By Nicole Barde
This month’s meeting agenda was pretty standard. The meeting was held at the Cider Factory and hosted by owner Leisa Findley. She gave a very interesting history of the Cider Factory, Edith Palmers B&B and her other B&B’s. She noted that she has seen a major decrease in room occupancy this year, specifically, starting in the May/June timeframe. She also noted that she was at a loss as to where to send those guests she does have for lunch/dinner during the middle of the week at this time of year since most of the dining establishments were closed or had winter hours.
There was a bit of discussion that ensued after this comment with Angelo Petrini stating that he’s heard that the merchants have had a great year and he wondered why Lisa’s occupancy was down despite of all of the promotional activities and events of the last year. Leisa said that with the exception of Hot August Nights/ Street Vibrations she saw no increase in her business as a result of the events and activities. She noted that there are people in town for the events for the day but then they leave.
As a result of her lagging B&B business, Leisa has had to convert some of her units into full time rental units in order generate revenue. Commissioner Lance Gillman also noted that his Mustang Ranch Steak house was open Wednesday thru Sunday and was basically empty during the week for lack of patrons. He stated that he is keeping the restaurant open despite the heavy overhead in order to keep his experienced staff in place for those times when they get slammed during the events.
Deny Dotson, VCTC Executive Director, commented that the VCTC will try going to the merchants 1-1 to get inputs on what they need. This was an interesting comment to me since the VCTC failed to invite m/any retail merchants or hoteliers to their offsite strategic planning session held a couple of months ago after the season was done . I mean, if they really wanted to understand what the merchants needed they would have invited them to participate. There have been previous efforts on VCTC’s part to get feedback from the merchants where the merchants failed to show up after being invited ( shame on the merchants) and I have heard from merchants that the feedback that they do give to Deny is ignored ( shame on Deny).
It was hard for me to listen to this conversation since it happens every year……and little ever comes of it. In 2014 after a great presentation by Chris Eichin, owner of the B Street B&B, on declining room nights and occupancy I asked several of the hoteliers if they wanted to take a stab at solving the issue. The issue was defined as declining room nights over time….ie there is nothing to keep people in town after 6:00 if they are not bar hopping. The more night’s people stay in town, the more money they spend …..so how do we get them to stay? The groups answer is different types of family oriented, history oriented, entertainment and evening activities. The town is being promoted primarily as a day trip because….we ARE a day trip since the sidewalks roll up after 6. The sidewalks roll up because there are no people. Chicken and egg. While the addition of the events and increased promotion of VC has been good at drawing people into town recently it is enough to keep people coming in down times?
We had several very productive meetings, drafted a strawman of the problem and made suggestions (here) but as time went on this effort lost steam. Those in the meeting could do the job of defining the issues and coming up with recommendations but there was no mechanism or structure to get traction on the ideas. Solving the problem of increasing room nights ( and revenues for all) requires that the merchants, all of them, be engaged in the process. Many seem to have given up or don’t have an interest, the bars don’t need anything to change since they make money regardless. A real change aimed at mitigating the down cycle of the economy for VC requires that the County take a leadership role in defining an Economic Development Plan for VC which County Manager Pat Whitten has declined to do (June 16, 2015 Commission meeting). Well, here’s to having this conversation again in 2016!
Transient Room tax is flat to last year and the Tourism tax is flat to last year. The touted “Economic Prosperity” hasn’t hit yet but I have high hopes for next year. The YTD expenses are about $110,000 over revenues. The VCTC General fund has been drawn down by about $30,000 over last month and has gone from $404k to $334k in two months. Net-Net…there is nothing new in spend-with-no-accountability-land. Deny actually said the words “I am moderately concerned about the budget”. I have to wonder what that actually means.
RAD Strategies did the usual marketing plan update and showed how well they have done in promoting VC. It wasn’t in the meeting package but they had a graph in the presentation showing this success which ended with “awareness” as the result of all the efforts. I said awareness was nice but that we need an impact measure. I asked if they could also link their activities to an actual bottom line benefit to the county….ie increased revenue. I got the answer you always get from marketing people that you can’t quantify marketing to a bottom line result directly. I said that the Tourism and Lodging tax revenues seem to be flat for a few years and I would have expected that all of the activities and events would have moved that needle a bit. Even if people don’t spend the night, if more and more people are coming to town the tax revenue should be impacted a bit right?
Board member Ron Gallagher, with Lance Gilman agreeing, said that it’s always hard to quantify but that we don’t know what those revenues would be without the marketing, promotion and event activities. Without the marketing efforts the revenues may have continued to decline as a result of the scorching recession we experienced. This is a very valid point which I agree with. I fear, however, that VCTC will take on faith that all of the marketing and promotional activities are resulting in a positive bottom line impact when they aren’t even trying to connect the marketing/advertising/events to actual real dollar impact. I have a feeling that VCTC is assuming that the money and effort thrown at the marketing/promotion and event activities are both necessary and sufficient to improve our VC revenues over time and in the face of another economic downturn. I’d need to see proof …but that’s just me.
The special events report was a mix of $gains and $losses on the listed events. Hard to tell how we did overall for the year. Lance asked for an update at the January meeting of the results for all of the events. Liquid Blue agreed. Merchants may want to attend the January meeting to hear the review and provide feedback.
Deny gave a brief update on Cemetery Gin project and said that it needed to be handed off to some other organization to manage since it was now becoming a beverage distribution activity and he doesn’t have the staff to do it. Board Chair Scott Jolcover stated that the VCTC is not in the food and beverage business and that the way this project is shaping up it needs to get managed by someone else probably outside the county structure. VCTC and Virginia City now have a great branded product (the gin in our own gin bottle) …now the VCTC just needs to order the bottles they need to sell in the Visitor Center and use for their own promotional activities. The rest of the distribution strategy (global promotion, placement in bars, distillery ordering, follow-on products) needs to be done by professionals in the industry. Basically VCTC birthed a baby they can’t raise and now it needs a home.
Katie Demuth gave the Groups/Tradeshow update which segued into a discussion about the wild horses. One of the topics was how to re vitalize our parades and get the whole county, citizens, schools, merchants and TRI companies involved in our parades with floats, excitement and a sense of pride making it an even bigger draw for people to come and watch.
Over time the parade entrants have been falling off and quite frankly we need more flair in our parades. Lance made the comment that we need to reach out to the companies at TRI to participate on a community level….not just ask them for money. As an example he says that all of the companies moving into TRI are totally enamored with the horses and many of the companies are contributing to making it a safer place out there for the horses to stay. They are concerned for their safety and wellbeing. He says that the TRI companies want to be good corporate and community citizens and would welcome participation in our VC events. Deny agreed and said there needs to be a strategy aimed at doing that.
The next meeting of the VCTC will be January 14th 2016 at the VIRGINIA CITY CONFERENCE CENTER (VCCC)…aka B of A building at 10 South E street.