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The Remaking of Tourism in 5 U.S. Cities

Skift Take

Five U.S. destinations geographically spread out, of varying sizes and with different transformative strategies — and challenges — point to what destination marketing organizations will have to do in the coming years.

If the pandemic taught the travel industry anything, it is that change is necessary. For some local tourism officials in the U.S., transformation had been under way well before 2020, but new plans to serve visitors and local communities alike crystallized in the past year.

That’s why we thought the time was right to highlight some of these changes through five U.S. destinations — Boston; Charlottesville, Virginia; Paso Robles, California; Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Each destination’s tourism bureau was selected for a specific change they are undergoing, but at least two coincidentally converged around inclusivity, remote work, alternative funding models, community feedback or growing pains. Each one also touched the Skift megatrends of overtourism coming to rural and outdoor destinations, communities no longer being spectators in travel or the influence of remote work on traveler mobility.

Charlottesville and Boston embraced inclusivity in their destination marketing. Boston is trying to expand its historic image by including its diverse neighborhoods and their histories in their marketing campaigns. Charlottesville, prompted by a national white supremacist visitor riot, is doing internal work to incorporate historically marginalized Black businesses and voices and diversify its visitors. 

Chattanooga and Jackson Hole turn remote workers into residents. Chattanooga attracts visitors and then gets them to stay as residents thanks to its thriving tech business ecosystem and recreational amenities, while Jackson Valley does it with beautiful natural parks, ski mountains, its small town of Jackson, remoteness and low taxes.

Paso Robles and Boston embraced a funding mechanism that gave each a sustainable source of funding to support their marketing efforts. For Paso Robles, it allowed them to keep the lights on during the pandemic crisis and help them survive future ones. Boston now has access to millions in newly raised money to support its global ambition.

But Jackson Hole and Paso Robles, both rural destinations, are trying to deal with growing pains from the success of tourism. For Paso Robles, it’s translated into a ballot initiative to raise lodging taxes for community initiatives. In the town of Jackson, residents expressed dissatisfaction about tourism’s impact on their community in surveys and meetings.

Here’s our deeper take:

Boston Seeks to Spread Wealth of Tourism

Boston’s destination marketing organization did away with the name “Greater Boston Visitor and Convention Bureau” — its name since 1976 — and announced it will forever be called “Meet Boston” at its annual meeting on December 6.

At the same meeting, Meet Boston also announced a $7 million campaign to attract visitor traffic all year round. With the tagline “Boston Never Gets Old,” the multimillion dollar campaign will cover social media, commercials, digital banners, programmatic media buys and more channels. The campaign’s message is that the city is innovative, still forging its identity and more than just the American Revolution.

The historic name change and expensive new campaign is part of what Boston’s tourism bureau wants to accomplish: promote a complex global image of the 392-year-old city, one that is more inclusive and highlights the city’s multiple dimensions and spreads the wealth of tourism across the city and year-round.

Boston is one of the U.S.’s top tourist destinations and is a gateway city for international tourists into the rest of the country, according to Peter van Berkel, chairman of the International Inbound Travel Association and president of Travalco, a tour operator. 

But the renown destination has an outdated image. When people think of Boston, they think of Matt Damon, Ben Afflick, the Wahlbergs, Fenway Park, the Red Sox, Faneuil Hall, Samuel Adams (the beer) and the stereotypical Boston accent, according to Meet Boston President and CEO Martha Sheridan. “None of that’s wrong, but it’s so it’s very one-dimensional,” she said.  

During the pandemic, research conducted by the tourism bureau and city agencies found that “people’s impression of Boston was that it was very white male dominated, drunk guys, sports fanatics,” according to Sheridan.

The city’s neighborhoods have a rich history and diversity that’s too often overlooked. Roxbury was where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met Coretta Scott. The city is unveiling a monument called “The Embrace” to commemorate the neighborhood’s role in their romance. East Boston, where the airport is located, has thriving Italian-American and Latinx communities with delicious restaurants and beautiful art. 

The simple narrative comes down to storytelling being done too much by others, but not by the city, said Sheridan. In April 2021, Mayor Kim Janey launched the “All Inclusive Bostondigital ad campaign, which aims to curate new narratives that highlighted its diverse neighborhoods, cultures, peoples and histories. 

The $2.5 million digital campaign came at a time to bring back Boston’s devastated tourism economy.  Between February and April 2020, occupancy dropped from 72.7 percent to 5.3 percent, according to the Pinnacle Advisory Group. For 2020, Boston and Cambridge’s occupancy rate was less than 26 percent. 

“For lodging establishments that had 500, 600 or 30 rooms, the income wasn’t there. They were doing no occupancy or 4 percent occupancy. Some large hotels did maybe 7 percent,” said Paul Sacco, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Lodging Association and a native Bostonian. “It was the worst time I had ever seen in my lifetime in the industry.”

As part of the campaign, the city contracted with black women-owned businesses, or businesses owned by people of color and drew 4,000 visitors last year. Mayor Janey extended it for a second phase in November 2021 and her successor extended it again in April 2022.

“People’s impression of Boston was that it was very white male dominated, drunk guys, sports fanatics.”

Greater Boston Visitor and Convention Bureau President and CEO Martha Sheridan

Meet Boston wants to go beyond and expand the city’s global image. “A lot of that prep work has helped sort of create the ethos that we’re working on pillars of inclusivity, being transformative and newsworthy and really making sure people know that Boston has a great history, but it has so much more and we want our presence to be known on the global stage and that’s what we’re doing with our increased funding,” Sheridan said.

Boston’s global audience seems ready to absorb that history. With international tourists, the city’s historical edge is one of its strongest pulls, according to Travalco’s van Berkel. Incorporating overlooked voices and stories will certainly add more to that edge and competitiveness.

To finance its ambitions, Meet Boston pursued the tourism improvement district model (TID). The destination marketing group historically relied on a combination of a state grant, membership dues, cooperative advertising and visitor center revenue. The organization’s budget was $7.5 million before the pandemic.

The state legislature made TID legal in 2021 after extensive industry lobbying by the Boston bureau and other tourism businesses. Massachusetts wasn’t the only recent state to pass legislation to make TID legal. In the last two years, the legislatures of Louisiana, Utah, Virginia, Rhode Island have passed similar laws to enable TIDs, according to Civitas, a tourism funding consultancy. 

Boston then won the approval of over 72 percent of the 100 hotels that were qualified to be in the district through education.  “What I found is they did a very good job educating folks on it,” Sacco said.

In August 2021, Boston and Cambridge City Councils passed the Boston-Cambridge Tourism Destination Marketing District (BCTDMD). Under the funding scheme, hotels in Boston and Cambridge charge guests a 1.5 percent assessment fee. In the first 12 months of the last collection cycle, the organization collected $26 million in new revenue. Combined with its preexisting $7.5 million budget that gives the organization over $34 million.

“The overall sales and marketing effort needed to be stepped up and that’s exactly what the BCTDMD does for Boston,” Sacco said. “There’s now an influx of funding that allows them to promote Greater Boston and Cambridge much more than they ever have.”

To see how effective the city is at spreading the wealth of tourism, Meet Boston invested in Near to measure visitor movements across the city, according to Sheriden. The destination marketing group has set aside several million dollars toward luring events and supporting traditional and new events in the neighborhoods. One such event will be the 2026 FIFA World Cup. 

The bureau is also giving its website new skin. “BostonUSA”, which is used in the bureau’s social media channels, website domain and internal email, will be replaced with Meet Boston. The phrase dates to back to the 2000s, when there was a movement among destinations to add “USA” to brand US cities that had UK and European counterparts, according to a Meet Boston spokesperson.

“BostonUSA plays into the patriotic nature of Boston as a historic city and it’s really good, but it doesn’t really focus on what we think people should learn about Boston when they come,” said Sheridan. “It’s again too one dimensional.”

Jackson Hole Climbs Toward a New Locals-Inclusive Tourism

Jackson Hole valley is currently wrestling with its future as a tourist destination as the locals of the small town of Jackson vocalize their frustration with tourism’s growth, which underscores a 2022 Skift megatrend that communities are no longer spectators

“Everybody seems to be wanting to know how we deal with tourism. Why aren’t we addressing why we are spending tens of millions of dollars a year to promote tourism? Why isn’t that on the table?” asked one resident who received some room applause for his question during a May community meeting held by the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Joint Powers Board to present its resident survey results. 

The resident isn’t alone in how he feels about tourism to Jackson Hole. Over 80 percent said they believe tourism development has been happening too fast and 90 percent support the need for more planning and controls, according to a survey commissioned by the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Joint Powers Board’s nearly 5,000 residents between February and April 2022. The town of Jackson has 11,000 residents.

The resident survey is part of the tourism board’s efforts to draft a five year roadmap for sustainably managing and marketing Jackson Hole. Over the past year, the tourism board has been conducting workshops, community and focus groups, surveying, gathering information and meeting with residents, according to Kathryn Brackenridge, the outgoing executive director of the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Joint Powers Board.

“The vision is really prioritizing a balance of residential and visitor needs and making sure quality of life and experience on the destination level is the number one priority for the long term,” Brackenrdige said. 

Tourism officials are in the fourth phase of the five phase plan, which will launch early next year. The board is made up of seven volunteers appointed by the Teton County Board of County Commissioners and Jackson Town Council.

The tourism board used its fund of $4.1 million for destination marketing, visitor education, events, and other tourism-related initiatives for the July 2020 to June 2021 period, according to its 2021 annual report. The fund comes from a 5 percent state lodging tax. While 3 percent goes to Wyoming tourism authorities, the remaining 2 percent goes to the county, 60 percent of which goes to the tourism board and the remaining 40 percent goes toward the town of Jackson and Teton County to use on visitor impact mitigation. That fund amounted to $2.8 million for the July 2020 to June 2021 period.

“What we are doing is having a very deep internal conversation about what do we want the future of our tourism economy to be set in the context of the health of our ecosystem, the kind of community we are, the kind of economy that is arising around who we are and how we’re doing it,” said Jonathan Schechter, a resident of 35 years, a Jackson Town Council member and founder and executive director of Charture Institute, a Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based environmental think tank.

Jackson Hole is home to Grand Teton National Park, over a third of Yellowstone National Park,  National Museum of Wildlife Art, a national elk refuge, dog sledding, a skiing culture and rich wildlife, hot springs and other assets.

Along with these assets is a fledgling tourist infrastructure. Around 23 percent of private sector jobs are in tourism in Teton County. The destination hosts multiple ski resorts, high end restaurants, lodging providers, shopping, recreational activities and an airport.  The valley receives more than 2.6 million visitors per year, according to the Jackson Hole Tourism Board.

“The overwhelming attitude is that the ‘Hole’ has become a s-hole, and we need to limit visitation lest we become like Venice. (Italy or Ca.).“

Resident Chris Schroeder

Its assets and amenities turned some of the richest visitors and their families into residents. Teton County has the highest income from assets per capita in the U.S. at $161,4000, according to the Economic Innovation Group.

These same assets and amenities proved priceless during the pandemic when Jackson Hole saw tourism explode like other rural destinations, a Skift megatrend. “It’s almost like the pandemic sort of poured vaseline on the fiery interest in Jackson, Grand Teton and Yellowstone particularly because domestic travel was the best and easiest option for most people in this country,” said the tourism board’s Brackenridge. 

Grand Teton and Yellowstone experienced record visitation at 4.9 million and 3.9 million in 2021, respectively, according to the National Park Service.

Lodging tax receipts totaled $4.9 million for the 2021 fiscal year, up almost 20 percent from the fiscal year 2019, according to Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board’s annual report. In the summer of 2021, average hotel occupancy was well over 80 percent and higher than levels for the last five summers. 

For some locals, the explosion in visitor interest has brought overtourism to the area, throwing a wrench into their quality of life. “The tourist volume to Teton County and GTNP and Yellowstone NP are excessive,” wrote resident Jeffrey Kochan in a popularly upvoted public comment posted four months ago. “Access to the parks is now more overwhelming than ever, so much so that residents are finding it more difficult to make reservations in their own national parks. I would encourage those responsible to stop promoting Teton County and the parks to international tourism.”

About 98 percent said tourism contributes to traffic problems and overcrowding of attractions and 86 percent said it did not support the integrity of the natural environment, according to a survey commissioned by the tourism board of nearly 5,000 residents between February and April this year.

During the pandemic, remote workers flocked to the county to work in peace and made Jackson Valley their new nest. “The zoom town happened and a lot of the zoom town hasn’t left,” said Kevin Kavanagh, a resident of Jackson Hole for 28 years and a property manager for vacation rental agency Clear Creek Group. Remote workers were coming before the pandemic but the trend accelerated as the world shifted to zoom over in-person interactions.

The cost of housing in the area has subsequently shot up, causing a housing shortage for the workforce. In the next five years, the county needs 5,300 housing units in order to keep up with growing housing needs, according to the Teton Region Housing Needs Assessment

“If you weren’t in the [housing] market prior to Covid, it’s getting damn near impossible to live in Teton County,” Kavanagh said. Less than three percent of Jackson Hole is privately held, according to Charture Institute’s Schechter.

The housing shortage keeps out workers as well as makes them harder to retain across all sectors. About 15 percent of jobs in the county are unfulfilled, according to the Teton Region Housing Needs Assessment. Around 80 percent of employers said the lack of housing was the number one reason.

By keeping out young and ambitious workers, the community is sacrificing its energy and culture. “It’s killed our culture in a way because you can’t have that enthusiastic ski bum that’s highly educated but wants to take a few years and bum around, do the night job and then that wears off and becomes serious and become the hotel manager and work his way up the ladder,” Kavanagh said.

Quality of life, community changes and housing shortages have contributed to anti-visitor growth sentiment. About 66 percent of residents said they are willing to pay more for local public services if it means having less visitors. 

“The overwhelming attitude is that the “Hole” has become a s-hole, and we need to limit visitation lest we become like Venice. (Italy or Ca.), “ Chris Schroeder wrote in a multiple paragraph public comment after attending the May community public meeting.

At a November the tourism board meeting to update the community on its sustainable destination management plan, one of the presentation slides noted ”the purpose of the plan is not to grow visitation numbers, but rather to ensure tourism is positive force for people, for nature and for the economy.”

Charlottesville Embraces the Richness of Black Voices

Charlottesville, Virginia, is elevating the diversity of stories, voices and businesses of its Black community when it comes to tourism promotion and its public landscape.

The city is famous for its association with Thomas Jefferson. Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation and estate, is located just outside the city. The city’s historical narrative revolved around him and he was the hero of the story, according to Courtney Cacatian, executive director of Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau (CACVB).

For around century, the destination featured statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, Confederate generals who fought to preserve the enslavement of Blacks in the Civil War and symbolized Jim Crow and White supremacy. 

Black voices and stories were suppressed or reduced to supporting characters. The Charlottesville Albemarle Visitors Bureau historically played a role “in minimizing the whole history of things that happened here by telling people their stories weren’t important enough to be told or not compelling enough to get visitors here,” said Cacatian. 

It was under this atmosphere that the city attracted an unwelcome group of visitors: white supremacists. In 2017, white supremacists rallied there to express opposition against the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park (now Market Street Park) in the city’s downtown. Called “United the Right,” the rally left three people dead and over 50 people injured. 

“Nobody was going to promote Charlottesville in 2018, 2019 and 2020 in a big way.”

Stay CHarlottesvile CoFounder Travis WilburN

The incident made global headlines in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and other national news outlets. President Joe Biden said the event inspired his decision to run in 2020.

After the event, trips to the destination didn’t actually change. Hotel occupancy rates remained above 70 percent in September 2017, according to Cacatian. 2019 was actually a record year for the city in terms of visitors, she said. 

Promotional investment, however, froze. “Nobody was going to promote Charlottesville in 2018, 2019 and 2020 in a big way,” said Travis Wilburn, a resident of 22 years, cofounder of Stay Charlottesville and multiple tourism businesses and a former member of the Charlottesville Albemarle Visitors Bureau board. “Now you are starting to see it come back.”

In research conducted in the winter period of 2019 to 2020, the Charlottesville Albemarle Visitors Bureau found prospective visitors thought of words like “racism,” “riot” and “white supremacy” when asked what words came to mind when they thought of the Charlottesville region. 

To this day, the destination’s name is associated with hate in national discussions on race. On the fifth anniversary of the incident, the White House and news outlets emphasized the event as a turning point in American history and a reminder to resist hate and bigotry. Search results for the destination’s name on Google Images contain images of the rally to this day.

“It’s frustrating for us as a community to try to get beyond that because Charlottesville has now become that moment in time when they are talking about us in national media,” said Cacatian. “But it was really apparent we had so much work to do at home.” 

Local tourism officials came to realize that the narrative they historically operated under attracted the wrong kind of visitors. When she came in August 2019 as executive director, Cacatian spent the first six months on a community listening tour. During the pandemic, she hosted meetings with Black leaders who gave intensive feedback, which underscores the Skift megatrend that residents are having a greater say on travel to their community.  

What came out was the Discover Black CVille initiative, which aims to elevate and reclaim Black voices and stories in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. It highlights historically marginalized Black stories and historical attractions as well as over 40 Black-owned restaurants, hotels, wineries, bakeries and other tourism businesses. The initiative has a dedicated landing page, a directory, Instagram and Twitter accounts and is advertised nationally.

“There is so much Black culture there, so much vibrancy in Charlottesville,” said Gayle Jessup White, public relations and community engagement officer of Monticello, a descendant of slaves of Thomas Jefferson and who served on the steering committee. “Our goal is to elevate the presence of that community so other people can partake and enjoy and learn and that’s very much what Black CVille was about.”

The Confederate statues that made white supremacists feel welcomed have been removed. Parks named after Confederate leaders have been renamed. The Charlottesville Albemarle tourism board has been remade to include more diversity.

The Robert E. Lee statue was removed in July 2021 by city council and donated to the local Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to be melted down and turned into an inclusive public art display. There’s an ongoing lawsuit to stop the project.

The effectiveness of the bureau’s initiatives is still unclear. Cacatian said she has anecdotal evidence from local town leaders in the county that they are attracting more visitors of color than ever before.

To quantify the impact, Charlottesville Albemarle Visitors Bureau partnered with Destination International’s new “Tourism for All” initiative, which assesses destination marketing organizations on diversity, equity and inclusion.  Under the program, the Charlottesville Albemarle Visitors Bureau will be its pilot partner and will work with Tripadvisor to track diversity, equity and inclusion-term usage in ratings, reviews and traveler-generated content. The program will be launched to all destinations wishing to participate in early 2024.

Looking at the long term, it remains to be seen how long the Charlottesville Albemarle Visitor Bureau’s diversity, equity and inclusion revolution will last. “One of the hardest things sitting in my seat is making sure that we’ve created the framework sustainable if I leave,” Cacatian said. 

Chattanooga Transitions Visitors Into Residents With Tech

Chattanooga, Tennessee, has turned itself into the “Gig City,” a destination where a tech ecosystem has become an attractive asset for luring and transitioning visitors into residents.

The destination’s evolution took place over a decade. In 2010, EPB, the municipal electric utility, launched a community-wide fiber optic network capable of delivering 1 gigabit (1,000 Mbps) Internet speeds, a first for a city in the United States and which earned it the Gig City nickname. Five years later, EPB upgraded it to 10 gigabit (10 Gig) Internet service. 

What makes a gig significant is they enable faster internet speeds and more user traffic at the same time. Under faster connections, users can have quick downloads, faster load times and smoother connection on video calls and streaming, according to HighSpeedInternet.com

To date, the biggest event the convention center has hosted has been The Church of God of Prophecy International Office’s 2018 Biennial International Assembly at the Chattanooga Convention Center which welcomed 11,000 attendees. 

This year, EPB has launched the nation’s first community-wide 25 gigabits per second internet service to be available to all residential and commercial customers, making it the fastest multi-gigabit broadband service available in the U.S.

In August, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Convention Center announced it became the first customer to roll out EPB’s 25 gigabit internet speed. With such connectivity power, Chattanooga aims to attract large-scale e-gaming, streaming and hybrid virtual conferences, said Barry White, CEO of Chattanooga Tourism Company, which provides destination marketing for the city.  

“One of the first questions we get asked: ‘What’s the internet speed? Because I’m coming here to work.’ It’s drawn people here like crazy.” 

Chattanooga Vacation Rentals Founder Christian Thoreson

The county and city governments have each dedicated $151,000 in infrastructure funding for a total of $302,000 to cover the cost of installing new networking equipment and Wi-Fi access points throughout the convention center. 

“We want 10,000 people in our convention center, all of them are as happy as they can be because they are doing their emails and taking their notes without a problem or they are working their games and doing their competitions and [connectivity] will not be an issue,” said White.

The high-speed internet environment has enabled the tourism industry and other city stakeholders to reimagine and promote Chattanooga as a high-tech destination. “It really sets this tone that we have a lot of natural outdoors and activities, but we are also very technology-focused and forward in our development,” White said. 

Developed primarily for residents, the high speed has become an attractive asset, especially as companies are more interested than ever in facilitating opportunities for employees to stay connected as they embrace remote work, a Skift megatrend.

In the last five years, the number of visitors coming to work remotely and take advantage of the destination’s tech amenities have grown immensely, said Christian Thoreson, a local of 35 years and owner of Chattanooga Vacation Rentals. In 2020 and 2021, Chattanooga had a spike in the number of visitors staying four days or more, according to Chattanooga Tourism Company.

Chattanooga has been ranked as one of the best places to work remotely by Zillow and MakeMyMove, Orchard and Forbes. “One of the first questions we get asked ‘What’s the internet speed? Because I’m coming here to work’, ” said Thoreson. “It’s drawn people here like crazy.” 

It’s a marketing tool for attracting visitors and turning them into local entrepreneurs and workers. The local Chamber of Commerce has a webpage dedicated to attracting remote workers, encouraging them to take “staycations” and partake in the city’s tourist attractions and activities. 

The destination attracts startup founders through events and competitions. “They come for a pitch competition or other startup event and stay for the resources we provide to make their ideas possible,” said Bill Lupia, director of small business and entrepreneurship at the Hamilton County Business Development Center.

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce also hosts the INCubator, a three year program that helps startups capitalize on Hamilton County’s business ecosystem.  “We have a success rate of 92 percent of companies who graduate out into the community that are still in business 5 years after their stay in the INCubator,” Lupia said. 

A common trajectory for visitors is to be drawn in by Chattanooga Tourism Company’s advertising and then fall love with the city and become residents, a pattern “I’ve seen over and over again,” said Thoreson. The destination marketing organization works with the chamber of commerce, for example, to provide a pass to visitors who stayed and worked in at least three different locations and opportunities to win discounts at tourist attractions and hotels. 

For every 100 people moving out of Chattanooga, 300 are moving in, according to tech relocation company MoveBuddha’s 2021-2022 Tennessee Migration Report

During the pandemic, the city’s outdoor recreation opportunities like hiking and canoeing gave it a faster recovery than other destinations, which follows a megatrend Skift has highlighted.  By early 2021, Chattanooga had reached 2019 visitation numbers, according to White. In 2021, the destination had a total of 15.3 million visitors and direct visitor spending amounted to $1.5 billion, according to Chattanooga Tourism Company.

Chattanooga hosts a large startup community, which facilitated the growth of famous startups like Bellhops and Echelon Health and Fitness. In the downtown area, there’s an area called the Innovation District, where many startups are housed. 

It’s not just startups, but the city has attracted large companies from other states and countries. Branch and One Off Robotics, for example, relocated from Alabama. International companies like Volkswagen and Australia’s Tritium DCFC Ltd. are investing their electric vehicle plants here.

Overtourism is not a problem for Chattanooga right now, according to White. “We’re not at a place where there is too much tourism so we want to manage that,” he said. He says the focus is to make sure they are sustainably managing their trails, rivers and other attractions as best as they can. 

The destination marketing group is conducting its first resident survey. “I did get a couple of board members to scratch their heads and say ‘Is there a problem with [overtourism] ?’ I said ‘It’s not a problem, but we have to make sure it doesn’t become a problem.'”

Paso Robles Embraces New Funding Choices to Fund Its Tourist Destination

Paso Robles, California, a rural town, turned into a competitive destination thanks to tourism marketing supported by an alternative funding model.  

The destination was originally “a little rustic” and “really hometownie, which was great,” said Chris Taranto, Communications Director of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and has been in his position for 15 years.  The town was not originally set up to be a tourist destination, according to Travel Paso Executive Director Stacie Jacob.

Fast forward, Paso Robles has emerged as a tourist destination, especially as a wine hotspot. Paso Roble now has over 250 wineries and welcomes wine enthusiasts and experts.  The New York Times has labeled it as one of the top destinations for its wineries. 

“Going back 10 years, it wasn’t as refined as it is now where wineries have really taken the time to bring more of a hospitality bend to everything as far as coming in the doors and tasting,” Taranto said.

A big source of its growth has been due to Travel Paso, the destination marketing organization for the town, and its reorganizing under the tourism improvement district (TID) model, which gave it a dedicated source of funding for marketing over longer periods of time and during crises.

From 2009 to 2017, the city oversaw tourism operations and Travel Paso (then Travel Paso Robles Alliance) was in an advisory role and operated under a business improvement district (BID), under which it levied a two percent assessment on hotels. The scheme had to be renewed by the city council every year.

A large part of marketing was done by the the local wine industry. “Prior to 2017, our organization was the primary de facto marketing organization for the region, even though our focus was to market the region as a wine region and to try to elevate the reputation of the region,” Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance’s Taranto said. “We didn’t have a strong Paso DMO.”

In 2017, the Travel Paso Robles Alliance separated from the city and became a not-for-profit 501c (6) destination marketing organization known as Travel Paso. Members chose to redevelop as Travel Paso under TID, which was approved by the city council in July 2017 for five years.

Under the model, the city collects a 2 percent assessment from all lodging establishments, not just hotels and motels. That meant short-term rentals, campgrounds, RV parks and other lodging establishments contributed. The collection fees would only go toward promoting Paso Robles and driving heads in beds, Jacob said. Travel Paso took on administrative operations, which allows it to be more nimble. Instead of an annual renewal process, the model is renewed every five years by the city council, a relief for long-term planning and marketing.

Destination marketing organizations typically get their funding from a portion of the lodging tax revenue collected by the local government, which can reallocate the money as much as they wish on an annual basis.The TID model has become increasingly popular among DMOs in the U.S. Since originating in California in 1989, the funding mechanism has spread to almost 200 destinations across 20 states, according to Civitas, a tourism funding consultancy. 

With the new funding model, Travel Paso was able to protect its budget and finance new campaigns and promote the region and let tourism businesses focus on their products .“Once Travel Paso was established and under way, then we had a partner that can focus on travel stuff while we can focus our efforts on the brand messaging of Paso wine,” Taranto said. “As the wine started to elevate so did the hospitality as this promise of great wine existed out there.”

Thanks to the money raised by the TID model, Travel Paso was able to keep projects going amid the pandemic and California’s lockdown. Because the funding was secure until 2022 and couldn’t be touched, Travel Paso had cash to use when governments were slashing tourism marketing budgets.

“In times of crisis, which the pandemic became, we had sufficient reserve funds that allowed us to keep marketing all during that time,” Jacbo said. For the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Travel Paso operated with a budget of $680,206. The destination marketing group launched a new website, kept social platforms running and marketing campaigns around the open spaces and beautiful landscapes and promote local businesses. 

In its reopening campaign, it paid for a variety of marketing partnerships, videos series and 90 billboards throughout the state when it reopened in June 2021. “We kept the aspirational aspect of Paso Robles in mind of our audience. When things did open up, we saw that success,” Jacob said. The campaign helped turn Travel Paso into a finalist for the 2022 Visit California Poppy Awards, a statewide bi-annual award.

Tourist lodging revenue amounted to a record $7 million for the 2021 fiscal year. Between March 2021 and August 2022, the city collected nearly $9 million in revenue.  In two months alone, Paso Robles had over $1 million in lodging tax collection, which goes toward the city services. In a November meeting, Paso Robles City Council reported $920,000 more than anticipated in tax revenue for the fiscal year thanks to tourism.

The rural destination has plans to become an internationally competitive destination. “Who’s the competition? The competition isn’t just Nappa. It’s international. It’s the people that want to go to Spain, Italy or France,” Taranto said. “That’s the actual competition.”

Travel Paso Board of Directors recently held elections and named a wine business owner as its first chairman, a first from outside of the lodging Industry, who wants Paso Robles to top web search results for wine destinations. In 2023, Travel Paso will be working with a budget of $1.8 Million. 

Over 1,000 new hotel rooms are coming to the city in the next decade, with 300 of those rooms currently under construction. The city plans to build new bridges and widen streets to facilitate the traffic. With that growth, however, has come growing pains and questions as to whether tourism can alleviate community problems. 

“When you are successful like tourism has been, everyone has their hands out looking for dollars and say ‘ Oh! Can tourism pay for that? Tourism can pay for that.’ Those are things we hear more often than not,” Jacob said. ”We try to remind them that the tourism improvement district model that we operate under has a very specific mission and it is about marketing the destination and driving overnight stays.”

One growing pain has been affordable housing. Like in many parts of California, homelessness is a persistent problem in the town. Nearly 1,500 people were homeless in San Luis Obispo County (where Paso Robles sits), according to the 2022 Homeless Point-in-Time Count & Survey. Of that total, 80 percent were unsheltered and 26 percent were sleeping in vehicles. There’s been increasing pressure to use tourism revenue to alleviate such an issue.

At a July city council meeting, Jacobs defended her request for a funding model renewal and faced unexpected questions about the value of tourism promotion. In the end, the city council ended up renewing the TID funding model for the next ten years. 

But at that same meeting, the city council approved a proposal to introduce a ballot measure that would raise the lodging tax from 10 percent to 11 percent. The tax increase is expected to generate between $700,000 and $800,000 annually for the city, according to an analysis by City Attorney Elizabeth Hull. The money would go toward economic development, downtown improvements, affordable housing and other community needs.

On November 8, nearly 60 percent of the residents voted for the tax increase. Guests will now have to pay a 11 percent lodging tax — in addition to the 2 percent assessment charged by Paso Robles and 1.5 percent assessment by San Luis Obispo — starting January 1. 

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