Peninsula tourism industry seeks boost

Visitor professionals to meet to address growth, new funding

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2003

Jim Carter, director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, said he believes the Kenai Peninsula visitor industry needs a boost. One that he thinks can come from collaboration.

"Oil and gas (companies) have their associations, and they're doing a good job," Carter said. "And commercial fishing understands the principles of working together. Those are models we are looking at."

He said changing times in the visitor industry because of a stingy economy and changes in Alaska's government call for tourism businesses to unite under a common goal. To that effect, his organization is sponsoring a visitor industry forum Friday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center to forge a pathway the industry can take in unison on the peninsula. And to discuss, among other things, a method for financing any changes that need to be made.

"There is strength in numbers," Carter said. "My vision is that we're going to work closer and be more effective. If you look at the trend of the visitor industry, it's going through a transition. We can't keep the status quo and remain competitive."

Carter said the idea for the meeting was initiated during the borough's economic forum in December, and he was charged with organizing it.

He invited visitor industry stakeholders -- tourism business owners from all over the peninsula -- to first meet among themselves in the major community centers in the borough: Homer, Seward and the Kenai-Soldotna areas.

After collecting ideas addressing issues of tourism infrastructure, research, marketing and funding, the groups would come together into one central meeting to discuss findings and set out action plans.

Paramount among these concerns is funding, he said, indicating that he expected purse strings to be tightened in the near future.

"(Gov. Frank) Murkowski's budget is going to be a knocker," Carter said. "We're going to have a lot less to go around. What's the contingency? We don't have one."

He said revenue sharing for organizations that market individual cities to tourists may be in jeopardy as a result of the forthcoming budget, and this is the time for action.

Ricky Gease, director of the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau, said funding would be the key to addressing the other issues. It could support adding and maintaining visitor infrastructure, like roads throughout the borough, rest areas and restrooms, among other things. In-state and Outside marketing through brochures, advertising and an Internet presence also could be funded.

Comprehensive research in the way of a visitor survey -- one which Gease said the borough hasn't had in more than 10 years -- would give tourism businesses a better picture of where and how improvements could be made to meet visitor needs. He said the research would help enhance infrastructure.

"It gets us a baseline assessment of what are the strategic steps to grow the industry over the next 10 years," Gease said. "Currently, we only can count people that go to visitor centers or camping parks."

But all of this costs money, although many of the area chambers and visitor centers currently manage to provide some degree of these services. They raise funds through various forms of charitable gaming, as well as through membership dues from local businesses and advertisements in marketing literature sent out to prospective visitors.

The money goes to pay for staffing, facilities and marketing. Audrey Walaszek, newly named Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council executive director and Kenai Chamber of Commerce director, said members aren't always pleased about paying these expenses, though.

"The feedback is that there's too many membership dues," she said.

Gease said current fund-raising efforts for area chambers of commerce, visitor centers and marketing organizations like KPTMC may not be enough to elevate the visitor industry.

"Are businesses comfortable footing the bill through memberships?" he asked. "Are we comfortable relying on charitable gaming for public facilities? Are we comfortable having visitors not contributing to the cost of those mentioned items where they typically contribute everywhere else in the country where the visitor industry has a strong presence?"

The idea of initiating a boroughwide bed tax, a tax levied on hotel or bed and breakfast room night stays, is one both Gease and Carter support, and one they said they intend to explore. Walaszek said such a tax makes sense.

"It's a method we should research so we can be more self sufficient," she said. "When I went to Hawaii, there was a bed tax. I didn't not go because of that. They were using my money as a visitor to promote their commerce. I think it's a common and accepted practice."

Homer Chamber of Commerce executive director Dorotha Ferraro said some doubts about a bed tax were expressed at the initial Kachemak Bay area meeting.

"Concern was expressed that we exhaust all existing resources before creating a new one," she said. "And having a specific plan in place before having a new (resource) was also expressed."

She said she would attend Friday's event.

Walaszek said current tourism monies that go to the borough go directly to fund education.

Kenai once had a bed tax, but it has been "sunset." Gease said when the tax was in effect, it disadvantaged Kenai accommodation businesses because customers would simply book rooms in nearby Soldotna, Sterling, Kasilof or Nikiski to avoid paying the higher rate.

Carter pointed to other areas of the state that use the bed tax to fund destination marketing and tourism infrastructures, citing examples set by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Fairbanks and Anchorage.

"Mat-Su, Fairbanks, Denali and Anchorage are all in a leadership role," he said. "I'm trying to be proactive."

The Matanuska-Susitna Conven-tion and Visitors Bureau benefits from a 5 percent bed tax established by borough voters in 1988. Executive director Bonnie Quill said the bureau receives 90 percent of the bed tax revenue up to $300,000 and gets up to 50 percent of any excess monies.

Among those things funded by the bed tax is a Web site she said is averaging $15,000 annually to maintain.

"The money received by the borough that we don't get is set aside to fund tourism infrastructure," Quill said. "It's a grant program that organizations apply for each year to take care of things like trail heads, signage or restrooms."

She said about $470,000 of the bureau's $650,000 budget this year comes from bed tax revenue. The rest is generated by membership dues, ad sales and a fund raising program where members donate travel-related items for auction.

Carter said 43 people are scheduled to attend the day-long forum, and he said he hopes to see this forum happen every year. He said he hopes a movement will begin to grow the peninsula's tourism industry as one unit. But it will take information and a steady drive to succeed.

"The bottom line is take this to the stakeholders and educate them," he said. "It comes down to commitment. That is attitude and money."



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