bruhl agreed that the listening tour had resulted in a greater awareness of CTvisit. “There’s a greater tying in now of attractions and those in the hospitality business to make sure their promotions, offers, calendars and the like are linked in,” he said. “I would expect to see even more progress in calendar 2017.”
He noted that many in Fairfield County are increasing their efforts at attracting New York City visitors. “In a couple of hours they can have a completely transformative experience, from an urban area to somewhere that’s more open but still has significant cultural offerings,” Bruhl said.
The necessity of the state tourism agency’s tour to promote an already-extant website is representative of something of a pattern, Bruhl added. “We do a good job of promoting ourselves outside of Connecticut, but within the state, marketing and promotion were not as aggressive as they could have been,” he said. “Sometimes we can’t tell our own story as well as we do our own story.”
As for whether any or all of the three regional tourism offices might be reopened, Fiveash said, “That’s up to the legislature and the governor.” He declined to comment on whether he hopes they will be reinstituted.
Dan Bolognani, board chairman of the Western Connecticut Convention and Visitors Bureau in Litchfield, had no such hesitation.
“We are asking our legislators to support the restoration of funding to the statutorily-created regional tourism bureaus,” he said. “At this stage, we’re simply asking them to author a bill to restore funding, with the intent to add details as the legislative session and committee work ramp up.”
Such an initial bill would be “meant to hold a place for the language that the final version will eventually be,” he said.
“I firmly believe that Connecticut has created an effective system of state and regional tourism professionals who work together to get the job done,” Bolognani added. “Every state in the union has some form of state-funded regional marketing entities that work hand-in-hand with partners. Now we just need to ask the legislature to restore what’s been lost so that 30-plus years of marketing infrastructure isn’t lost.”
Bolognani said he hoped to ascertain which legislators might be agreeable to such measures by the end of the month.