Albemarle approves visitors bureau marketing plan

More than a quarter of the city and county hotel tax revenues directed to the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau in the last three years have not been spent, prompting officials to press the department to spend down the balance or give it back to the municipalities. The result was a proposed spending plan for 2013 that will pull $240,000 from the fund balance. Illustration by Aaron Shrewsbury.

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has backed off its threat to yank hundreds of thousands of dollars in accumulated tax revenue from the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, instead agreeing to spend the money on a marketing push to draw tourists to the area.

The CACVB is funded by both county and city, which each direct 30 percent of hotel tax revenues to the five-employee department. That money—a little over $1 million per year—is intended for visitor services, promotion, and other efforts to draw tourists to the area. But a big portion of it has instead been rolled over in recent years, leading to a 2011 fund balance of more than $700,000, a snafu director Kurt Burkart said was the result of staff reduction and restructuring since his arrival in 2009.

The county called the department on the carpet last fall—announcing it would scale back the fund balance to 20 percent and use the reclaimed money for its own initiatives—and the city supported the move.

But the CACVB board wasn’t wild about the idea. In December, it presented the Board of Supervisors with an alternative: a marketing plan that would include a website overhaul and rebranding and would, over the course of three years, slash the fund balance to 20 percent of the CACVB budget.

Mollified, the Board agreed to see the plan, and last Wednesday, supervisors nodded approvingly through a presentation by Susan Payne. Her PR firm, Payne, Ross & Associates, has already landed $55,000 in contracts to develop the marketing effort, which will ultimately cost more than $623,000. The vote to leave the fund balance intact was unanimous. The decision goes before the City Council in August.

“I think they’ve come forward with an excellent plan,” said Supervisor Dennis Rooker. “Perhaps the fact that they didn’t spend this money in previous years has turned out to be a blessing.”

Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce Chair and longtime CACVB board member Tim Hulbert agreed. “The bad news is the money didn’t get spent,” he said, “and the good news is it didn’t get spent. Now there can be a really aggressive marketing effort.”

It remains to be seen whether the ambitious return on investment projections that encouraged political support of the plan will come to fruition. State tourism officials say every dollar spent on marketing brings in $5 in tax revenue. According to the 2004 agreement between the city and county to jointly fund the CACVB, the bureau is required to meet a 7 to 1 ratio of direct visitor spending for every dollar of tax revenue pumped in—or run the risk of having either municipality scuttle the funding agreement. According to year-end reports, the CACVB hasn’t quite met the requirement recently—the ratio ranged from 6.56 to 6.96 in the last three years.

BOS chair Ann Mallek said she’s hopeful the payoff will come. But elected officials will be watching to make sure the money gets spent and the returns roll in.

“I think there will be a large amount of oversight,” she said.
“There’s no question that we stumbled, board and staff,” Hulbert said. “But that fumbling came to a halt five months ago. The plan is in place and the team is energized.

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