'Still Revolutionary' tourism campaign praised even as regional districts in peril

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's biennial budget proposal would eliminate regional tourism offices at the same time a statewide branding campaign has returned Connecticut to the Northeast's tourism map.

Launched last spring, the "Still Revolutionary" campaign has generated an estimated $161 million in tourism spending, according to a study by the Harrison Group, a Waterbury-based research firm. The study found that 12 percent of 20 million households in the Northeast became aware of the campaign's ads - on television, in print and online - and that about 6 percent of those households then visited Connecticut.

Another 20 percent of the households that had seen the ads reported that they planned to visit the state within a year.

The study estimated that the campaign was responsible for visits by 269,000 households, each of which spent or will spend an average of $600 per visit.

The findings represent the first data-driven assessment of the campaign, the main thrust of the state's two-year, $24.5 million commitment to tourism and economic development.

"We've been delighted by the progress we've made so far," Kip Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said. "You might think what you're doing is enough, but the acid test is when you actually survey households, when you ask people if they saw your ads and if they did, did the ads motivate them to come? Are they planning to come?"

The question some tourism officials are asking is whether the state will continue to provide the funding necessary to build on the perceived success of the "Still Revolutionary" campaign, which touts the state as a haven for innovators. Malloy's budget proposal calls for $15 million in tourism funding in the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years while eliminating the state's three regional tourism offices, which would save about $1.6 million.

Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, which encompasses Mystic, the state's top tourism destination, believes the district plays a vital role in promoting the region's attractions and tourism-related businesses, including museums, hotels, inns and restaurants.

"Eliminating the districts would have a serious effect on the tourism industry in the summer," he said Tuesday. "If the regional districts are not here, we won't be able to capitalize as much on the statewide effort."

The local tourism office, which has a staff of two full-time employees, including Dombroskas, and two part-timers, stays in regular contact with businesses and caters to their promotional needs, he said.

"Having been a state tourism director, I can tell you that's not easy to do out of a centralized location," said Dombroskas, who was executive director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism from 1992 to 2006.

The district has had to suspend several projects, including the distribution of brochures, because of uncertainty over its future. If the Malloy budget passes as proposed, the district office would close July 1.

Members of the eastern Connecticut tourism industry are expected to testify at a public hearing tonight on the state budget proposal. The General Assembly's Appropriations Committee is conducting the session, which starts at 6:30 in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

Among those expected to testify is Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

Sheridan, who has been an advocate of consolidating tourism-promotion efforts in the past, said Tuesday he won't take a position on whether the regional tourism districts should be eliminated.

"I'm going to testify in support of the $15 million request, not on how it gets spent," he said. "What's important is that we keep going with the statewide campaign, given the results, the analytics that are in. This is not an experiment; this is an investment in tourism and economic development. … Without question, it's a worthwhile investment."

If the regional offices are eliminated, the state would take over regional marketing efforts, Bergstrom, the state deputy commissioner, said.

"We'd still have people do regional work through a competitive process," he said. "It's a better way of aligning regional with statewide efforts. You get more bang for the buck."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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