Saturday, December 13, 2003

Convention bureau redefines mission

New focus on bringing groups to Hamilton Co.

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Facing a budget crunch and sparse convention bookings through 2006, the Cincinnati convention bureau's board on Friday approved an overhaul that cuts off sales leads to hotels outside Hamilton County and authorizes a shift of $1.1 million to a startup regional tourism group.

The Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau board vote limits membership to hotels and businesses in Hamilton County. That means 142 members from Covington to Clermont County won't be offered a chance to renew their membership. The bureau has 620 member companies.

Bureau officials say a leaner group focused exclusively on driving conventions to Hamilton County hotels is a better use of the organization's $4.8 million budget. Also, a separate, regional group funded by the bureau - and by Warren County and Northern Kentucky - could better promote tourist draws from Paramount's Kings Island to the Newport Aquarium, board members say.

"We've become too many things to too many people," said Erik Kamfjord, a board member and president of the Winegardner Hammons hotel group. By paring the bureau's purpose and creating a separate tourism group, Kamfjord said, "You eliminate all the undercurrents that have been tugging at this organization for years."

Board members concede that some will see the split as anti-regionalism. Some suburban hoteliers were surprised to learn of the decision.

"I'd be surprised they would take such a narrow focus on regionalism," said Pat Boylson, bureau member and general manager of the 321-room Cincinnati Marriott at RiverCenter in Covington.

Even if it makes sense for downtown and suburban Hamilton County, the move can be a "big problem when you exclude people," said Tom Caradonio, president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Friday's action stemmed from an audit by Chicago-based C.H. Johnson Consulting, which said a revamped structure gives the region its best chance of competing effectively in the lucrative convention and tourism business.

Conventions and tourism are important economic drivers for Greater Cincinnati's hospitality industry, which generates 80,000 jobs and more than $2 billion in annual economic impact. But Cincinnati has lagged Midwestern competitors in hotel occupancy and revenue generated per room. Through October 2003, Cincinnati had the second lowest average nightly revenue per hotel room - $38.83 - of 10 regional peer cities, according to Smith Travel Research, which tracks hotel occupancy.

And while Cincinnati's attractions compare favorably with its peer cities, hotel occupancy and room rates are depressed in part due to an ineffective marketing approach, the consultant said.

Convention bookings have been slow. Through September, the bureau signed deals that will generate fewer than 35,000 future hotel room bookings. That lags the 72,000 future hotel room bookings signed during the same period a year ago.

Local officials are optimistic that the $160 million expansion of the Albert B. Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center - scheduled to open in 2006 - will trigger a revival. But the expansion alone won't drive growth of conventions, C.H. Johnson Consulting said.

"There is a pretty strong feeling that in order to be successful we must concentrate on downtown," said Dan Meyer, bureau chairman.

Bureau leaders also say limiting membership to Hamilton County is a fairer use of tax dollars because the county's bed tax accounts for about $4 million of the bureau's budget. Of its roughly $400,000 in annual membership dues, only about one-quarter is paid by out-of-county members.

The bureau favors a new regional tourism board, but acknowledges that such an organization is a concept at this point and staffing and funding issues remain. Meyer said an ideal annual budget range for the new group would be about $3 million - with roughly two-thirds coming from hotel taxes or possibly rental car taxes levied in Northern Kentucky and Warren County. The board's action Friday, earmarking $1.1 million to such an organization, is the new group's first funding commitment. Warren County and Northern Kentucky tourism interests have not yet pledged dollars.

Hamilton County hoteliers say they support the split. Perhaps the chief benefit of membership in the bureau is sharing sales leads on groups needing hotel space. Downtown and suburban Hamilton County hotels have long complained that too many sales leads were being funneled out of the county.

It doesn't make sense to send those tips to out-of-county hotels, said Mark Schutte, general manager of Red Roof Inn.

Yet Schutte urged the Cincinnati bureau to not completely abandon tourism marketing. Hotels in Blue Ash and Sharonville fill rooms with summer tourists who visit Kings Island in Mason, he said.

Among the biggest boosters of the new plan are downtown hotels. They say the downtown bureau has been watered down by trying to appeal to too many constituents.

Wayne Bodington, who manages the downtown Westin Hotel, said neither the downtown bureau nor bureaus in Warren County and Northern Kentucky were regionally effective. "There is no longer a case that any of these entities can serve the region on a regionwide basis," he said.

Downtown hotels stepped up criticism of the Cincinnati bureau's efforts following last week's departure of vice president of sales Mark Wallisa.

He was hired in March after a yearlong, nationwide search; but he left the bureau without explanation Dec. 1.

Lisa Haller, president and CEO of the bureau, said it is too early to speculate how Friday's decisions by the board will affect staffing at the bureau.


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