Md. summit on tourism is Monday

Lawmakers to meet state's promoters, talk about funding

January 13, 2001|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

On Monday, the state tourism industry will gather in Annapolis for one of its most significant meetings ever.

Creating a tourism office that reports directly to the governor and nearly doubling the tourism budget over five years will be at the top of the agenda at the meeting, which is expected to have the attention of many lawmakers.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. is the prime sponsor of the Tourism Legislative Summit, to be held at the Radisson Hotel.

"The event is intended to highlight the focus that tourism should be getting in the big picture of Maryland's future," Taylor said. "We have a product that is superior to any state in the nation given our vast list of heritages and our location."

Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat, has introduced legislation in the House of Delegates calling for the creation of a Cabinet-level position and tourism budget increases starting in fiscal year 2003 that would bring spending to about $25 million by 2007. The legislation also would set base funding for the Office of Tourism at the current level, $13.4 million.

"This legislation is a vehicle that will allow the legislature to put this entire issue under a magnifying glass of attention," he said. "Out of it will come, I hope, a new level of commitment to this entire industry."

Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Tourism Council and president of the Maryland Hotel and Motel Association, said she considers the summit nothing short of monumental.

"Never before has the entire legislature gathered in one place to hear the state of the tourism industry," she said. "The more you can educate anyone about any subject matter, the more interest they'll take in it."

The event is expected to draw its share of Maryland dignitaries and hospitality leaders, and will feature talks by tourism experts from across the country.

"In a very public way, we're able to sit the legislators down in one place and tell them all the good things that tourism brings them," McCulloch said. "We're hoping they'll be willing to invest in it."

Knowing in advance how much money is available to spend on marketing is essential in tourism, McCulloch said.

"A good marketing plan is dependent on the knowledge of how much money you have to spend, at least two to three years in advance," McCulloch said. "Without that knowledge, it makes it very difficult to negotiate good advertising rates and write a marketing plan with forethought and adequate research to substantiate the marketing decision."

Such information is especially crucial because competing states spend so much more on marketing than Maryland does, and those states are all looking at increases over the next few years, she said.

For instance, Virginia's budget for fiscal 2001 is $21 million, including $4.3 million for advertising, according to Virginia officials. Pennsylvania's fiscal 2001 tourism budget of $54.2 million includes $19 million for marketing to attract tourists, a Pennsylvania official said.

Nevertheless, Maryland has spent the money it has wisely, McCulloch said.

In the advertising category, the state gets back about $8.75 on the dollar, according to state tourism officials. Maryland spends about $2.8 million on advertising and mailings to callers, which generates $24.8 million in tourism spending from the resulting visitors, they have said. Those numbers are based on surveys of callers who respond to a toll-free telephone number listed on advertising and who said they later visited. Those polled are asked how much money they spent while in the state.

Overall, tourism has an annual economic impact of more than $7 billion on the state, officials say.

"We believe that since tourism produces more than 4 percent of the state's gross state product, we should have a Cabinet-level position so tourism is at the table with the governor," McCulloch said.

Thirty-eight states handle tourism as a department within another, as Maryland does. But, within the past approximately 10 years, 10 states have created separate departments or at least partly privatized such offices, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. Two states fall into neither category.

Tourism leaders had hoped that comparable legislation would be introduced in the Senate, but it has not been.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. supports economic development and tourism issues, but has not had a chance to review the 77-page bill, said Vicki Fretwell, a spokeswoman for his office. He will attend the summit, she said.

Taylor's legislation is unusual in that it would not take effect for about 18 months, meaning that spending obligations would cross over administrations. Typically, legislators do not like to encumber future governors or legislators.

"While it's not normally done, this is the methodology that was used in the 1997 General Assembly," McCulloch said.

"The legislature in 1997 understood the need for adequate and predictable marketing funding for the tourism industry."

The industry's perennial goal is to attract more visitors and entice them to stay longer and spend more money.

"The long-range hope is that we can move from approximately 20th in attracting tourists to being in the top 10," McCulloch said.

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