Saturday, February 28, 2015

CVB Forced To Market Valley On Shrinking Shoestring

Saturday, February 28, 2015

CVB Forced To Market Valley On Shrinking Shoestring
By Grant Welker

LOWELL — With only two full-time workers and another two part-time, the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau doesn’t have many places in its budget where it can cut without having to eliminate someone’s job.

In having to cut more than $100,000 this year after a drop in state financial support, the office has cut back on marketing, switching from paid advertisements in print publications to doing free promotions.

“You don’t want to lose momentum,” the bureau’s executive director, Deb Belanger, said of carefully choosing where to cut spending. “You want to be out there promoting the Merrimack Valley.”

The CVB, as it is known, is a critical component of getting the word out about the region, from Lowell National Historical Park to the North Bridge in Concord and the Lexington Battle Green. It doesn’t want any budget cut to undo work it has done to draw more visitors to the area’s attractions.

Tourism in Massachusetts generates nearly $1 billion in state and local taxes and $16.9 billion in travel-related expenditures, supporting nearly 125,000 in-state jobs, according to the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

“Our organization is (fiscally) conservative. We’ve always been conservative,” Belanger said. “But we have to make tough decisions sometimes.”

It had to make those tough decisions after Gov. Deval Patrick enacted cuts in November. Of the Merrimack Valley bureau’s roughly $800,000 budget, almost half — $375,000 — came from the state this budget year. The state’s amount was reduced to $268,000.

“It’s tough,” Belanger said. “Especially five months into the (fiscal) year.”

The visitors bureau, which is one of 16 such offices in the state, has also seen funding drop in the long term from its member cities and towns. Lowell, for example, used to give $100,000 but now gives only $25,000. Chelmsford is the only other community that contributes on a regular basis, and gives $5,000.

The bureau is in regular talks with member communities about funding contributions, Belanger said.

The bureau’s 21 member communities are: Acton, Bedford, Billerica, Boxboro, Burlington, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Concord, Dracut, Dunstable, Lexington, Lincoln, Littleton, Lowell, Maynard, Stow, Tewksbury, Tyngsboro, Westford, Wilmington and Woburn.

Concord and Lexington, big tourist draws as central sites for the Revolutionary War, both have their own tourism offices in addition to their ties to the Merrimack Valley bureau.

Other funding comes from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, which this year was about $260,000, and from revenue from membership and sponsors for various programs.

In response to the latest cuts, the bureau eliminated planned advertising in print publications, such as sports destination magazines. Instead, it worked with the travel group AAA on a getaway package promoted in Connecticut that was free for the bureau, Belanger said. It is also looking at revenue increases to help close the budget gap by offering advertising opportunities in some programs.

State Rep. Tom Golden, a Lowell Democrat, knows the difficult balance of maintaining funding for programs like tourism when education, public-safety and health-care advocates are also fighting for every dollar. But the benefit of tourism is clear, he said.

“It’s not a secret that tourism is the third-largest industry in Massachu-setts,” said Golden, who is the Merrimack Valley bureau’s board chairman.

Tourist or group bookings also don’t happen by accident, he said. Both Golden and Belanger mentioned a Jehovah’s Witness group that will hold meetings in Lowell for five weekends in May, June and July, bringing thousands to the city each weekend. That was the result of the Merrimack Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau marketing itself and the region, they said.

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