Friday, August 6, 2010

Too volatile to fund?

Travel council questions Boise and Sun Valley visitors bureaus


By TREVON MILLIARD
Express Staff Writer

Apprehension was Wednesday's word of the day for Carol Waller.

She sat all morning in the sparse audience of the annual Idaho Travel Council meeting at Sun Valley Inn, just waiting to hear a few numbers. Numbers that would have a tremendous impact on the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau, which she leads.

Every year since 1982, the council has annually dispersed between $2 million and $3.5 million to nonprofit tourism organizations in the state, using 45 percent of lodging taxes collected the previous year. The Sun Valley-Ketchum chamber has been a grant recipient ever since the first year, normally receiving about $260,000. But this year has been anything but normal.

The grant money usually accounts for one-quarter of the bureau's annual funding, with the cities of Sun Valley and Ketchum chipping in the vast majority. The bureau's budget is about $1.1 million for the ongoing 2009-10 fiscal year. The travel council provides $255,000, business memberships bring in $120,000, events generate $80,000, and the cities have contributed $611,000—more than half of all funding.

The city councils have said, in recent months, that no money will be given directly to the bureau, but $800,000 would be handed to a newly created marketing board, still choosing its fifth and final member. The marketing board—planned to be in charge of all external marketing of the resort area—would then have the prerogative whether to share with the bureau. However, Waller said, she's heard no guarantees, as of yet, from the marketing board that the bureau will receive anything.

Even though the marketing board may have its hands on the cities' money, it can't apply for a dollar of the travel council's grants without first attaining its nonprofit status.

John May, chairman of the travel council, made this abundantly clear during the first half of the annual meeting on Tuesday, saying that the visitors bureau will be the one receiving the check. And the money must stay with the bureau. If the chamber disappears, he said the money would revert back to the account of the region to be given out next year.

"The chamber needs to be in place for this next grant cycle," he said, asking Waller if the organization can survive without city funding.

The bureau would have $455,000 for the 2010-11 fiscal year if the grant, memberships and events revenue remained the same, far less than the previous year's $1.1 million.

"I think we can do it," Waller told the council. "We can make it work."

But, she said in an interview with the Express, services would be limited.

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May also asked the same question of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau's director, seeing that its situation parallels Sun Valley's in many ways. For almost 30 years, the Greater Boise Auditorium District has been funding the Boise bureau, recently giving an annual $1.3 million payment—about a quarter of its annual hotel-room tax collections—to the visitors bureau to market the Boise Centre. The bureau's only other source of revenue is a $600,000-$700,000 Idaho Travel Council grant.

The district voted, on July 22, to stop all funding to the bureau effective Aug. 31, and has begun assembling its own marketing team. Just as with Sun Valley's marketing board, the auditorium district can't apply for a travel council grant. The bureau is the only eligible party.

So, can the Boise bureau survive solely on its usual grant?

"My answer to you is yes," said Bobbi Patterson, bureau director for 28 years. "Do I know how we're going to do that? No."

Karen Ballard, administrator for Idaho Department of Commerce's Tourism Division, said in an interview with the Express that the Sun Valley and Boise bureaus are the "best run" in the state and are "held up as examples."

But both groups' deep-rooted foundations have been shaken. And the council searched Tuesday for reassurance that the groups would be around to use the large sums of money usually awarded them.

Boise's bureau didn't give May, region director, that impression.

"I'm suggesting giving the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau only half of the normal amount," he said on Monday, suggesting $328,000 be awarded. "We will give the other half when the Idaho Travel Council sees they are stable."

If this never happens, he said the other half would be distributed through other grantees in the region. The council unanimously approved May's suggestion.

"I do realize this is unusual," May said. "But these are highly unusual circumstances."

Circumstances may call for similar action with the Sun Valley-Ketchum bureau.

Sun Valley's regional representative on the travel council, Dick Andersen of Sun Valley Co., prefaced his recommendation with a more encouraging statement.

"They have a proven track record with us," he said, suggesting $201,000 be given.

The council unanimously agreed. Waller's grant application asked for $273,000, and outlined none to be used toward marketing. She said this was done because of the marketing board's planned role. She said the bureau wants to work with the board to achieve a smooth transition.

The grant's largest chunks will go toward a website overhaul, event promotion and public relations.

Trevon Milliard: tmilliard@mtexpress.com




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