Verona is on its way to having a tourism coordinator.
The position, which would be overseen by the Verona Area Chamber of Commerce but funded by hotel room tax money, is envisioned as a person who would create and run new tourist-oriented events and help land existing ones to boost Verona’s “image as a destination for business and leisure travel.” It could also have a hand in the chamber’s marketing efforts for the community.
The city’s Tourism Commission approved a $280,000 tourism budget for the chamber for 2018 at its Jan. 30 meeting, with unanimous support for the position. The hope is to have it filled sometime around April, but it still needs adjustment on its salary level and job duties before the chamber posts for it.
The position would work closely with the commission, which was created last year to oversee Verona’s growing room tax fund. The city collected $40,000 in room taxes in 2007 and almost 10 times that much in the first three-quarters of last year alone, and just over half of its collection goes to the commission. Receipts of the 7 percent tax are expected to continue growing throughout 2018, as the city’s biggest hotel, the 136-room Hyatt Place, opened in May.
As a result of that funding growth, what once was a relatively small amount of money that could easily be doled out as grants for tournaments, performances, other events and a small amount of marketing became over the years a complex job. And with the booming tourism money comes opportunities to invest in marketing opportunities that stand a chance of actually “putting heads in beds,” as hoteliers put it.
Such positions are a rarity for suburban cities this size, though Stoughton recently combined two assistant positions into a comparable tourism and marketing position. Mount Horeb has a similar position, but Fitchburg, Middleton, Oregon and Sun Prairie do not have dedicated tourism positions.
Executive director Le Jordan told the Press on Thursday the chamber has had to decline to bring events here, such as a site for the Gus Macker 3 on 3 basketball tournament, because “we simply didn’t have the manpower.” Had this position been available, it could have recruited and overseen the roughly 100 volunteers that would have been needed to put it on.
Jordan also hopes the person hired would be able to offer suggestions and ideas on existing community-focused chamber events such as Hometown Days and Fall Fest and eventually have a hand in marketing efforts.
The commission did not officially agree to fund the position, but in debates over how much to increase the chamber’s tourism budget – it was $200,000 last year – commissioners unanimously insisted there be enough funding to support the position.
“I think the position is important to have,” Verona Vision Care co-owner Jason Hunt said.
The tourism coordinator would further separate Jordan from working with tourism issues, freeing her to focus on big-picture issues and membership.
Effectively, it would create its own office, which may or may not be housed in the chamber’s recently remodeled building at 120 W. Verona Ave.
It would handle the tourism budget, work directly with the commission, monitor hotel occupancy, take over the visitor’s center social media and website functions and get local businesses on board with new initiatives and the chamber’s marketing strategy. It could in theory take over some of the marketing and advertising purchases that are now contracted out, though its role in marketing might depend on the person hired.
The core of the job, based on the submitted description and commission’s discussion, would be running, planning and budgeting existing and new events, tours, festivals and tournaments aimed at tourism.
That would not include existing efforts such as Hometown Days, Jordan explained, because those don’t generally bring tourists who are likely to stay overnight. Rather, she said, the goal would be music festivals, tournaments, destination concerts or theme festivals that would draw people from a distance.
Even if some events don’t directly contribute to increased hotel stays, Jordan told the commission, there’s an indirect benefit of having more and more events here.
“If you bring people into town and there’s nothing going on, chances are you’re not going to get them back,” she told the commission.
She pointed to a Harry Potter event held in Evansville last year that struggled to handle the crowds it got and left many visitors frustrated. Still, she told the commission, local businesses loved it because the people who left the event early because they couldn’t get what they wanted ended up going to local restaurants to eat.
At first, she expects the position to help line up existing events, but eventually, it would design new ones.
“You can’t build a three-day event that people are coming in from out of town for and have it up and running in six months,” she said. “You may not see those events in the first year.”
The Tourism Commission, which is composed of local business owners, including a general manager of two hotels, was created in early 2017 to ensure the city and the hotel industry had some oversight of how its growing room tax money is spent.
While receipts for the nearly 400 rooms in the city in 2017 are still not finalized, rough projections indicate it was on pace to take in more than a half-million dollars. Of that, 30 percent goes to the city’s general fund, 10 percent goes to the Madison Area Sports Commission and 6 percent goes to the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The rest, about 54 percent, previously went to the chamber but now goes to the commission.
The room tax money is required by state statute to be used for tourism activities, which in the past it could fund parts of chamber salaries, accommodations and the website. But the creation of the position would segregate that spending.
The commission debated last week how the position should be funded, with Jordan’s initial plan to spend $50,000 on it, with limited benefits. But she quickly acknowledged – and others agreed – it could cost more to find the right person.
Some thought the position should come with incentives or could even start part time, but most acknowledged the tourism budget might simply have to make tradeoffs in marketing buys or wait for room taxes to increase and possibly get a budget increase.
Jordan is expected to bring a revised budget and position description based on the commission’s feedback to the next Tourism Commission meeting, likely later this month, for approval.