With late funding, tourism districts scrambled to promote the state

The state's three tourism districts this year have purchased wraps for buses in Connecticut imagery, updated brochures featuring ice cream and beer trails, and started successful online marketing campaigns.

But district officials wonder what they could have done if they got their funding earlier, rather than scrambling to commit or expend $400,000 in a matter of weeks or even days leading up to the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2019.

After two years in which the districts had their budgets zeroed out, tourism leaders saw hope when the budget approved last year included $400,000 each for the eastern, central and western districts.

The fiscal year started July 1, 2018, and the wait began.

In October, the districts received a contract from the Department of Economic and Community Development, only to be told it was sent in error. They didn't get the actual contract until April 1, 2019.

Randy Fiveash, director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism within DECD, said the contract signing dates were April 2 for central, April 4 for western and April 25 for eastern.

Ed Dombroskas, formerly executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District and now a contractor, said the district's board of directors took issue with the contract's mandates that the district affiliate with a nonprofit for administrative purposes and not hire any direct staff.

There was also a question of whether the district could "mount any kind of an effective campaign" at this late date. Ultimately, he said, they decided it was better to secure funding.

Similarly, western district Chairman Dan Bolognani called the inability to hire staff or rent office space "problematic," saying that "regional bureaus really do need a physical presence, and they need leadership."

Fiveash told The Day in June the rationale was for district administration and spending to be more closely aligned with state administration and spending. The contract stipulates that a maximum of 20 percent of the $400,000 shall be used for administrative costs.

Even after contracts were signed, there were delays on securing the funding. Don DeVivo, chairman of the board of the central district, said he got the funding in May.

Bolognani said, "the marketing plans and the community partner arrangements and some of the financial paperwork needed to be revised several times, and that brought us into June." The western district executed the contract on June 29, while Dombroskas said the eastern district got its check June 17, days before the fiscal year would end.

He said the holdup was that DECD, which oversees the Office of Tourism, had an issue with the district's nonprofit affiliation with Norwich Community Development Corporation, preferring an affiliation with a chamber of commerce, but eventually acquiesced.

As for the state's delay from July 2018 to April 2019, Eastern Regional Tourism District Chairwoman Rita Schmidt said she never got an explanation, and Bolognani said it remains unclear what the holdup was.

Talking to The Day on Thursday, Fiveash attributed the delay to concerns in former Gov. Dannel Malloy's administration over issues related to the districts, and to the subsequent change in administrations.

He added that after Gov. Ned Lamont was sworn in, the tourism office wanted to see if district funding would be approved in the fiscal year 2020 budget — it was — before allocating the fiscal year 2019 monies, since "the districts didn't exist, basically" at that point.

For the districts, that meant a period of limbo in which they had plans but couldn't provide financial commitments to prospective vendors.

"It's disruptive now because really, we're following up on the commitments we made, we can't make any plans for next year and making any commitment or planning is virtually impossible," Dombroskas said. He added, "It's probably the most inefficient way to spend the tourism dollars that could be invented."

'We've done amazing stuff'

The eastern district invested $135,000 in an online campaign that went out July 12 and is running through October, which Dombroskas said has "been wildly effective." He said that in the first four weeks of the campaign, 9,058 people looked at the ads and visited the attraction being promoted.

The district also paid to have two DATTCO coach buses wrapped with Mystic Country imagery.

Other projects for the district include brochures for an ice cream trail and pet-friendly trail, photography, in-the-field research to identify the locations from which visitors are coming, and work with the American Bus Association and trade associations to solicit meeting groups.

Functioning as the administrative coordinator now, Dombroskas is one of three contractors, along with Rita Rivera for design and Janice Putnam for sales. His contract is the highest, at $70 an hour.

Schmidt said the board was fortunate to find people who were willing to work on a contract basis rather than as employees, foregoing benefits such as vacation days and sick leave.

The central district partnered with the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce; DeVivo said the district also has benefitted from an active board, and that DATTCO Vice President Paul Mayer has done a lot of in-kind work.

DeVivo is president of DATTCO, and so he had two buses wrapped for the central district in addition to the two he allowed for the eastern district's use. The central district also is working on brochures for beer, ice cream, and burgers and brew trails.

The district participated in the Discover New England summit, was a sponsor for the Connecticut Conference on Tourism, created a photo library, and expects to distribute more than 350,000 brochures and rack cards by the end of December.

From May through Aug. 12, DeVivo said, 13,097 people that viewed the district's digital marketing campaign — which has three weeks left — visited the featured attractions. Both the central and eastern districts are using the Middletown-based Makiaris Media and getting their numbers from the company.

"In a really, really short period of time, we've done amazing stuff," DeVivo said.

The western district worked quickly to identify a nonprofit partner and landed on the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, of which Bolognani is executive director.

Its work has included driving tours, blogs about attractions, original photography and advertising in National Geographic Traveler magazine, Bolognani said. The district retained a consultant to conduct on-site surveys throughout the year.

'Hoping that last year was an anomaly'

Dombroskas said he thinks the eastern district "will come very close" to spending the entire $400,000, and that he thinks all but $40,000 or $50,000 has been expended or committed. He now is working with accountants and auditors.

DeVivo said the central district committed or expended all $400,000, while Bolognani said all the western district's money has been contracted except for $10,000 for ongoing monthly expenses.

Asked if he knows when the funding for the current fiscal year is coming in, Dombroskas laughed and said, "No. We have had no real contact about that." Bolognani replied in an earlier conversation, "Well, good question."

Bolognani added that the uncertainty and delays "cause us to miss important marketing deadlines, which are predicated on important marketing behavior."

Schmidt, of the eastern district, noted that they have always tried to do marketing in the shoulder season, and that January and February is the best time to target people making summer plans.

"I'm hoping that last year was an anomaly," DeVivo said, adding, "It's just not a good way to do business."

The contract stipulates that within 60 days after the funding period ends, each district must provide DECD "a written program evaluation narrative and financial report in a format to be specified by DECD. Any unspent grant funds will be returned to DECD with the written financial report, in the form of a check made payable to Treasurer, State of Connecticut." Sixty days from June 30 is Aug. 29.

Fiveash said the central district — which he called "extremely well organized" — is the only one that sent him anything thus far, but they haven't sent him everything.

He said DECD won't send out the contracts for fiscal year 2020 until the districts send their recaps and financial reports for fiscal year 2019.

Dombroskas said of how the funding situation has played out, "The opportunity for the state to earn resources through tax income and the benefits in the industry are being lost, because if we have all this money — and for a full year — the ability to generate even greater returns would be outstanding, and if we can plan for it, we can do so much better than we're doing now."

e.moser@theday.com

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