A series of “insulting” emails to Warren County tourism leaders about the direction of the county’s tourism promotion efforts prompted some ugly exchanges Monday after a town supervisor pointed out growing revenue trends.
Lake Luzerne Supervisor Gene Merlino, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors Tourism Committee, released a breakdown of tax receipts that showed a 28 percent increase in bed tax receipts and 19 percent growth in sales tax over the past 7 years, while the county Tourism Department budget — paid for completely through occupancy tax — has grown by about 7 percent over the same period.
Growing tax receipts that are based on lodging and sales show that revenue to businesses has clearly grown, Merlino said. Occupancy tax collections come from a 4 percent tax charged on hotel, motel and bed-and-breakfast rooms.
Merlino prepared the breakdown amid a debate among county supervisors and local private sector tourism leaders over how well tourism has been in the county, after a lodging report to which the Tourism Department subscribes showed local lodging trailing behind other markets in the Northeast, such as Atlantic City, the Poconos of Pennsylvania and the Lake Placid area.
He said the survey, known as Smith Travel Report, doesn’t compare “apples to apples,” only surveys about 30 percent of the properties in Warren County and doesn’t include campgrounds, RV parks, private home rentals and other places people stay.
“I get tired of seeing these emails, ‘The sky is falling,’ “ he said at Monday’s Tourism Committee meeting. “I just can’t take ‘The sky is falling’ anymore.”
Merlino termed some of the email criticism he had seen “insulting” and “garbage.” He would not say who they were from, but said they came from business owners and some in the public sector.
Peter Girard, creative director for the Tourism Department, also took exception to the criticism during Monday’s meeting, defending his agency’s promotion work.
“The Tourism Department is solid, okay?” Girard said.
His comments at the meeting prompted some testy responses from some of the tourism industry leaders who attended the meeting, including a claim by one that Merlino’s accusations were “pretty low.”
County tourism leaders have involved more members of the Warren County Lodging Association, a group of hoteliers and lodgers, in the promotion process in recent years, forming an advisory committee of public and private leaders to give input.
Many of the major players in the association were present for Monday’s discussion, and all who spoke reiterated their contention that occupancy tax receipts have gone up because room rates have gone up, not because occupancy has gone up.
Salim Amersi, owner of The Surfside Resort in the village of Lake George, said his occupancy rates have not risen above 66 percent at his business despite a $10 million investment to overhaul 50 rooms.
“My occupancy for 3 years has been stagnant,” he said.
“We have found that occupancy is not elevating at the same rate the occupancy tax is,” said Tom Guay, general manager of The Sagamore resort.
Kevin Markham, general manager of the Ramada Inn in Queensbury, said the challenge is building year-round occupancy. He said many raised rates because lodgers in the Saratoga Springs area did, and occupancy has not risen in recent years.
“The summer takes care of itself,” Markham said.
Frank Dittrich, a part-owner of a number of hotels and inns around Lake George, said the lodging association was not looking for conflict, but simply wanted to grow the local economy.
“We’re not here to be adversarial,” he said.