Blue Ribbon panel on board with tourism recommendations

A report delivered to the legislature’s Commerce Committee recommends the state immediately open and staff its highway Welcome Centers, dump its “Still Revolutionary” marketing campaign and increase tourism’s share of the revenue generated by the hotel room occupancy tax.

The recommendations of House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Tourism are in line with those adopted in recent months by other groups advocating for tourism, arts and culture, including a committee appointed by Gov. Ned Lamont’s transition team, the Connecticut Tourism Coalition and the legislature’s tourism caucus.

Donald DeVivo, the Blue Ribbon panel’s chairman, testified at a public hearing Tuesday on behalf of bills requiring the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development to come up with a plan to implement the panel’s recommendations and the Commerce Committee to conduct a study of tourism’s effect on the state and its economy.

Both the plan and the study would be due by Feb. 1, 2020.

In preparing its report, the panel “listened to seasoned experts of every tourism-related industry across Connecticut and heard amazing ideas both strategic and tactical to help us compete with the other New England states,” said DeVivo, president of Dattco, a transportation company, and chairman of the Central Regional Tourism District. “Our legislators are discovering that tourism is serious business, generating a tax windfall, with every dollar invested returning three times that to our treasury.”

Panel members included representatives of transportation, lodging, chambers of commerce, tribal nations, cultural organizations and tourism destinations.

The panel’s report calls for diverting 25 percent of hotel occupancy tax revenue to the Arts, Culture and Tourism Fund, an increase over the current 10 percent. Sixty percent of the money would support tourism while 40 percent would support arts and culture. The panel recommends that the tax itself — scheduled to climb from 15 percent to 17 percent in the next fiscal year — not be increased.

Also recommended is the appointment of a commissioner of arts, culture and tourism, who would report to the governor. The commissioner would work closely with a tourism council comprising 27 members appointed by the governor, members of the Senate and House leadership and local organizations.

The panel recommends funding five “Regional Destination Marketing Organizations” serving the Litchfield Hills, Coastal Fairfield, Greater New Haven, River Valley/Greater Hartford and Mystic Country, and a Convention and Sports Bureau that would focus on professional meeting planners, conventions, sporting events and tours.

Connecticut’s Welcome Centers, closed or partially closed amid budget-cutting several years ago, “should be reopened,” the panel recommends, with “Closed” signs now in place in some locations immediately removed. The centers’ hospitality and information services should be staffed during peak travel hours, while restrooms “ideally” would be open around the clock.

The state Department of Transportation would continue to be responsible for the centers’ operation and maintenance.

While blaming poor statewide marketing results on years of inadequate funding, the panel acknowledged widespread dissatisfaction with Connecticut's “Still Revolutionary” campaign and slogan. It said a committee of marketing and tourism experts should be convened to develop a new branding strategy.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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