Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The 1975 Predecessor Who Grasped Sustainable Tourism

To complete a startup is how I refer to the second stop in my community destination marketing career, five years after getting one off the ground in Spokane.

In June of 1978, I got a call from Allen A. Reeves who had received my name from several experienced DMO execs as someone he should recruit as a candidate on behalf of the governing board of the one in Anchorage.

I wasn’t consciously looking for a change, nor had Anchorage or Alaska been in my frame of reference but I had heard of Allen.  When I had come on board in Spokane, Allen Reeves was just completing a six year stint as the exec for the Las Vegas DMO.

During that span beginning in 1967 was a turning point for Las Vegas.  It was smaller at the time than either Spokane or Anchorage and just a bit larger than Durham, a single-city county where I would later finish my career.

But in 1966, Caesars Palace had opened in Las Vegas signaling the end of a more authentic era and foretelling a complete surrender to fantasy.  I suspect he had sensed by 1970 that destination marketing there would never again be about community but a chain-link of thematic escapes from reality.

We know now from research conducted by companies that cater to fantasy that a proportion of travelers many times greater is drawn to places that are real.

His next stop, six weeks after I began my career in Spokane, was Hawaii, where he arrived just as a perfect storm was brewing over its sense of place.

We never talked about it.  Allen had a remarkable mesmerizing gift of gab and his mind leapt so quickly that a two-way conversation often became impractical.

But you can tell from his interviews that deep down he understood sustainable tourism.  At the time, Hawaii was in a struggle to save its sense of place and, from Las Vegas, Allen knew how quickly that tipping point could occur.

Tourism promotion there had begun in 1902 but it was only in 1945 with the conclusion of WWII that destination marketing was officially established.  Visitation to Hawaii reached 50,000 by 1949, the year after I was born.

It collapsed the following year due to a maritime strike and the state became a partner in its revival, establishing what may have been the first million dollar tourism marketing budgets.

Tourism really took off there with statehood in 1959, not only because of the notoriety and sense of intrigue that helped fuel it, but because commercial jet service began that year.

By the early 1960s that DMO also went after conventions, a type of travel where the destination is only a backdrop but a key factor in site selection.  Between 1970 and 1973 convention attendees had doubled to 139,000 with overall visitation reaching over 2 million.

But not everyone was unhappy.  Residents, always the most important stakeholders, hated the explosion of non-descript - if not ugly hotels - that refused to fit into sense of place like the old resorts did.

Visitors were arriving without reservations and the DMO was scurrying with Operation Aloha to get residents to take them in.  They were also coming at times that overwhelmed public services.

Surveys of convention delegates also lamented the loss of the “there-there,” and tourists from the American mainland griped about the increasing numbers from Japan.

The chair of the DMO’s governing board publically called for controls on hotel development through careful zoning and while two-thirds of residents still saw tourism as an asset, only 38% felt they benefited.

Like a freight train, it takes a long time for destination marketing to get up to full speed and it is hell trying to put on the brakes by pulling back on promotional materials already in distribution, but the DMO Hawaii did its best to tap them.

Allen was very articulate at the time about going after visitors, especially conventions, only during periods and in volumes where they wouldn’t put a burden on the environment, public services or sense of place,

He was very forward thinking at the time.

He argued that while there were 740,000 offsite meetings held throughout the country in 1972, 68% of them were most desirable because they required 200 hotel rooms or less and could selectively be recruited to fit into time periods where they were unobtrusive and made sense.

It is a lesson that other DMO execs even today failed to heed, pushing for mega-events and mega-facilities that displace more economic impact than they generate and run up deficits for taxpayers.

It is also why, taking heed to that way of thinking, destinations such as Durham today outperform those that don’t in both visitation overall indexed to capacity but also the proportion attending conventions.img117

Allen left Hawaii in July 1975 to help get a DMO off the ground for Anchorage, Alaska, a community and state where sense of place was and still is very fragile.

At the beginning of that year, the then-City of Anchorage had enacted a room tax on the rate paid by guests in hotels, motels and bed and breakfast (cities and towns have home-rule in Alaska.)

That spring, the visitor sector had scurried to put together the framework of a DMO in the months before the City of Anchorage, three other towns and the Borough of Anchorage unified into the Municipality of Anchorage.

They requested and received a grant of $100,000 from the City of Anchorage, enough to recruit Allen and in July he cobbled together another $25,000 from the Greater Anchorage Borough (a version of a county.)

During that fall, while Allen was raising another $20,000 from private sources, the unification of local governments into the Municipality of Anchorage took place in September incorporating the room tax into its new charter.

The Greater Anchorage Convention/Visitors Bureau commenced marketing (mostly sales) on October 1, 1975, soon dropping the “greater” in light of unification a few weeks earlier.

Allen quickly put a face on community marketing for the mission of visitor-centric economic development and cultural development and hired a small staff to get things rolling.  It is their logo in the image above, which was in use until we created “Wild About Anchorage.”

Before he had arrived, the governing board had established by-laws and a few policies.  For the fiscal 1976-1977 year, ACVB marshaled a planned budget of $210,000, hoping to persuade the by-then Municipality to increase its investment from the room tax from $125,000 to $180,000.

From my time bootstrapping the DMO in Spokane over that same period, I know what a herculean task that was.

By 1977, Anchorage generated 586,000 visitors spending $167 million, 4% of which was from convention and meetings, when Allen announced he would be returning to Hawaii to be closer to his wife’s large extended family.

With the new fiscal year beginning in July of 1978, I replaced him as CEO of ACVB and three years to the day from when he had arrived in Alaska, Allen headed back to Hawaii as a vice president for Inter-Island Resorts, in an attempt to salvage Hawaii’s most venerable tourism company.

I saw him a few times there but lost track of him after the company dissolved in the mid-1980s, although the once-five star resorts continued on.

But it was the end of an era.  Inter-Island had fingerprints on historic steamship lines, inter-island airlines and much of what had become Hawaii tourism.

In 1978, over 90% of the conventions held in the United States could fit in Anchorage but much of it was held during periods that would either displace other visitors or during seasons where we still needed to develop activities and attractions.

But my first job was to work out sustainable self-funding for the organization that could scale up from the $319,000 budget available that first year.

To make our case, I met with George Sullivan, the long-time mayor both before and after unification, who would later serve on our government board.  He remained a good friend after leaving office.

George agreed that more of the room tax would be well invested in community marketing but explained that the Assembly had already committed it elsewhere, foretelling the dilemma I would also face in my next post, Durham.

I proposed increasing it and he agreed on one condition and he agreed but insisted it would have to be voter approved so elected officials couldn’t later try to divert it.

We went to work on that and in late 1979, the voters approved the increase to the room tax and dedicated it to ACVB marketing, a testament in good part to the face Allen had put on the effort initially and because voters innately understood both the fairness and the benefit.

The tax was paid by visitors and if used to attract more as well as improve circulation and satisfaction, the results would be many times what was spent on marketing that could then be used to provide residential services.

Inscrutable is why so many elected officials struggle with that logic, continually looking for ways around it instead or pressing for ways to siphon it off, validating by their seeming avarice a negative feedback loop regarding taxes in general.

By the time I, too, would leave Alaska ten years later, after first spending a year as the founding and interim-CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation on behalf of Tony Knowles, a subsequent mayor, friend and eventual governor, a lot had changed.

But Alaska never truly leaves you.

I continued to hear from Anchorage friends and officials right up until I retired more than two decades later and still do in retirement, including recently Mary Pignalberi, one of Allen’s first hires.

On my watch and on the foundation Allen had created, ACVB had pushed visitation to more than a million annually, and more significantly, had shifted the off-season to summer visitor ratio from 1:10 to 1:1.

This included increasing convention spending from $7 million annually to $40 million, with 50% regional or national in scope, somehow exceeding market share for a national comp set while being selective for fit and having to overcome the obstacle of distances that were 1,500 to 3,400 miles greater even by air.

Behind the scenes, ACVB had pushed against past powerful forces within the state and beyond to make Anchorage a viable year round alternative for segments of visitors that had never before considered the state while leveraging its unique sense of place.

Anchorage’s “unique selling proposition” at the time (something it could uniquely guarantee) was “if you don’t have the time or money to see all of Alaska, you can see and experience representations of every part, during every season, in Anchorage.”

Unfortunately, we invariably also made a few enemies along the way, as Allen had, but for me truer measures of sentiment were that membership support had increased from 40 businesses when he left to more than 1,000.

Resident approval of ACVB’s efforts had also reached an unparalleled 30-to-1 positive to negative ratio.

Sustainable resources for marketing had been increased from $350,000 to $2.5 million, all self-funded through increased taxes paid by visitors.

Still, as there always are, a few naysayers complained that we were either not doing enough (for them, specifically) or were stepping on some toes, which we had, not intentionally, but in the intensity to secure Anchorage its due.

As George Sullivan, a mentor, friend and life-long Alaskan who had served as mayor there for 14 years and who in 2009 would pass away just three months before I would retire from DMO work, wrote to me as I was leaving Anchorage:

“After putting one’s heart, soul, sweat and tears into an organization for these many years, your leaving is like leaving a good part of your life behind you.”

Next year ACVB celebrates its 40th anniversary and Anchorage’s 100th.  I had not yet turned 30 when I arrived there and was just turning 40 when I left, leaving destination marketing there in far more capable hands over the decades, none more so than today.

Allen had been a little older than me, on the far side of a divide that was opening in destination marketing as we met and which I had been fortunate to step across during my five years in Spokane.

But to me, he holds a pivotal and far more nuanced role in laying those first cornerstones at the foundation of ACVB’s success.  Along with those who hired him and those who have served at the heart of its organizational culture all these years, hats off.

I leave this background from my personal papers to both to honor them and as a way to compensate for any shortcomings I had in archiving during my stint during the DMO startup there.

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