In the wake of startling revelations about the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau, some are questioning whether fundamental changes are in order—including removing it from city management altogether.
The SFCVB is different from four-fifths of similar agencies nationwide in at least one important respect: It is run as a government agency, rather than a separate nonprofit.
Simon Brackley, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce (which is separate from the CVB), says the fact that the CVB is out of line with industry standards suggests operating under city management, rather than as a nonprofit, isn't the best idea.
"So many other communities do it that way for a reason," Brackley says of the nonprofit model. "Often, something can become more flexible and efficient if it's run as an independent organization, rather than being a government department."
Kristen Clemens, vice president of marketing and communications for Destination Marketing Association International, says that typically, in communities whose economies depend heavily on tourism, "the [CVB] ends up becoming a separate entity and moves out of the government fold."
The SFCVB instead comprises two departments within the city government that drive Santa Fe tourism and arrange use of the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. The result, as highlighted in a recent report on SFCVB's practices by industry consultant Radcliffe Co., is not pretty.
For example, in 2009, Santa Fe booked about one-quarter as many hotel rooms as Yakima, Wash., and less than one-fifth as many rooms for conference-goers, even though SFCVB has a larger budget and almost three times as much lodging to offer. Radcliffe compared the two cities because of their similar budget size (Santa Fe’s budget is actually bigger) and similar population (Yakima has approximately 16,000 more residents). Like Santa Fe, Yakima has only a small airport with limited commercial service.
Given the low booking rate, it's not surprising that the City of Santa Fe's lodgers' tax income—generated by sales of hotel room nights—increased less than 2 percent from last fiscal year to this one. Santa Fe County, by contrast, realized an 8.6 percent leap in lodgers' tax revenue during the same period.
Connie Upton, general manager of the convention center at the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau, confirms that the bureau is run as a separate nonprofit. Local hotels, restaurants, venues and other businesses participate as paid members and give input at regular meetings. The Radcliffe report cites the lack of such private sector participation as SFCVB's biggest shortcoming.
Santa Fe's only private sector input comes from a five-member Occupancy Tax Advisory Board, which has the authority to allocate approximately $70,000 per year in lodgers' tax revenues to projects dedicated to attracting tourists. But Radcliffe characterizes OTAB's role as insignificant and "perfunctory."
OTAB Member Mary Bonney, who owns The William & Joseph Gallery on Canyon Road, says SFCVB hasn't included OTAB in marketing efforts. "We're all willing to step up to the plate and be more of an advocate for the city of Santa Fe; it's just a matter of being asked and working within the bureaucracy," Bonney says. "We have our frustrations because we definitely have big ideas and thoughts—and big concerns about what's going on with the city of Santa Fe and how they're promoting it."
OTAB Member Jon Hendry tells SFR that the board had to "insist" in order to receive periodic reports on SFCVB's activities.
OTAB has considered going before the city council to try changing the board's relationship with SFCVB, but "it's sort of up to the people that are in a paid position to do that…there is a limit to what we can do," Bonney says.
City Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger says Santa Fe has looked at and continues to mull the possibility of breaking SFCVB out into a nonprofit, but must first consider several factors.
"We have to make sure that we're meeting the community's needs as well as the tourism needs," Wurzburger says. "That's going to be a process, to figure out the best way to do it in Santa Fe."
Brackley says that, since OTAB represents the private sector, whose participation the Radcliffe report deems essential, it should have a bigger share of the tourism budget to allot.
"Lodgers' tax in Santa Fe generates somewhere around $6-$8 million a year," Brackley notes. "In my view, the entire breakdown of occupancy tax expenditures should be examined."
SFCVB's total budget of $2.6 million is very close to the national median of $2.8 million, according to industry experts. But while a typical CVB staff would have specific training in destination marketing, Santa Fe's has none.
To target leisure travelers, who generate far more business than conference-goers, such staff is critical, the Radcliffe report states. Hendry crafted his own initiative, in cooperation with OTAB, to drive such travel: creating a half-hour reality show called Shot Here, designed to generate interest in Santa Fe tourism because of the film industry presence. The $16,000 project will eventually be released in national markets.
"We can sit around and complain about [SFCVB's poor destination marketing efforts], or we can do something about it," Hendry says.
Clemens tells SFR that the key to leisure travel marketing is targeting the right message to the right crowd. For instance, if people in Alaska like to take winter trips here, some marketing should focus on them and center on the "unique intrinsic value" they would seek here. Updating Santa Fe's image to better attract the majority of potential tourists is crucial, Bonney says; many think Santa Fe is "the place my grandparents go every year…[and] that all we sell are tilted Indian pots."
SFCVB Interim Director Jim Bradbury says the bureau plans to hire more marketing professionals to address some of these concerns. A new executive director should be in place within the next two months, Wurzburger says.
“Tourism is our industry here. Everything else—the art market, the restaurants, the skiing—everything depends on tourism, so it has to be a priority,” Bonney says. “It’s what will keep the city alive.”