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Thursday, March 31, 2016 12:21 am

If you don’t market it, will they come?

A new study promotes tourism promotion

Photo by Alan Solomon/Tribune News Service
You wouldn’t think that a town that boasts the burial place and the only adult home of a man famed around the world as not only America’s greatest president but America’s greatest citizen, a town furthermore that is just down the road from the reconstructed village where that man spent his young adulthood, would need to promote tourism. Yet every season we hear that the health of the capital city’s hospitality industry, indeed that of the metropolitan economy as a whole, is only one ill-conceived TV ad campaign, one mis-timed brochure distribution, one five-cent rise in the price of gasoline away from collapse.

Or one dysfunctional state government administration. The Illinois Council of Convention and Visitors Bureaus hired a consultant to analyze state of Illinois tourism promotion funding to learn how cuts to that funding might affect state and local economies. Assuming that the tourism study’s estimates of harm are accurate – and how could a study of the economic impact of tourism marketing commissioned by tourism marketers possibly exaggerate the impact of tourism marketing? – cutting just 20 percent from the $63.8 million spent on tourism marketing in fiscal 2014 would have cost the state over the ensuing four years $2.3 billion not spent by visitors, 4,600 jobs not needed and nearly $200 million in state and local taxes unpaid. The 12-county area centered on Springfield would lose $63 million in visitor spending over the four years beginning in 2017, or roughly $16 million per year.

We’re doomed! Doomed, I tell you! Or maybe not. Metropolitan Springfield sees a lot of tourist spending, obviously, but the city is hardly reliant on a robust tourism “industry,” as city officials have insisted for years. The Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Commerce Department estimated the gross domestic product for metropolitan Springfield in 2014 was $9,892,000,000. Say that a 20 percent cut in promotion spending by the state results in a loss of $12 million in annual tourism income just in Springfield and New Salem. The local economy would indeed take a hit – one 824th’s worth.

I spend that much every year at Cafe Andiamo.

Now, I don’t question the need for some spending on promotion. Apparently people planning trips heard that the museum in Springfield had been closed, and assumed that the reports referred to the Lincoln Presidential museum. This is not a new problem. In 1930, the state remodeled the Lincolns’ tomb. The tomb was not closed during the work, but news reports of the project led a lot of people to assume it was, and visits to the site dropped some 20,000 in a year in which visits to other area sites went up.

You have to bang the drum pretty loudly to get through to a public whose knowledge of the world is based almost wholly on half-heard TV items or half-understood headlines. That prompted local tourism promoters to boost media buys in St. Louis and Chicago, among other places, explaining that the Lincoln museum is open. This response seems to lack imagination. The way to combat misinformation, as our political candidates are reminding us this year, is to put out more and better misinformation. Why not run TV ads saying that Indiana and Missouri and Wisconsin are closed?

So, no argument about whether to spend money marketing local tourism. But who ought to spend it? I’m persuaded that it makes sense for the state of Illinois to publicize its own historic and cultural sites, indeed to create and maintain such sites for educational purposes, but it seems to me that general tourism marketing ought to be funded by the hospitality industry through hotel and restaurant associations.

Tourism marketing is only one of the economic development programs with no clear economic rationale that exist only because of special interest pleading. The governor says that such spending creates jobs. So do payments to retirees and public employees who spend the money at their local shops. The difference is that subsidizing business benefits his constituency while subsidizing pensioners benefits someone else’s.

The authors of the aforementioned study assert, “Destination promotion supports the visitor economy, but it also acts as a catalyst of broader economic development.” I suggest that broader economic development also acts as a catalyst of promotion. Anyone who has traveled by car outside Illinois knows how poorly this state provides for the traveler. Why not take tourism marketing money and spend it instead to enhance the visitor experience by, for example, building more and better interstate rest stops? Better by far to have visitors going back home talking about how nice their trip was than talking about how polished the promotions were.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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