Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Marketing group members want a louder voice

Some surprised by reconfigured organization, different mission


By REBECCA MEANY
Express Staff Writer

After more than a year, the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance is still trying to get the word out about its structure and mission as well as convince members there's value in participation.

More than 60 members attended a biannual meeting Dec. 15 to hear an update from alliance representatives. During the presentation, and following a pitch for dues payments, some members voiced surprise at the structure of the alliance—which focuses on strategic marketing rather than business advocacy—and urged alliance officials to give them more say in how the organization functions before they commit to paying their dues.

"I'm disappointed the Chamber of Commerce went away," said Scott Mason, owner of the Ketchum Grill. "Right now, we have no voice in the (alliance). I feel we need representation."

The cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley replaced the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau last year with the alliance. When the cities created the new entity, they touted the benefits of enhanced strategic marketing and the anticipated result of more tourists. That in turn, they calculated, would increase local sales taxes and overall business activity in the area.

What is not being done is business advocacy, to the surprise of many members.

"A lot of people are stunned about the lack of effective representation and a voice and advocacy for us as businesses," Tracey Caraluzzi, co-owner of Ciro Restaurant and Wine Bar and Ciro Market, said in an interview.

Caraluzzi said she and other business owners with whom she's spoken understand the importance of marketing but feel their voice is missing from the decision-making process.

"We stand behind you and support you ... in working to draw visitors to the valley," she said at the meeting. But, she said, "this is what we need—effective representation."

The alliance oversees a chamber of commerce, which functions not as a business-to-business lobbying agency but as the local operations arm of the alliance. That includes member promotion on the alliance website and in the new visitor center.

Arlene Schieven, the alliance's president and chief marketing officer, said that message hasn't reached all its intended recipients.

"Our next step is to make sure people are really clear what our (focus) is," she said in an interview. "I think we can do a better job of communicating that mission and making sure people feel their voice is heard and that they feel they're better represented."

The alliance also wants to increase opportunities for members to get involved, she said, and is encouraging businesses to take advantage of the existing promotional options, such as uploading information about their businesses to the new website.

"We want to make sure they feel engaged and are part of the mission," she said.

Alliance governance

The Sun Valley Marketing Alliance is governed by a board of directors, composed of representatives from Sun Valley Co., the city of Ketchum, the city of Sun Valley, and two at-large members.

Also part of the structure is an advisory board, which includes Schieven and four representatives elected by alliance members. Each serves staggered two-year terms.

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"The structure accommodates all of these disparate constituents imperfectly," Jake Peters, board of directors president, said in an interview. "We were not allowed an optimal structure to reflect all of these interests. Instead, we negotiated to get funding to operate and a structure that would allow us to operate effectively."

Peters said the alliance has stuck to its stated mission since the beginning: strategic marketing and visitor services.

"We've done precisely what we said we'd do," he said. "We haven't changed what our stated goals and objectives are. They've never been business lobbying."

Peters reminded meeting attendees that Ketchum and Sun Valley in redefining the group's mission didn't want to focus on business advocacy—they wanted to market the area to increase tourism.

"That old organization wasn't going to get funded," he said. "I understand your frustration. [The alliance] is not perfect. It doesn't represent you in the way you ... want to be represented. But the alternative was zero [funding]."

About 72 percent of the alliance's funding comes from the cities of Sun Valley and Ketchum, which take the money from their respective local-option tax funds. The tax is paid by the purchaser, collected by the business, then passed on to the city in which the transaction occurred. The tax, sometimes referred to as the "tourist tax," is imposed on transactions such as retail sales, liquor-by-the-glass sales, hotel and condo rooms and building materials.

The remainder of the alliance's fiscal 2012 budget of just over $1.1 million comes from the Idaho Travel Council, which contributes 19.5 percent, and members' dues, which make up the remaining 8.5 percent.

"The bulk is put toward marketing, trying to raise awareness and get people to come here," Schieven told the Idaho Mountain Express. "Then the visitor center steps in when they're here."

If members wanted a more traditional chamber advocating for them, money to support that function would have to be taken from somewhere else, she said.

Advisory board member and business owner Toni Bogue said at the meeting that the organization has benefited her and the community. She said she would not only pay her membership dues but voluntarily double them.

"It's not perfect ... but the momentum they've made in 15 months is really impressive," she said.

Others wondered what they are getting for their dues.

A group that includes Ciro's Caraluzzi is asking for some changes, including more representation on the board and business advocacy.

"What can we do to get what we need from the chamber?" she asked Monday. "This is a critical, critical time for all our businesses. I applaud what the board is doing to get visitors here, but let's drive them to Ketchum businesses as well."

She said she advocates a positive, proactive approach.

"It's important to enter into reasonable dialogue and achieve a compromise," she said. "So often when something new is presented, those who are opposed to it have a way of making their voice most loudly heard. People get tired of that."

To increase business owners' influence in the organization, she and like-minded members are suggesting a 50 percent representation of business owners on the board of directors. Under their plan, the current seats would remain, so the board's size would double.

The group also is asking for a chamber run by chamber members and to have dues and funds placed in a chamber account controlled by a chamber board and its members.

"We just want to make sure we have a voice and that we have someone who is standing up for us," she said. "Let's see how we can all work together to make sure we all get a share of the pie."

Rebecca Meany: rmeany@mtexpress.com




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