Chamber to cease operation of Visitor Center


Staff Writer

After next year, the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce will no

longer be responsible for operating the downtown Visitor Center, according to a letter from Bill Schwab, the president of the Chamber’s board of directors, to Bob Hart, the chairman of the Town Tourism Committee, thus ending a tradition of over 25 years of providing that service to the community.

“As of January 2014,” Schwab’s letter stated, “the Chamber of Commerce will no longer offer to contract to run the Pagosa Springs Visitor Center based on the current budgetary conditions along with indications that the Town Tourism Committee with the support of Town Council will continue to decrease funding for this facility.”

According to the budget TTC Director Jennie Green presented to town council at a Nov. 8 work session, while funding for the Visitor Center will drop by $11,000 in 2013, funding for the TTC’s external marketing efforts will increase from $115,000 this year to $150,000 next year, and an additional $45,000 will be set aside for engineering and grant writing for the proposed amusement rides on Reservoir Hill.

This represents a fundamental strategic shift in how the TTC will spend revenue gathered with the local Lodgers Tax.

“The TTC has consistently challenged the funding of the Visitor Center,” Schwab’s letter admonished, “requesting P&L statements, budgets and justifications—more than any other group. We believe that we have provided all that has been requested. However, in 2012 due to information from the web-based marketing company Internet Honey and your past concerns, you chose to reduce the funding to the Visitor Center.”

“What we planned for it to do when we hired them (Internet Honey) to keep track of all of our leads,” Hart explained at a Nov. 7 TTC budget work session, “was to analyze how well our external marketing program was working, and in a nutshell it is working really well — better than any other place in the state.”

Hart was referring to a presentation Jason Goss, president of Internet Honey, made to the TTC the previous week.

“He (Goss) did an average based on region,” TTC director Jennie Green confirmed, “and we are outperforming the average of higher budgets all across the state.”

“As we got further into the discussion,” Hart continued, “he talked about how he figured all of this out, but then he also went into what other places are spending their money on, how we should spend our money to get the best return on our lodging dollars, and the bottom line is we need to increase external marketing.”

“What Jason’s presentation showed me,” Green affirmed, “is that our infrastructure is spot on — so the website, the mobile focus and the phone apps that we have in development — we have the infrastructure in place; we need to drive more leads to our existing infrastructure, and we will see more conversions. We’re not saturating our marketing efforts, whatsoever, so the more we can spend, the more we are going to see on the downstream contributions, which include bookings for our lodging partners.”

After a lengthy discussion on why it is better to spend money on infrastructure like the Reservoir Hill project instead of events like folk festivals, Hart added, “Another area, compared to other places, that we’re spending a way bigger percentage, or in some cases we’re spending where others aren’t spending, is the Visitor Center. He brought that up, and he went into quite a bit of detail on it.

“This is something we’ve been talking about as far as the Visitor Center numbers are down, tourism is up, and is our money being well spent? Are people using their phones and computers instead of walking into the Visitor Center now? That seems to be the trend throughout the state, not only here. We need to talk about that.

“I don’t know that we need to take a giant leap here and change everything immediately,” Hart concluded, “but what I see as more of a long-term goal of the next year or two is getting to what these results are showing us. We need to spend these dollars as wisely as we can. I think that we’re going to spend some more money on infrastructure, increase our marketing dollars for this year, and then we do have to look at the long term for the Visitor Center. How much money do we want there?”

In the end, it was decided the Visitor Center, which received $68,000 from the TTC this year, will receive $57,000 to fund its operations in 2013. While it will receive an additional $10,000 next year, that money is earmarked for repairs to the facility and to purchase interactive technologies such as touch-screen TVs or iPad stations to help visitors find information about Pagosa Country.

“If you’re not going to move forward with a Visitor Center,” Chamber Director Mary Jo Coulehan asked, “why are you putting money into enhancements?”

“I still believe the Visitor Center has worth,” TTC member Jim Smith said.

“The Visitor Center is still part of our overall marketing program for Pagosa Springs,” TTC member C. K. Patel agreed, “so enhancing that experience should still be part of that. Just because we’re funding the Visitor Center less to operate, doesn’t mean the people who go into it shouldn’t get a high quality experience.”

“They won’t be able to get in,” Coulehan laughed, “because it will be closed a lot of the time.”

The next day, when Green presented the TTC’s final budget to town council, Town Manager David Mitchem asked for the rationale behind the reduction in funding for the Visitor Center, to which Green responded, “Working with Internet Honey has given us better data as to how other destinations handle their budget and where their funds are allocated. It does seem that our overall budget for Visitor Center operations is disproportionate to our annual revenue for lodgers tax compared to most other destinations.

“One example that Jason was able to provide was the town of Ouray Visitor Center sees about a half a million people per year and from their tourism budget they allocate about $26,000 towards operations, so they value the Visitor Center, but they also see that a visitor center largely impacts people after they’ve gotten to town. If we invest more in marketing we are going to get more people to the Visitor Center, ultimately.”

Coulehan, who was present in the audience during the meeting, was asked to respond to Green’s assertions. She politely declined.

“Your organization and Town Council has clearly communicated that funding to the Visitor Center will continue to decrease in the future,” Schwab’s letter explained. “This decision and your lack of support and confidence is why we chose to no longer run the Visitor Center.”

The Chamber of Commerce has managed the Visitor Center on behalf of the community for over 25 years, going back to the time of former Chamber Director Bob Hand, who first established the facility at the corner of San Juan Street and Hot Springs Boulevard (then Light Plant Road) to function both as the Chamber’s headquarters and the Visitor Center.

“The Chamber would consider continuing to operate the Visitor Center if negotiations would secure appropriate funding,” Schwab’s letter concluded. “Should that not be the case, once in control of the Visitor Center, we hope the TTC will treat the facility as an extension to the marketing of Pagosa Springs and you will continue providing quality and personal informational services to visitors to our community.”

“That’s just a financial decision that they have to make, I guess,” Hart said in response to Schwab’s letter. “We’d love to see them keep running it, but we don’t have any control over that, obviously. We have already set our budget for 2013, and they’re talking about not running it in 2014, so we will have to see what happens over the next year.

“However, our basic policy change, when we look at all the indicators and marketing numbers, we’re finding that less and less people are visiting visitor centers. People are using their smart phones and computers more for finding information, and indications are we are better off spending more money on marketing and getting people here. That’s the true function of a tourism committee.”

Mayor Ross Aragon said, “There are other ways to run the Visitor Center. Personally speaking, I think that would be a good job for the TTC. I’m not saying I would rather see that, but it is one option.”

“We haven’t talked about that,” Hart said. “I guess we would have to look into whether a visitor center is even needed. I’m sure we would still fund it to some extent. I’m not sure what the future will bring.”

In a later interview, Schwab explained, “When we presented the letter to them we had a little meeting. We haven’t heard anything back from them yet, but their words at the time were, ‘We don’t want to run a visitor center,’ and we said, ‘Unless we can secure proper funding from somebody, we can’t continue to do what we’re doing.’

“The community needs the Visitor Center,” Schwab argued. “I’m a hands-on kind of guy, and you can tell by the way we run business here.” Schwab is also the owner of Piedra Automotive, and emphasized the importance of having a person available for face-to-face interaction.

“We are very hands-on and we try to be friendly to our customers, and we have a huge amount of people that will contact us and say, ‘You know, the Visitor Center is so important because I found out who has the best green chile in town,’ or something like that, and you can’t get that off the Internet. I don’t care what anybody else says, you can’t get that.”