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Things are looking up for enhancing the state's tourism industry, particularly here in southeastern Connecticut where it is such a vital part of the local economy.
In Hartford the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) announced that later this month the state will begin its new campaign to aggressively market Connecticut as a tourism destination. While it is too bad that the DECD was not ready to launch the campaign a couple of months sooner (certainly some vacationers have their summer plans in place), in the administration's defense it had to start from literally zero.
In the definition of penny wise but pound foolish behavior, the prior administration and legislature slashed the tourism marketing budget to zero. While this saved a few million dollars, those savings hardly registered in the effort to address the fiscal crisis Connecticut faced at the time. What it did do, however, was make it difficult for Connecticut to compete with other states in the Northeast, who kept spending to promote tourism.
Recognizing that mistake, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy persuaded the legislature to allocate $15 million this year and next on tourism marketing. In a meeting with the editorial board on Wednesday, Randy Fiveash, director of the state Office of Tourism, said research done in preparing the campaign showed that the name "Mystic" most resonates with potential state visitors, so expect it to play a prominent role in the marketing.
"You want to lead with your most potent brand," said Mr. Fiveash.
Which leads to the second bit of good news for the prospects of boosting tourism in our area - the announcement that the privately funded Greater Mystic Visitors Bureau and the state-funded Eastern Regional Tourism District have signed an agreement on a partnership plan for promoting eastern Connecticut's tourism assets.
Given recent history, this is a big deal. When the Malloy administration took office in early 2011, it received an economic development plan that included a recommendation to dissolve the state's three tourism districts. A co-chairman of the working group that produced the report was Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut and currently chairman of the visitor's bureau.
Defenders of the district saw it as a Sheridan power play, an attempt to consolidate decisions in Hartford with the expectation state money would flow directly to the chamber and visitors bureau. Mr. Sheridan defended his idea as just good business. Bifurcated tourism promotion in the region was confusing to the public and inefficient, he argued.
Ultimately the legislature sided with district advocates, continuing to provide the tourism districts about $500,000 each annually. Mr. Sheridan, the former first selectman of Waterford, told us he is practical enough not to ignore political realities. If there are going to be two groups promoting tourism they must do so effectively and with one voice, said Mr. Sheridan, and that means having a plan.
This agreement appears to be a good one, playing to the strengths of the two organizations.
The visitors' bureau will manage the website Mystic.org, which will become the primary Internet vehicle for introducing potential tourists to the region. It will soon add a booking engine, allowing users to make reservations and purchase tickets. The bureau, state and tourism district will feed event information into the site.
The district, meanwhile, will play the lead customer service role, reaching out to various groups across eastern Connecticut to assure their events and attractions are included among the web offerings. District staff will respond to web inquiries and help visitors firm up travel plans.
"We can close the sale," said Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the tourism district.
When the Mystic Aquarium launched its latest exhibit this week - "Titanic: 12,450 Feet Below" - to wide media attention, it was a reminder that change and reinvention are necessary to keep the tourism trade in southeastern Connecticut growing. It is only fitting, then, to see some innovation in promoting it.