Mary Helen Sprecher 2015-11-03 02:46:05
Proving Economic Impact: Making the Case with Bryan College Station “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” The quote is attributed to Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture, and perhaps no one agrees with it more than the Bryan College Station Convention & Visitors Bureau. The CVB recently gained quite a bit of experience in explaining economic impact when local officials challenged the CVB not just to justify its budget request but its work as a whole. The experiences shared by Bryan College Station include an important lesson for everyone in the industry. It was back in mid-July that the CVB – which actually works with two entities, the City of Bryan and the city of College Station – was making its annual budget request to the College Station City Council. (Its budget request to Bryan is made separately.) The budget request to the College Station City Council included more than $2 million, some earmarked for operations and maintenance, some for its grant program, some for a new advertising campaign. The funding was to come out of the income that resulted annually from hotel occupancy taxes, also known as HOT taxes, paid at hotels and motels in Bryan and College Station. What Bryan College Station CVB hadn’t expected was a negative reaction from the College Station City Council in response to its request for funding. Among the objections raised: • People already come to this town without the CVB’s help • A new logo and branding message won’t put heads in beds • We don’t see an ROI • The CVB’s funding should be based on how many tourists it brings to town and how many are spending the night. According to an article in the Bryan College Station Eagle, one council member was blunt: “I have a hard time taking the money from the hotels and putting it toward something I don’t think is going to benefit them in the least. If we can’t come up with a more creative, definite way of seeing a return on our investment, I’d be up for cutting the [hotel] tax rate back to where it used to be before we started looking at a convention center, and letting the hotels keep that money.” Those were strong words, and might have sent any number of tourism officials into a tailspin. But it wasn’t that the questions raised were unreasonable, said Bryan College Station CVB’s Shannon Overby, CEO, and Kindra Fry, vice president of sales. It was simply that they were unexpected – particularly in light of the fact that no such objections had been raised in response to previous budget requests. But instead of going on the defensive, the CVB took an introspective approach. “What we decided to do was take a step back,” said Fry. “We wanted to figure it out: ‘Where’s the disconnect?’ We said, ‘Maybe we’re not communicating our message correctly. Maybe we aren’t sharing our story about what we do, the way we should.’” At the time of its budget request, the CVB had partnered with the City of College Station Parks and Recreation staff in order to craft successful bids to host, among others, the 2018-19 Texas Amateur Athletic Federation state games, a 2016 American Softball Association National Championship and the 2016 U.S. Youth Soccer Region III Presidents Cup. As it turned out, though, that information was not being relayed. To those who were not familiar with the business relationship between the CVB and the parks and rec department, for example, it might have seemed the CVB was not involved with the recruitment and bid process at all. And therefore, clarification was needed to illustrate how the organizations worked together in order to attract rights holders and event owners, and convince them to choose Bryan College Station for their events. “I’ve always said we’ve done a good job of doing our job, but not of telling the community and our local partners what it is we’re doing and why – that was the part we needed to pull together,” said Overby. The CVB called upon a liaison it had used previously. The liaison sat down with the city council to discuss its objections, and then came back to the CVB to discuss specific materials Bryan College Station needed to provide in order to validate its request. “In some cases, we had already provided the information but it was not laid out in a way that the council found useful,” said Fry. “So it became a case of finding out exactly what they wanted to see, and then providing it to them the way they wanted.” Unfortunately, the local press had picked up on the story, compounding the problem by reporting on the amount requested and what it perceived as an inability to justify that request. “It was a media storm,” said Overby, who noted that she refused to make comments to reporters on the developing issue. “I opted to be silent most of the time, and I was positive when I was asked to say something. The one thing I did not give them was a rebuttal to anything that was being said.” Instead, the CVB was gathering all its materials and preparing to present its case. Fry and Overby are both strong proponents of using all the measurable professional instruments available in order to demonstrate the positive economic impact tourism has on the community, and they employed this data to help answer the College Station City Council’s questions. “Destination Marketing Association Internationa (DMAI) has done a phenomenal job with its materials,” said Fry. “Their event impact calculator is the industry standard and they have so many other tools available as well.” Ultimately, funding was approved – although the council still had plenty of questions before it gave its final word. But that, say both Overby and Fry, is the responsibility of the council – to make sure the money it invests is well-used. And now, looking at the whole event in the rear-view mirror, Bryan College Station’s Overby and Fry can say it was a valuable learning experience. “The silver lining in all this is that it taught us as an organization to be more prepared,” said Overby. “We don’t just say ‘Here’s the amount we need and here’s why.’ We are more prepared with the facts and numbers and with the measurable metrics.” And, said Fry, she has discovered that objections to budget requests are not a unique situation in the industry. “It’s going on everywhere. Every meeting I attend for NASC, I hear someone telling me it happened to them. We tell our counterparts across the United States, ‘Here’s what we did and here’s what we used. Go to DMAI, go to NASC, get all the tools in place. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Utilize your counterparts and latch onto their best practices. You want people to learn from what you went through, and you can learn from them.’” “I would say I’m stronger as a leader and our organization is stronger as a result of what we went through,” said Overby. “But it was no fun going through it.” LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP: Key Takeaways from Bryan College Station If questioned about the impact your organization is having... • Stay calm. “Don’t have the knee-jerk reaction,” says Kindra Fry. • Try looking at the situation through different eyes; Bryan College Station used a contact who could talk to the city council and find out what information was needed. • Be proactive rather than reactive: Work toward a solution rather than being defensive. • Keep media contact positive and upbeat; don’t engage in arguments in the press. • Have measurable data; economic impact calculators and other materials used by the industry have credence that is lacking in simple estimates and participation figures. • Keep the lines of communication open: Bryan College Station CVB is making itself readily available to the city councils throughout the year, and is providing information on an ongoing basis. • Don’t lose the lesson: Share it with others.
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