Columbus-Lowndes Convention And Visitors Bureau
BY BRIAN JONES
Accountant Tom Buckley was on hand to go through a draft budget. The budget gave aggregate numbers rather than breaking down everything line item by line item, and the board asked for line item lists in the areas of personnel and marketing and advertising.
[Rather than go through Mr. Buckley’s presentation number by number – which would be unbearably tedious to read, I think – I will just hit some of the high points of the budget discussion. I will give a fuller report with all the numbers once the final budget is approved. – Brian Jones] Buckley first went through the income for the CVB itself.
“We’ve seen a slight increase in city collections this year,” he said. “Based on that, we averaged out our collections and budgeted $128,000 per month. We end up with $1.5 million. The county taxes current year was $78,000, and we’ve already collected $89,000. We’re budgeting $123,000 next year.”
Total projected income was listed as $1.6 million.
As Buckley prepared to explain the expenses in the next year, Buckhalter asked if the amount given to the Link will be reduced.
“It is flat,” Buckley said. “No increase or decrease.”
“They have added two other counties, which will increase their income,” Buckhalter said.
“The $350,000 that they get from those counties just covers operations in those counties,” Buckley said. [Just to be clear: The money paid by Oktibbeha and Clay counties may only be spent in those counties, so has no impact on Lowndes. – Brian Jones] “You’re saying they have extra money, I’m saying no.”
“They have extra money,” Buckhalter insisted. “They got two more entities. Did you consider reducing the Link?”
“The answer is no,” Buckley said.
“Every community in America feels they need a convention center. You really don’t have a convention center. You have a conference center. It’s small. I would find out what the needs of the community are, and what the needs of any outsider group are if they want to spend time here. You need to find out the demand before you invest anything in this.”
– Don Anderson of Destination Consultancy Group, at CVB board retreat
The amount set for local grants decreased from $130,000 to $95,000. Both Buckhalter and Byrd immediately took issue.
“In the current year we have paid out $47,000 (out of $130,000 budgeted),” he said. “So we decreased that amount down to $95,000.”
“So you are proposing we cut the grants?” Byrd asked. “We’re talking about the festivals. That’s what you’re considering cutting.”
“Right now we’ve paid out right at $48,000,” Executive Director Nancy Carpenter said. “Even if we had a few that have not been paid their second half, we’re still not even going to pay out $95,000. We’ve already had several festivals tell us they’re not asking for grants next year. There’s no sense in putting money in a program where it’s not going to be used. [While some festivals, such as Tennessee Williams, have said they are not coming back, the Market Street festival is asking to be added as a line item in the CVB budget, so I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to say they are not coming back. – Brian Jones] “What we’re trying to do is have some of these events become self-sustaining,” she added. “We want them to do what Pilgrimage did this year, and give back its startup money.”
“I don’t want it cut,” Buckhalter said. “We need to look at other people coming in who have things that we want to support. I’d rather be over budget than under budget. If we fall short, the first thing they’ll holler is ‘we don’t want to change the budget’ and so I want to keep it where it was last year. If we don’t spend it all, that’s great.”
Buckhalter made a motion not to reduce the grant funding, and was seconded by Byrd. The motion failed 4-4, with Mark Castleberry, Leon Ellis, Rissa Lawrence and Bart Wise voting no and Buckhalter, Byrd, Nadia Dale and DeWitt Hicks voting yes. [In other words, all the city appointees wanted to raise it back and the county appointees wanted to leave it at the reduced level. – Brian Jones] No action was taken on the budget itself. More detailed numbers and more discussion are planned for the board’s August meeting.
Don Anderson of Destination Consultancy Group was scheduled to lead a discussion of strategic planning. Because the CVB meeting ran very long, he merely fielded a few questions from board members. Anderson will come back and lead the strategic planning session at a later date.
[Rather than transcribe Mr. Anderson’s remarks in their entirety, I am going to hit a couple of the more interesting moments. – Brian Jones] After Anderson made his “why a strategic plan is important” pitch, Hicks asked him how important he thought a convention center was.
“Every community in America feels they need a convention center,” Anderson said. “You really don’t have a convention center. You have a conference center. It’s small. I would find out what the needs of the community are, and what the needs of any outsider group are if they want to spend time here. You need to find out the demand before you invest anything in this. What you need to be aware of is that typically a convention center runs a deficit, and you have to figure out who is going to pay that deficit. If it is bringing more visitors in and they are spending, it may be worth it.”
He said the Trotter needs to be modernized.
“I remember going through it, and it was all chopped up everywhere,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was on the first floor, the second floor, wherever. You need to see what the needs there are and get with some architects and figure out how to reconfigure it to make it better. A lot of convention centers have hotels adjacent because the people won’t come in unless there’s one right there next door. They don’t want to come into your community and then have to drive back and forth to their lodging.”
“At one time we talked about purchasing the Gilmer Inn and connecting it,” Byrd said. “But we couldn’t get it together to buy it.”
“There was a study done, but it didn’t go anywhere,” Carpenter said.
“When you invest a dollar in advertising an event, what percentage return should we expect on that investment?” Ellis asked.
“To be able to get a handle on the effectiveness of your marketing we need to do a study,” Anderson said. “Did they come, for all this effort? We also need to find out how they found out about an event. Sometimes they hear about things from more than one source. But we can’t go to every individual and ask them, so we’ve got to do surveys with some of the visitors.”
“For example we invested money in a fireworks display with CAFB,” Ellis said. “It was a big deal for the community. We invested $40,000. What economic impact should we expect from that $40,000 if we’re looking at direct spending?”
“I would say about $1.60 or $1.70 for every dollar you spend,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the CVB needs to look at people visiting friends and relatives.
“The majority of people are day visitors and are here for friends and relatives,” Anderson said. “They may not spend as much money, but there are lots of them. You need to look at them. Statistics show that up to 20 percent of the people in hotels are there to visit friends and relatives. You need to direct some PR and marketing to them.”
“What percentage of budget should be spent on marketing and advertising?” Hicks asked. “I think the amount we spend is woefully inadequate.” [Currently $230,000 is budgeted for marketing and advertising. – Brian Jones] “You can devote more, but look at the amount of money you’re giving to other entities,” Anderson said. “I bet you’re giving half a million dollars away. They should be doing something for that money. Once you open up that spigot and start giving money away, it’s hard to turn it off because people get upset. But if you’re giving that money away, you need to tell people what you expect of them. I think that’s fair.”
Anderson said the CVB needs to make the area unique.
“There are probably 20-plus Columbuses in the US,” he said. “You need to have a great website, because more and more advertising is online, not offline. You need to put the experiences that you can have in Columbus on that site. There are a lot of people out there that don’t understand Columbus, Mississippi. You’ve got to show what you’ve got that’s different.”