LONG BEACH — Mayor Bob Andrew announced in a Dec. 19 letter that he has indefinitely suspended the Long Beach Marketing Committee, an advisory group of local business people that makes recommendations about how to spend lodging tax money.
In a Dec. 22 interview at the Cottage Bakery, Andrew said that the city’s marketing budget was already committed to existing projects, leaving little opportunity for the committee to pitch or plan new initiatives in 2015.
“New ideas come up, but old ideas aren’t let go of, because we still think they’re valid,” Andrew explained. But he added that low participation was also a factor — at the last meeting, only one person, brand-new member Randy Dennis of Dennis Company, showed up.
Created at least 10 years ago, the LBMC, (formerly called the Long Beach Tax Advisory Committee) was supposed to give hospitality, retail and tourism industry leaders more influence over the city’s marketing strategy. By law, the city must use lodging tax revenues on projects that promote or support local tourism. However, area business people — especially hoteliers, whose guests generate the funds — have sometimes strongly disagreed with the city about how the money should be used, saying that the city is too focused on summer events, and too slow to reconsider projects that don’t put “heads in beds.”
In interviews this week and last, some current and former LBMC members said they are concerned that without LBMC, the city could be more likely to make decisions that don’t suit their needs. But they generally agreed that in recent years, the LBMC has been hampered by attendance issues, time-consuming meetings and a charter that didn’t encourage diverse opinions or open discussion. According to LBMC’s charter, the mayor personally appointed all of the committee members, and had the power to replace them at his discretion. People familiar with the committee said that because the city’s events and tourism coordinator, Ragan Myers, also happens to be the mayor’s daughter, some participants were hesitant to question spending priorities, critically evaluate long-running events, or propose alternatives.
Big summer spending
In 2015, the city anticipates spending about $635,000 on events and marketing. About $160,000 of that money will go to the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau, which promotes Pacific County as a tourism destination.
Over the last couple of years, Long Beach has gradually increased its support for the bureau’s marketing efforts, which have had demonstrated results. Director Andi Day said in a Dec. 19 phone interview that suspending the time-consuming meetings might actually make it easier to work on behalf of the city.
“I’m looking forward to increased efficiency,” Day said. “I see it as a sign of improved relations and more trust.”
The city will spend most of the remaining $475,000 on its own marketing efforts, improvements to facilities that serve tourists, and most of all, a series of events that are geared toward enhancing tourists’ experiences.
About $20,000 of this money will pay for association memberships, trips to conventions, marketing materials and events that are part of Myers’ effort to attract cruise ship and tour bus travelers to the Peninsula. But most of it pays for popular events like Kite Festival ($10,000, not including personnel) and the Loyalty Days Parade ($7,500). It also pays for “Summerfest,” a series of family-friendly weekend events and the accompanying musicians and entertainers. These costs can quickly add up. For example, the city spends $12,500 to provide free horse-drawn-wagon rides to visitors, about $2.30 apiece on a beach bucket giveaway that is intended to promote beach safety, and $19,000 to bring in bands for free shows on the Veterans’ Stage.
In separate interviews on Monday, both Andrew and Myers said they see these freebies as a way to give Long Beach an identity that is distinct from other local beach communities — a place where tourists are appreciated and get more for their money.
“It’s an enhanced experience,” Andrew said. “It lessens the feeling that the city is a tourist trap.”
Events like the sidewalk chalk drawing contest and a “Mother Goose” storyteller who comes on Fourth of July are “a way to say thank you for choosing Long Beach as a vacation destination,” Myers said.
But there are some business leaders who think this strategy is misguided.
The decision to suspend LMBC came shortly after an influential hotelier, who has been critical of the city’s strategy, asked to join the committee.
In a Dec. 19 interview, Tiffany Turner, who co-owns Adrift Hotel, the Inn at Discovery Coast and Pickled Fish restaurant (along with her husband Brady, a former LBMC member), said she thinks the city has spent too much on projects that don’t bring many paying guests to the Peninsula.
She cites as examples a sea-serpent-shaped Christmas light display that cost more than $13,000, and the package travel campaign. She also wishes the city would focus on attracting guests in slower spring and fall seasons, instead of spending lavishly to provide free entertainment during the over-booked summer weekends. She points out that even if guests paid $2 per horse-wagon ride, they’d still be getting a sweet deal — and the business owner would make more money.
“[Summerfest] may have been a good model 10 years ago, but it needs to be updated. We shouldn’t be spending money to get people in beds on summer weekends, because there’s no beds to fill,” Turner said.
With support from the Visitors Bureau, Turner requested a place on the committee in November, but she never heard back from Andrew.
“I never received a response until the letter that came delivered today,” Turner said.
In his Dec. 19 letter, Andrew assured readers that “This does not mean the council will not entertain new or revised projects suggested to them during the bi-monthly scheduled council meetings.”
On Monday, Andrew said that Turner “has great ideas,” and her request was not a factor in the decision. Andrew said he hopes she, and other local business leaders, will participate through workshops and public comment periods.
“If it’s a good idea, we still want to hear it,” Andrew said.
But Turner would like the city to make a stronger commitment to considering diverse perspectives.
“As someone who helps generate those dollars, I believe its very irresponsible of our leadership to not allow people who want to have a voice to have one at the table,” Turner said.
She does not agree that there’s nothing for the LBMC to discuss.
“There’s $500,000 [in estimated lodging tax revenues] that’s generated, and there’s a lot of room to have conversations about if that money is being used strategically and efficiently,” Turner said.
Long Beach Mayor Bob Andrew