Business leaders call for vocal support of tourism

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Mystic - Reinvigorating tourism in a recessionary climate requires collaboration and electing political leaders who will invest in this key economic driver.

That was the message Friday from top executives from Foxwoods Resort Casino and MGM Grand at Foxwoods in Mashantucket, Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Mystic Aquarium, Mystic Seaport, and the Waterford Hotel Group LLC.

The Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut hosted the breakfast and panel discussion at Latitude 41, formerly the Seamen's Inne, which opens for business at Mystic Seaport on April 27.

A marketing video developed by the Chamber and financed by Northeast Utilities, the parent company of the Connecticut Light & Power Company, showed off the region's attractions on a screen behind the dias and will be shown on ferries this summer, said Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber.

Quizzed by Ed Dombroskas, the executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, panelists said tourism has not plateaued, but needs investment to grow. They uniformly deplored the state tourism marketing budget of $1 as shortsighted and a proposed 3-percent hike in the hotel occupancy tax as anathema to good business.

The increase to a 15-percent levy would tax hotels in Connecticut at a higher rate than any in New York, Rhode Island or Massachusetts, said Len Wolman, a principal with the Waterford Hotel Group.

At the same time, panelists extolled the Mystic brand and the public/private partnership dubbed the Greater Mystic Visitors Bureau, which on June 1 will launch a single Web site, the revamped www.mystic.org, as a vehicle for helping businesses large and small promote themselves and the region "with one voice."

"Strengthening that brand is critical," said Stephen Coan, bureau chairman and president and chief executive officer of the Sea Research Foundation, which is the parent organization of aquarium and the Institute for Exploration and Immersion Learning.

Tourism trends correspond to population trends and demographics, and the state's elected officials need to pay attention to that, Coan added.

"It's more than just tourism, it's marketing the state for people coming to live here, invest here, do business here," he said. "And this state needs to pay a lot more attention to that. Our demographics are dangerous. They're flat.... With a stronger brand, people will come."

As the bureau invests some $600,000 in private and public funds for marketing, that single dollar allocated by the state represents "tunnel vision," said Sheridan, though the players in the room, including about 150 in the audience, have the power to turn that around.

"There is a light at the end of that tunnel and it is held by the tourism businesses in our state - everyone from the major operators to the mom-and-pop businesses," Sheridan said. "Collectively, it is an industry that each year brings thousands of people and millions and millions of dollars to Connecticut."

Michael Speller, president of Foxwoods and MGM Grand at Foxwoods, said stellar customer service is one of the key components to helping the economy "jump start itself" at a time when most businesses are struggling. And collaboration like the recent joint billboard campaign with competitor Mohegan Sun will bring more visitors to both businesses, he said.

"We have to keep customers happy so when the turnaround does come, which it must, we don't have to rebuild our market," he said.

That said, targeting politicians before they're elected in November is critical, to make sure they understand that the investment of $10 million in state marketing for tourism in the mid-1990s, and the staff to promote it, was not be an aberration of the past. Future investment like it represents a goal for the future, Wolman said.

"The governor should be running on that message," he said to applause. "The tourism industry employs 140,000 people. Not giving anything back to this industry does not make any sense whatsoever."

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