Should arts nonprofits have to buy their way onto local tourism site?

Leaders of some local arts non-
profits think the Charlottesville Convention and Visitors Bureau should be doing more to promote the area’s cultural scene—
instead of encouraging their organizations to buy ad space on its website. File photo Leaders of some local arts non- profits think the Charlottesville Convention and Visitors Bureau should be doing more to promote the area’s cultural scene— instead of encouraging their organizations to buy ad space on its website. File photo

“Can your organization really afford to NOT have a high profile presence on VisitCharlottesville, particularly if your competitor does?”

That was the sales pitch in an e-mail sent last month to Jody Kielbasa, director of the Charlottesville Film Festival, by an Arizona company called Destination Travel, a contractor hired to push ads on the website run by the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Kielbasa was taken aback that the taxpayer-supported agency would be sticking its hand out to local nonprofits.

“I thought it was the CACVB’s mission to promote us as a major attraction, just like any other major venue in this community,” he said. He’s not alone. Nonprofit arts leaders are frustrated by what they see as a lack of support from the bureau—a claim its director says is misguided.

The tourism outfit runs on about $1.2 million annually in room tax revenues from Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and has to show a strong return on investment—$7 dropped by tourists for every $1 spent promoting the area. Last year, elected officials put pressure on the bureau to spend its cash better after it was revealed the CACVB had socked away an unused fund balance of nearly $700,000. That prompted a massive rebranding and marketing effort, but some nonprofit arts leaders here say they aren’t feeling the love. They understand the pressure to put heads in beds, but they don’t want to be shaken down by an agency they think should be giving them a leg up.

“All of these arts organizations, however small or large, ultimately make up the fabric of our community and the cultural dynamic that makes Charlottesville unique,” Kielbasa said. “As a whole, it’s important that they all receive a nod,” especially since they often can’t afford much advertising.

And that, said Live Arts director Matt Joslyn, is why the solicitations stung so much. He’s also received two since the fall.

“Just like small businesses, arts organizations are impossible little places to run,” he said. “When you get an anonymous e-mail from a contractor out of state working to sell advertising on the website whose job it is to promote people coming to and experiencing the richness of your community, it feels like a body blow.”

So why is the tax-supported CACVB turning to arts organizations to help its bottom line?

“It came as much of a surprise to me as it did to them,” said CACVB director Kurt Burkhart.

He said he understood the nuisance aspect of the sales pitch, and he’s instructed the company to stop directly contacting potential advertisers. But he defended both the setup of the website and his agency’s level of support for the arts.

The bureau offers grants to nonprofits, and was an underwriter of the Create Charlottesville/Albemarle cultural plan, Burkhart said. It also offers free marketing workshops to organizations trying to up their exposure.

“Any notion that we’re not supportive is just not borne out,” he said. “If they choose not to take advantage and take the marketing opportunities given to them, there’s nothing we can do.”

As for the website, the CACVB selected Simpleview to run it four years ago after an open bid process, as per state regulations, said Chris Engel, the city’s director of economic development. For an annual maintenance fee of $50,000, the bureau gets not just an attractive site, but an invaluable tool for keeping track of and contacting the partner businesses and organizations it helps promote, said Burkhart.

Ad sales help to offset the cost, but don’t come close to covering it. Burkhart said the site brings in about $1,500 to $2,000 a month in revenues. In 2013, online ad revenues totaled $17,350, according to the CACVB’s most recent annual report.

Simple business listings are free, but it’s standard practice for ad space on tourism sites to be pay-to-play, he said. “It’s a free market. Those that want to do it can do it, and those that don’t want to don’t.”

But not every city operates that way. Take, run by the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau in upstate New York. The site pushes local galleries and theaters as major attractions, with prominent listings and photos, all for free. It doesn’t bring in much money, said marketing manager Kristy Mitchell—the handful of ads she does sell generate about $3,000 a year—but the bureau, which has a board that includes a number of artists, sees its site as an asset that should paint the whole picture of the city.

“Without all of these arts and cultural elements, we wouldn’t have the community we have,” she said.

According to Joslyn, that’s the attitude that’s missing in Charlottesville. He said he’s sympathetic to Burkhart’s position—he’s a man who has to make a lot of people happy. But Joslyn is tired of seeing the arts be an afterthought.

“The leaders of this community should know better,” he said.

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