A couple of weeks ago, we referred to Visit Mendocino County and its sister organizations — the Mendocino County Lodging Association and the Mendcoino County Promotional Alliance — as a "scam-a-rama." Wendy Roberts of Mendocino was so unhappy with that characterization she drove to Boonville Tuesday to tell us how wrong we were. And are.
Although always pleased to see Wendy, the very picture of graciousness, we weren't convinced. Mendo lodging businesses tax themselves 1% of room rents over and above the 10% bed tax collected by the County. This one percent is handed to the Mendocino County Lodging Association along with a 50% match out of County funds. MCLA then contracts with Visit Mendocino to promote Mendo's lodging/tourism industry.
Ms. Roberts is convinced the advertising generated by VMC brings much more tourist business to the County than the County spends out of its general fund to VMC, although she concedes there's no way of proving it.
Promotion of Mendo's multiple delights is not the sole province of VMC. Us taxpayers also fund the Mendocino County Promotional Alliance (MCPA). It also gets some of the 10% bed tax. No one really knows which part of the three-headed VMC-MCLA-MCPA beast is really in charge of which purse strings. But all three groups compete to install as many of their friends as possible into jobs unlikely to be confused with coal mining in 9-5 difficulty. Our promoters travel all over the state and nation telling other travel "professionals" that Mendocino County is where it's at. But there has always been tension among the players in this somewhat forced and oddly configured promotional ménage-a-trois. Two years ago an effort to double the 1% fee (and the County match) was defeated by dissident lodging owners who raised numerous questions about a lack of transparency and the way VMC was operated. VMC of course resisted. (A few years ago the Grand Jury asked to see the Promotional Alliance’s books, but even though they were 95% funded by tax dollars, Judge Richard Henderson managed to reason that the Promotional Alliance was a “private business.”) So their books remain secret.
VMC has again succeeded in increasing the fees collected and the County match by creating a three-tiered arrangement where the bigger B&Bs pay a higher percentage. VMC also cut MCLA out of the decision making loop. But a recent change in leadership on the MCLA Board threatens to upset the apple cart. The new MCLA Board recently voted to sever the contract with VMC effective October 15. The thought of being cut off from the public trough has sent shock waves through the ranks of the VMC staff. It is too early to tell just how this particular drama will play out, but it promises to instantly renew the very bitter and very public infighting that MCLA and MCPA were famous for a dozen or so years ago. Their differences were temporarily pushed into the background based on a tenuous agreement of how to share the spoils — up to $550,000 of public money next year, up from about $360,000 this year — thrown their way every year by the Board of Supes. But that agreement is fast unraveling. Will MCPA be able to vote MCLA off the island? Will the entire fiasco finally collapse of its own infighting?
This week it got worse when Interim County Counsel Doug Losak ruled that VMC’s contract with the County required MCLA to contract out the promotional work to VMC, and if they didn’t bring VMC back the County would cut off their funding.
In response to our remarks, several members of MCLA, including Wendy Roberts, have complained to us that we were outtaline because the entire arrangement is good for the County because VMC and MCLA and MCPA make money for the County. To prove her point that the three-headed promo-monster was good for the County's economy, Ms. Roberts gave us a full color sales brochure entitled “Visit Mendocino County 2013-2014 Annual Report.”
The technicolor begging bowl extended for more County tax money has been going on for years, going back to the early 90s when the public dollars for private enterprise was cooked up. Every year since, the Mendocino County Promotional Alliance (MCPA) and/or whatever other organizations they are affiliated with or whatever they call themselves produce slick presentations and "promotional" materials to wow the Board of Supervisors and the more credulous segments of Official Mendocino County that they are worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars the county gives them each year to "sell" Mendocino County to the outside world. The theory is that the more selling they do, the more revenue they get, the more revenue the County gets, the more money they get from the County, the more tourism flocks to Mendocino County, spending more money, generating more sales taxes and bed taxes, and then more money comes pouring in to County coffers, and more money goes back to them for more selling and so on in a glorious revenue spiral that no one in their right mind could oppose!
Remember, there are three primary (and frequently at odds) organizations involved: Visit Mendocino County (VMC), Mendocino County Lodging Association (MCLA), and the Promotional Alliance (MCPA).
In the technicolor 2013-14 annual report-brochure, VMC President Scott Schneider is pictured with President Obama in an article titled "What an incredible year it has been!" "From being featured multiple times in Sunset magazine and named in the New York Times as the #3 place to visit in 2014 to getting a national monument, visitors are discovering the amazing destination we call home. … And it's working. I continuously hear how much business is booming. We are back to pre-recession levels of visitation and economic impact and it is only going to get better from here on out."
Schneider declares that VMC has become "more efficient, effective and successful," but provides no examples of bigger bangs for ever more public bucks. In fact, Visit Mendocino County alone has nine full-time staffers who earn professional level salaries: There's President Schneider, a Director of Sales, an Operations Manager, a Director of Interactive Media, Communications Coordinator, Events and Partner Relations Manager, Administrative Assistant, Sales assistant, and a Public Relations Subcontractor called Koli-Cinch.
According to Schneider, Koli-Cinch "placed 310 Mendocino County stories in print, broadcast and Internet media resulting in $17 million in comparable advertising value and an audience reach of almost 387 million consumer impressions" (a fancy term for internet page views). These outlandish numbers are so unimaginably huge that you have assume that whoever cites them thinks we're all idiots.
VMC also "promoted and attended the Drag Queens on Ice event at Union Square in San Francisco in December 2013." “Promoted” isn't defined, and why would anybody claim credit for "attending" this goofy event? They even claim credit for the Point Arena Stornetta public lands acquisition which has become, according to the New York Times, "the #3 spot on their 52 places to go in 2014." Which is magically claimed by VMC as another of their promotional triumphs.
Other "accomplishments" include “recruiting 37 members of the media to attend Mendo events.” At what cost, we don’t know, but it probably involved lots of very old wine, expensive food and high end lodging, but then we weren't invited. And we go cheap! Our VMC busy bees also generated press releases, recruited "two groups of high-profile members of the media" (Names!) to serve on a judging panel at a wine and cheese festival, "participated" in one of their own events, "coordinated a highly successful [sic] media deskside tour" and organized a broadcast of the Mushroom Wine and Beer Festival at the Skunk Train depot in Fort Bragg.
There's also Facebook activity, media outreach in the Bay Area, television and radio coverage, magazine mentions, 7000 new leads in a marketing database, trade shows, contacts, sales event participation, and "1200 room nights directly tracked to our efforts." These “directly tracked” room nights are typically based on highly biased and suspicious surveys filled out by the occasional wineyup at a local Inn or B&B.
There are festivals galore, most of which would occur with or without Visit Mendocino County, but never mind, VMC even managed to produce a wall calendar!
The big numbers just keep flowin’: "In 2012 visitors to Mendocino County generated $328 million in travel spending, a 4% gain over the previous year generating $20.6 million in state and local taxes," and "Tourism is Mendocino County's number one employer with close to 5000 people employed in the industry creating over $126 million in earnings." (This impressive collection of highly exaggerated numbers is supposedly from "Dean Runyon: California Travel Impacts by County, 1992-2012; 2013 Preliminary State & Regional Estimates." But he provides no source.)
We're supposed to believe that tourists spent $328 million in Mendocino County and paid for the employment of 5000 people. That's almost $66,000 per employee, but how many private sector people in broke-ass Mendo make this kind of money?
The entire collection of hype and outtayerass numbers comes to us in the grotesquely overproduced jive brochure that is typical of people whose job is "promotion,” i.e., self-promotion.
"Here's a quick look at some of the exciting things that Visit Mendocino County has planned for fiscal year 2014-15… The boards of VMC, MCLA and MCPA each approved the governance study conducted by HighBar Global Consulting which set out five specific recommendations for change. The newly appointed MCLA board has since reversed its approval."
So MCLA backed out. Bummer.
So why did Schneider & Co. bother writing that they all approved, only to have to take it back in the next sentence?
Also notice that there’s no mention of the “five specific recommendations.” The whole conglomerated promotional mess has been wracked by internal conflict and confusing, duplicative, secretive and self-contradictory processes that create the occasional disgruntled complaint, indignant resignation, demand for correction, or jumbled proposal for improvement and reorganization. But nothing much ever really changes as musical desks and titles bounce around all the while a few people draw bigger and bigger salaries for more and more of their friends and professional acquaintances to generate more and more promotional material.
As mentioned the promotional juggernaut recently re-organized themselves again in yet another attempt to sell themselves to the Board of Supervisors — and pull down another $190k from the County, bringing the County's contribution-match to $550k per year next year.
You'd think with all the money they say they're making, they could pay for their own marketing. But you'd be wrong: They say the more money the County pours down on them, the more money the County makes.
It turns out that there's an easy way to check whether the County coffers really benefit from all this promotion and millions and millions of “consumer impressions.”
Let’s simply look at the "Room Occupancy Tax" revenue line in the County budget for the last few years. If what the VMC-MCLA-MCPA people say is true, we should see increased bed tax revenues.Unfortunately, the “room occupancy tax” line item that is supposed to be generated by all the tax-subsidized marketing is anything but impressive. In the few years before the 08-09 downturn in the economy, the bed tax revenue was running between $3.6 and $3.8 million per year. (Originally bed tax money was supposed to help cover county services associated with increased tourism: police, roads, emergency services, social services for low-end seasonal employees, etc. But in the 1990s, the tourism people convinced the county that there was a connection between government subsidized marketing and county revenues and off they went with the money.)
In 08-09 bed tax revenues were $3.7 million. In 09-10, $3.2 million. In 10-11 $3.2. In 2011-12 the got about $3.5 million in bed taxes, in 2012-13, the County got only $2.7 million, and in 2013-14 the County budgeted an optimistic $3.7 million and it remains to be seen how much of that budgeted $3.7 million in revenue will actually come in. But even if it did, it would still be basically flat, up here, down there. In spite of all the “promotion,” bed tax revenue has run more or less constant except for the downturn and the occasional off year. In other words, tourism dollars are mostly a reflection of the economy, not of “promotion.”
Here’s an idea: Let’s stop subsidizing them entirely for a year or two and see if the bed tax goes down noticeably. If it does, give them back their money; if not, give it to the cops and ambulance crews who need it and let the well-funded tourism “industry” do their own marketing.