Promo Scam-A-Rama

by Mark Scaramella, June 7, 2017

MENDOCINO COUNTY’S hydra-headed Promotional Alliance reports that they’re doing a great job and would promote the heck out of the county if they got more money.

THE AMORPHOUS GROUP of interchangeable wine business personnel, lodging owners, restaurateurs, artists (of the type unlikely to cut off their ears), and their well-paid staff is variously known as the Business Improvement District (BID), VisitMendocino, Tourism Bureau, Lodging Association, Arts Council, Wine Growers Association, Chamber of Commerce, and so on.

But how necessary are they? Tourism’s ebb and flow is tied to the general Northcoast economy; it tracks closely with sales tax revenues. When business is good generally in California, tourists flock here. When business is down, their flocks are smaller.

THERE’S no evidence that the county’s tax and bed tax-funded promotions bring people here, hence the constant hype from our professional promoters that without them the rest of the country would simply forget that there is a Mendocino County. The promotion pros must constantly try to convince a skeptical public and local elected officials that the heaps of public money shoveled their way is absolutely vital to the economic health of the county. A close look at what promo people actually do to promote tourism shows that most of the money pays their salaries, and what they promote is mostly one enterprise — the wine business.

LAST MONTH Ukiah Daily Journal reporter Ashley Tressel dutifully covered the Promotional Alliance’s latest self-promotion.

“The report shows the county for the 2014 fiscal year collected more than $4 million in transient occupancy taxes from only its unincorporated areas, up 8 percent from the year before and 23 percent from 2010.”

We don’t need a “report” for this number, it’s right in the County’s own budget. And the phrase “brought in by lodging busiesses” misrepresents how much most lodging owners hate collecting and reporting it.

“Other factors influence Mendocino County tourism as well, Roberts said, like low snow levels in the mountains driving traffic to the coast.”

Right, Roberts. In bad weather tourists stay home.

“[Roberts] said Ukiah did well last year, too; travelers know it is a pleasant place to stop while driving to and from the Bay Area.”

Only the Ukiah City Council and their lavishly-compensated senior staff could possibly call Ukiah “a pleasant place to stop.” Locals visit out of necessity, tourists do not make Ukiah a destination because it’s about as attractive and interesting as Merced or, closer to home, Willits.

“ ‘Aggressive promotion kept this remote area in the minds and hearts of visitors during the recession and contributed to a full recovery of the tourism industry with revenues now exceeding pre-recession highs,’ the BID reported.”

BOONVILLE is two hours from downtown San Francisco. Hopland is even closer. Fort Bragg, by far the most pleasant and attractive area of the county is three hours north of the Golden Gate Bridge. People come to Mendocino County for all kinds of reasons, none of which depend on promotion. In any case, our promoters pretty much restrict their promotion events to free wine on the false assumption that it’s wine that draws people here.

“In its report, the BID asked for a larger portion of the tax to go to promotion funding, so it can keep up its success.”

Of course they did. They always ask for more with no evidence that their vague efforts bring people here.

“ ‘It is the opinion of the BID Advisory Board that County-wide tourism promotion remains underfunded relative to surrounding counties and competing markets and that it will become increasingly difficult to remain competitive if revenue is not significantly increased in the not too distant future,’ the report states.”

The standard Mendo response. The people next door make more than us. How can we keep up our excellent work if the guy in Napa gets more than I do.

“Another report by Dean Runyan Associates for Visit California also shows record numbers for Mendocino County, in 2016. Visitor spending (accounting for lodging, restaurants, attractions, retail and travel expenses) last year totaled $386 million, reported to be an all-time high.”

Which had absolutely nothing to do with promotion. Take note of the key phrase: “for Visit California.” Mr. Runyon wouldn’t get his share of the promotional money if he didn’t report “success.” And tourist types have learned from hard experience that Napa and Sonoma counties are hellishly over-crowded. Mendocino County, except for the grotesquely transformed Mendocino “village” is relatively unhurried.

Here’s a simple graphic representation of how bed tax receipts are linked to the general economy as reflected in overall sales taxes, not to promotion spending.

From the County Budget going back to 2007:

Sales Tax Revenue (County’s 1% share):

(Each X represents approx. $100k over the base $3.0 million)

If anything, the Bed Tax revenue increases are actually trailing overall sales tax revenue increases in the latest years.

(Note: Also conveniently left out of the Promotional Alliance report of Bed Tax revenue increases is any mention of the County’s much more aggressive pursuit of the ever-more Bed Tax scofflaws, mostly on the Coast, using dedicated County staff tax collectors and fancy on-line software to catch off-the-books vacation rental landlords such as AirBNB members who try to avoid paying the Bed Tax. Factoring that in shows even more clearly that the county’s costly promotion isn’t even keeping up with sales tax increases.)

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