Tourism Groups Retaining Autonomy

December 29, 2003

By Joy Fox

With the removal of the word “consolidated,” the state’s economic development director officially endorsed a tourism report supporting the creation of a central tourism organization.

The slight adjustment in the Rhode Island Tourism Development Advisory Council report will preserve the state’s five tourism councils, along with the Providence and Newport convention and visitors bureaus. The report originally called for the entities to be merged into a yet-to-be-created central organization in an effort to coordinate marketing efforts and eliminate administrative redundancies.

On Dec. 17, after a few brief opening remarks praising the work of the hospitality industry, Michael McMahon, director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, told the council members he could not support the dissolution of the regional groups. He then requested that the council delete the consolidation recommendation.

Early last summer, Gov. Don Carcieri created the council to, among other things, “develop a strategic plan for marketing and promoting tourism … through a more effective coordination and collaboration of the regional tourism districts, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation and other tourism-related organizations and agencies.”

It also stated the “council should collaborate with the regional tourism districts” to promote the Rhode Island Convention Center, airport and the state’s tourism growth.

The tourism/hospitality industry is the second largest in the state. McMahon said the industry’s future fits into the governor’s economic-development policy of 20,000 quality jobs, enriching the community and sustaining quality of place.

“The tourism sector provides a path for economic security and that’s what we need more of,” he said. “You are one of the best paths to get up the ladder.” He also noted that the industry “stands out” when it comes to giving back to the community. And, he concluded, the industry helps reinforce quality of place because it is one of the ways it continues to succeed.

J. Rudi Heater, director of hotel operations for Carpionato Properties, asked at the meeting if there was EDC support for the report’s proposed accounting and oversight mechanisms. Having accountability, he continued, would ensure that state funding was being used appropriately.

“Absolutely, I do endorse (accounting/accountability),” said McMahon. “Everyone agrees that there is a need for accountability.”

How that mechanism is created, however, is still up for discussion.

In the coming months, the EDC, along with regional and industry leaders, will work together to develop legislation creating the central public/private organization.

Once created, said McMahon, “it will be up to the organization to take ownership over time and (develop ideas) on accountability, co-branding and product development.” After the right legislation is in place and there is cooperation, then everyone can start “growing the pot” for tourism, he said.

He also called on the industry leaders and the regions to “stop throwing bricks over the numbers,” at the meeting.

Leading up to the Dec. 17 meeting, the council and regions were at odds over how regional finances were depicted in the report. Specifically there was concern over the placement of sales and marketing personnel expenses.

The final report showed salespeople on the administration side, an inaccuracy according to the regions and some council members.

McMahon has continually advocated for analyzing how to take the resources that are available and expand them in a positive way rather than getting hung up on marketing accounting. Now with the appropriate changes approved, keeping the regions in tact, it is important to gain their trust and commitment, according to McMahon.

“We need to get the regions to be comfortable,” he said.

“We are not going to be taking away their funding but adding to it.” As the proposal stands now the private/public partnership will have a fiduciary responsibility to dole out funding to the regions.

“The regions should know their funding is in tact,” said McMahon at the meeting. While the measure to keep the regions passed by a majority, council members Nagele, president of Advantage Marketing Information, and Robert Schmeck, general manager of the Newport Marriott, opposed the change.

“The commission made the change at the encouraging of the existing regions but the regions weren’t allowed to speak on whether they supported it,” said Nagele about why he couldn’t agree to the change.

Only Robert Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, spoke during the meeting. He said he would like to discuss the amendment with his regional colleagues before making a comment.

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