THE MERCHANTS PRESENT THEIR TOP 3 ISSUES AND PROPOSED SOLUTIONS TO A VERY RECEPTIVE VCTC BOARD….MORE WORK TO BE DONE BUT A GOOD FIRST STEP.
5 OF OUR COMSTOCK “GEMS” HAVE PUT TOGETHER A FANTASTIC UPSCALE TOUR CONCEPT THAT WHEN IT WORKS WILL SET A NEW STANDARD FOR THE TOWN
THE MERCHANTS WILL LIKELY NEED BILINGUAL SPANISH SPEAKERS TO HELP THEM WHEN THE RODEO CROWDS ARRIVE
BOTH TOURISM AND LODGING TAXES WERE UP OVER LAST YEAR AND ARE AHEAD OF BUDGET.
By Nicole Barde
This was an interesting meeting since the Merchants Coalition had prepared a list of their top 3 issues and presented them along with their proposed solutions to the Board.
During Public Comment at the beginning of the meeting Richard Oates, Canvas Cafe and Breck Greninger, Kettle Corn, did the talking. The list of the Top 3 can be found at the end of this article.
The presentation was well received by the Board with each member expressing how impressed they were with the thoroughness of the items and proposals. They said that there were several of the proposals that could be implemented as “ low hanging fruit”, that there was already an effort underway to get a more accurate map produced and that they would re-look at how to bring back the Docent program.
The issue with the Docent program in the past, according to Commission Chair Ron Gallagher, is that they sometimes gave out the wrong “historical” information. Additionally that since they received a stipend for the hours worked it was sometimes the case that they were in the establishments more than being on the street interacting with the visitors.
It was mentioned that in this age of Social Media and online PR and shopping that “visitor relations” is a high touch activity and not something that can get done by “messaging”. Meaning that it has to be a personal experience for the visitors. The Docents are part of the “high touch” experience that promotes the town. It was also suggested that the Merchants themselves dress in costume to the best of their ability in order to help with the visitor experience.
Commission member Corrado DeGasperas commented on the professionalism of the presentation and noted that the merchants have a common goal with the VCTC and that everyone has a role to play.
He agreed with the “high touch” nature of the visitor experience. He noted that the 601’ s might also be called into action to help out along with the docents.
Commission Member Lance Gilman said that he was happy to see everyone at the meeting ….“ this is a wonderful development”. He also commented that there are costs associated with what some of the Merchants want to do and that will have to be defined and addressed.
Judy Cohen, Silver Stope, commented that there had been financial decisions made in the past that were not prudent. The Black and Howell building was purchased for $85K and that it is now just a hole in the ground. She suggested that they sell that lot in order to get some funding.
The presentation ended with the commitment by the Commission to see what can be done immediately in Executive Director Deny Dotson’s absence. There were some of the proposals that would need to get worked out thru workshops and roundtable discussions. It was also agreed that the Merchants would have a standing agenda item in the future in order to give updates on their progress and to keep the channels of communication open.
Next up was Elaine Spencer, Executive Director of the V&T Railway Commission, She reported that they were “filling the train” to capacity on the weekends. They will be giving the passengers special badges so that merchants can identify them and hopefully give them a special discount when they purchase goods.
She reported that they had developed numerous specialty train rides such as the 3 Melodrama Westworld themed rides with Canvas Cafe catering them. There will be 7 events by October one such event is the Camel Race train. She also announced that the three day ( Friday-Sunday) schedule begins July 13th.
Elaine said that they are limited, not by lack of interest in the train, but by the inability to pull more than 2 cars….which is about breakeven for the line. Engine 18 has been out of commission and being repaired for 3 years and is the only engine we have that can pull more than the 2 cars currently in use. She also said that they will need more marketing dollars for promotion since they are adding so many new features to the train experience.
It was noted that the merchants need to know when the trains are arriving so that they can prepare for the passengers.
Board member Angelo Petrini asked the merchants if business is better since the recession. That the VCTC had never had a large budget before and that over the years it has focussed on the events in order to bring lots of people into the town. He felt that the town has many more visitors than before and that it should be benefitting the merchants’ sales. He noted that his business has gotten better and expected that it was the same for the other merchants. He also noted that Storey County is the richest county per capita as a result of TRIC as an indicator of things improving overall.
I made a comment that while it may be true that there are more people coming into town that the merchant’s costs have also gone up over the period since the recession and that overall those expenses eat into any profit they get thru the increase in volume.
Lara Mather, Executive Director of the 4th Ward school gave a great update on the status of the project that the 4th Ward, St. Mary’s Art Center, Pipers, the Cemetery and St. Mary’s Church have been developing.
The group has put together a “ secret tour” program for what they are calling “ the five Diamonds”. The tours are of the places in each of the venues that the public doesn’t typically get to see. The tours will be for 20 people, they will be catered since they will be fairly lengthy and will focus on a history rich day in the life on the Comstock as it relates to going to church ( St. Marys), going to school ( 4th Ward), going for a night out ( Pipers) going to the hospital when injured in the mines ( St. Mary’s Art Center) and dying ( the cemetery). They have a beautiful pamphlet that speaks to each of the venues and the theme is “Step out of the ordinary into the Extraordinary.”
They will be promoting it thru the usual channels but will also personally be going to the casinos up at the lake to pitch this to the high rollers and their families.
Lara thanked Kaie Demuth, VCTC Manager, for her help on the project and will be updating the Board as the project progresses.
SIDENOTE- I sat in stunned silence while Lara was giving this update. To say I was impressed is an understatement. I was SO PROUD of what this group was doing….the concept is brilliant.
I was even more proud that they were doing it themselves. A free market approach to the creation of an opportunity and the solving of a problem. They didn’t expect the VCTC to do it for them, they defined their problem ( raising funds) and came up with a workable ( out of the box) solution. It may or may not work but they own it and they will find their own solutions with the help of the VCTC as a resource. Knowing the players on this team this will be a spectacular success. What a feather in our cap as a community!
Now…… this does bring up what the role of the VCTC is and what it should be. One of the issues that the merchants brought up was a lack of communication between them and the VCTC. This has resulted in mis-information and lack of clarity with who does what and what can be done with and without the VCTC’s involvement or approval. The VCTC may have grown its activities to fill a vacuum that may need to be filled by the merchants themselves. All of this needs to get worked out during the future meetings with the VCTC and the Merchants.
But I digress….
At the end of Lara’s update Corrado said “ I want to cry…thank you…this is amazing”.. I second that emotion!
Next up was the special events update from Liquid Blue.
Chili on the Comstock had a good year and were $15k to the positive. Taste of the Comstock lost a bit of money, there weren’t as many food venues as in years past.
The promotion for the Rodeo is in full swing. Since it will be a Spanish themed rodeo there is a great deal of promotion being done in the Hispanic communities, radio and TV stations. Liquid Blue has also personally been going to the Hispanic markets in Reno to put up flyers. This brings up the issue of the need for Spanish speaking people in the town’s venues and shops. The merchants might want to see which of their neighbors is conversant in Spanish to help them out with what will surely be a very busy weekend.
The Camel Race ticket sales are looking good. Liquid Blue has reached out to the High School to help out with booths at the venue. Liquid Blue will give the school some of the proceeds for helping out. The merchants might also look into hiring a high school student to man their booth at the venue. Just a thought.
There was some discussion about both the parking problem and how to get people up from the fairgrounds to C street. There will be a shuttle but the legalities of having a step on and step off service are a barrier at this time. Since C street is actually a state Highway there are requirements such as a certification program in order to drive it as a business. The cart shuttle asks for tips instead of charging a fee so it’s not specifically a “business”.
Katie Demuth reported on the 4th of July. She said that the town was not as busy as other years since it was on a Wednesday and families probably had to leave early. Altho she hadn’t gotten the donation jars from the merchants yet she says that the fireworks were about $7k in the hole for the year. This is despite merchants pitching in and Lance Gilman’s donation of $5k. She also said that there were some donations which came in thru Instagram which was cool but somewhat surprising.
The Classic Car show is coming up on July 21st and Hot August Nights on August 3rd.
Next up was the Marketing update. You can read it for yourself HERE. The net-net of this for me was that there are lots of comments and pictures of the various merchant establishments on Facebook and Instagram. That is to say, our visitors are actually promoting specific stores thru their comments. It was mentioned that the merchants don’t know about this and should really be made aware of it. One of the issues brought up by the merchants was the perceived lack of promotion of specific stores….this is at least one place where it is happening.
Katie Demuth reported that the Visitor Center is getting 4 1/2 out of 5 stars or balloons on Trip Advisor…this is great! It is also listed at number 3 out of 38 VC attractions. #1 is the Trolley and # 2 is St. Mary’s Church.
Last but not least was the Transient Lodging Tax report which has this June at $28.8k as compared to last June which was at $14,944. WAAAY UP over last year. The total for the year is ahead by $24k so far.
The Tourism Tax was also WAAAY UP over last year by $91k and is ahead of budget by about $85k.
TOP 3 MERCHANT ISSUES WITH THE VCTC
#1=Lack of a direct and clear “voice of the merchants” into the VCTC planning process has led to several issues with Events:
- external vendors and services directly competing with the town’s businesses
- cancellation of popular events such as Steampunk, Americana Music festival and Ferrari Hill climb without merchant inputs
- booth placements and street closures restricting the flow of visitors to the whole of C street and blocking entrances to the stores
- other features that are missing such as the effective use of the PA system for the whole length of C street
- lack of music or other festive effects
- lack of accurate physical maps to guide our visitors to our stores and services.
- There are also week-ends during the season which have no planned events which we would like filled.
- We would like to select a member that will represent the merchants to sit on the VCTC rather than having that person be appointed by the County Commission.
- We would also like to have a standing Events sub committee comprised of the events co-ordinators ( ie Liquid Blue & the VCTC ) and merchants to plan each Event including the selection of the vendors, the logistics and the promotion strategy.
#2=Lack of effective communication between the VCTC and the merchants.
- The majority of the merchants feel out of the loop on many things and are mis-informed about others.
- There is a lack of understanding of how and where the town gets promoted.
- There is a perception that the local promotion isn’t as effective as it could be (no promo at the airport).
- “Beneath the Surface” video series is a useful tool to promote the town but we do not feel that they go far enough to promote specific attractions, shops, and food and lodging establishments….many of which are historic in their own right.
- We would like to meet with the VCTC to develop a communication strategy between the merchants and the VCTC that works for US. We don’t all work well with email or social media so there has to be other options.
- We would like a clear, concise and factual explanation of the roles and responsibilities of the VCTC and it’s vendors with regards to events and overall promotion. A printed fact sheet would work best for us.
- We would also like to review the overall promotion and marketing strategy for the town both for events and the general image and branding strategy.
- In addition we would like to participate in the formation of the PR and marketing strategy going forward. This can be done thru our chosen representative and a subcommittee.
- Lastly, we would like more videos, perhaps shorter in duration, that are more merchant focused and feature more of the towns unique offerings , attractions and our Brand.
#3=The elimination of the Docent program has had an effect on the experience of our visitors. We know that people don’t come to VC to shop at our stores. They come for the experience. Once here it is up to us to entice them into our establishments. While the events are a fun experience they are not what WE are about as a town. We are an historical attraction and in addition to having a rich history and wonderful historic buildings we need to “walk our history”. The docents did that. They were an attraction unto themselves and were a unique feature in a town of unique features.
- Reinstate the Docent program. We understand that there might have been issues that contributed to stopping the program but we would like the opportunity to reopen the decision and review those issues to see if we can come up with workable solutions.
The Merchants are working on forming a Merchant Coalition which will work on common problems and solutions. Among other things we will look for ways to ensure that merchant participation at the VCTC meetings is increased. We are scheduling regular meetings to work on these things. Our next meeting is on July 30th at 6pm at St. Mary’s Art Center.