They are adjacent to each other, but how leaders in Warren and Washington counties handle tourism promotion could not be more different.
Warren County had a pot of $4.3 million to spend on promotion this year, money that comes in from a 4 percent “occupancy tax” on rooms at the hundreds of hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts around the county.
Washington County, conversely, has just a handful of motels and inns and measures its occupancy tax receipts in the thousands, not millions. So last year, the county spent $10,000 on tourism promotion as county supervisors worked to figure out how to best promote the county to visitors going forward.
The spending differences highlight the fact that how elected officials in municipalities choose to promote their areas to visitors varies greatly from county to county and region to region.
Warren County’s Tourism Department has come under fire in recent months from business owners, particularly hoteliers, who say occupancy has been dropping and tourism signs are troubling.
While occupancy tax and sales tax receipts have grown annually, they say that increase comes from higher rates on hotel rooms, not more people booking rooms.
The Warren County Lodging Association called earlier this year for a virtual disbanding of the county Tourism Department, with more funding from occupancy tax receipts instead put toward a revamping of the region’s conventions and visitors bureau (CVB), which is currently run through the Lake George Chamber of Commerce.
County supervisors opted not to take that drastic step this fall when putting together the 2018 budget, but instead agreed to give $125,000 in additional funding to the CVB, with county Tourism Department personnel providing more assistance to the CVB as it works to bring more groups to the region.
Business leaders’ proposal
A dozen or so of the Lake George region’s most influential hoteliers and lodgers have frequently been present for recent county Tourism Committee meetings and were part of a group that put out a report over the summer calling for major changes to how Warren County tourism promotion is done and how bed tax money is spent.
They have said Warren County’s system of funneling most of its occupancy tax money through a government-run agency is an anomaly in the region, and that most of the promotional decisions in counties like Saratoga, Essex, Hamilton and Albany are mainly made through non-governmental entities.
Frank Dittrich, a partner and manager of a number of Lake George properties who is spokesman for Warren County Lodging Association, said the organization is concerned that the region is falling behind other destinations in the Northeast in terms of visitor numbers and hotel stays.
He said the lodgers are concerned with the lack of metrics and lack of a plan to reverse the trend. Room occupancy is vital because it leads to more occupancy tax for promotion as well as spending and sales tax receipts at other businesses, he said.
Some have questioned whether the Tourism Department was producing the “bang for the buck” that the bed tax funding provides.
Dick Carlson, marketing director at The Georgian Resort in Lake George, said a review of his employer’s online referral data showed a 90 percent drop in referrals of potential guests from the county’s tourism website, visitlakegeorge.com, between 2014 and 2017.
“The last three seasons have seen a decline in the ‘relative search’ for Lake George and additional decline when compared relative to Lake Placid. In addition, many lodging websites have confirmed a profound steep decline in referrals from Warren County Tourism’s website and from ‘organic Google search,’ “ Carlson wrote. “Trends in search and trends in actual website visits for Lake George, NY accommodation properties are down for 2017 compared to 2016. Many metrics are down substantially, reflecting a grave concern for many digital marketing initiatives.”
Warren County has not been tracking the metrics or relying on a “fact-based” approach as other destinations do, and as the CVB pledges to do going forward, Dittrich said.
“We can’t just count on good weather,” he said. “Others are figuring out how to do it, and we need to, too.”
County tourism leaders have disputed some of the Lodging Association’s numbers, and also pointed out that the addition of numerous hotels along the Northway and the Marriott in Lake George, as well as the increased popularity of room and home-sharing businesses such as AirBNB, have undoubtedly hurt existing hotel receipts.
From 2013 through 2016, the STR (Smith Trend Report) shows year-to-date room sales are up 1.8 percent over 2016, county tourism Director Joanne Conley said.
For the same period, countywide sales tax revenue has increased 4.9 percent, occupancy tax collections have increased 12.5 percent and hotel forecaster Tourism Economics’ direct traveler spending has increased 7.7 percent, Conley pointed out.
“The health of the tourism industry in the Lake George area is strong and there is measurable growth across a number of industry segments to support this. If you look at a snapshot of the past four years, you can see that tourism indicators are showing sustained growth in Warren County,” Conley said.
While the lodgers have questioned how Warren County spends its money, an analysis of tourism promotion around the state found that there are varied approaches in different regions, with counties’ agencies and staffs involved to different degrees.
Jill Delaney, president and chief executive officer of the New York State Tourism Industry Association, said decisions on how to spend promotional funding are made in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is done regionally, as is the case in the Finger Lakes and Lake Placid area, using “destination marketing organizations” that draw funding from bed tax and/or municipalities, or by counties, towns, cities and villages individually.
“It’s done differently around the state,” she said.
Warren County has a nine-person Tourism Department and has put just over $2 million from occupancy tax receipts into its Tourism Department budget each of the past several years, $380,027 of which was put to salaries last year. The state provides some matching funds through the I Love New York promotional program which Delaney said is done when the state reviews local efforts to qualify for the funding.
Warren County’s Tourism Department continues to work closely with the Lake George Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau and Adirondack Regional Tourism Council, she said. Lake George Supervisor Dennis Dickinson, who chairs the county board’s Occupancy Tax Coordination Committee, has also taken steps to create an “advisory group” of business leaders to provide the county board with ideas on how to spend occupancy tax proceeds.
Conley said practices evolve within organizations depending on what works and what trends are being noted.
“What works well for us might not work best for somebody else,” Conley said. “It’s not boilerplate.”
Supervisors from neighboring Washington County are in the midst of reviewing “requests for proposal” from businesses that would contract with the county for tourism promotion.
Laura Oswald, Washington County’s director of economic development, said the county has tried a number of approaches to grow tourism over the years. But with little funding thanks to a lack of occupancy tax money, there is only so much that county leaders have been willing to spend to promote the county’s tourism offerings.
“We are very, very different from Warren County because we have no revenue,” Oswald said.
Saratoga County does not have a county-run tourism department, but the county’s law established a tourism “advisory” committee to guide occupancy tax spending.
In 2015, the county got state approval for a law change that allows for use of some of its occupancy tax receipts for “economic development” instead of just tourism promotion.
Essex County promotions are done in large part through the Lake Placid-based Regional Office of Sustained Tourism, (ROOST), which draws funding from Essex, Hamilton and Franklin counties. Those counties also promote themselves individually as well, though.
Delaney said debates in counties and regions over how best to spend promotional funding are not unusual.
“Warren County isn’t the first county to go through this, and it won’t be the last,” she said.
The Warren County Tourism Department has taken a number of steps to modernize its approach in recent years, using more social media interaction and cutting several “niche” print publications in favor of spending money on a more modern digital approach, Conley said.
The agency launched a new, more interactive and mobile device-friendly website earlier this year, which resulted in a spike in visits during the first few months it has been live, Conley said.
She said search engine data has showed that the new site has seen increased visits, compared to the old site.
“Our metrics show that user sessions for the first five months (of the new website) already outpace all of 2016,” Conley said.
The department’s leading social media platform, Facebook, is approaching a quarter-million followers who are truly engaged in the content shared, she said. The cost “is pennies on the dollar and generates highly coveted peer-to-peer recommendations,” she said.
By most indications, including water and sewer flow readings kept in the village of Lake George, the summer of 2017 was a strong one, Conley said.
For many of the lodgers, that has not resulted in growing business, however.
Carlson, from The Georgian, said he believes the county’s tourism leaders need to hold a “summit” to plot a course of action.
Dittrich said the county has the assets to significantly grow its visitor numbers, if marketing is done correctly. That means putting more money toward promotion, to compete with other destinations that spend markedly more already.
“The economic opportunity for the county is staggering,” he said.