|By Shannan Bowen, Star-News, Wilmington,
N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 08, 2011--When the hotels he manages were nearing capacity during last year's N.C. Azalea Festival weekend, Kip Damrow wanted to know the reason.
Surely it wasn't the festival attracting that many tourists, he thought.
So Damrow, director of sales for Alliance Hospitality Management, asked front desk clerks at Courtyard by Marriott Wilmington and Hilton Garden Inn Mayfaire to poll guests on why they were in town.
"Overwhelmingly, it was the Azalea Festival," he said.
Without a formal tracking system, it's sometimes difficult to realize the impact of festivals, sporting events and other functions that draw visitors to the area.
That leaves officials struggling to determine which events and functions should receive funding, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said.
The issue was discussed at last month's New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority meeting, and Saffo said he wanted to learn more about how the visitors bureau, event planners and hoteliers could work together to measure the economic impact groups have when they come to the area.
Damrow, who represents hoteliers on a new sports committee for the Wilmington Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, has suggested officials use a software or implement a housing bureau to track and book guests for events such as sports tournaments.
When he worked in Milwaukee, Wis., Damrow would submit rates for certain events to the visitors bureau, which would then list those rates in an online system. Groups were directed to a website to book rooms, and hotels and tourism officials used the system to find out how many people came to the area for a specific reason.
But such methods could be costly and require additional staff, CVB president Kim Hufham said.
"You've really got to have a tremendous amount of city-wide events to make it worth it," she said.
Some larger cities' visitors bureaus have staff members solely tasked with coordinating lodging for events and maintaining online booking services.
Mikie Wall, CVB vice president of sales and services, said tracking visitors at a low cost is an issue for destinations across the nation.
Economic impact is typically easy to measure for conventions and conferences since event planners or organizations often have a list of the number of attendees and whether they are staying at local hotels, she said.
But sports tournaments and festivals are more difficult because organizers of the events typically don't coordinate lodging for the various groups and individuals attending.
The Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau uses an online too to book hotel rooms for large functions, but only a handful of events typically require the service each year, said Loren Gold, executive vice president of the visitors bureau.
He said the tool allows staff to find out how many overnight guests are in town for a certain event and provides easy service for guests and hotels.
Other tools used by visitors bureaus include registration lists from event coordinators and reports from hotels that track their own guests.
New Hanover County's CVB, like most others, uses a formula to calculate how much the local economy gains from each overnight tourist for specific events.
Elected officials then use economic impact figures to determine whether to offer funding if it's requested.
"All these festivals and events do bring people to the community, but I need to know what kind of impact they are having, because there may be other groups we pass over that might have a greater impact economically in the community," he said.
Officials said they could better track visitors and measure economic impact if all tourism industry partners worked together.
The CVB sends surveys to each lodging company after major events and asks how many people booked rooms and whether establishments offered special rates. But there's usually only a 10-percent response rate to the survey, Hufham said.
Visitors bureau staff already offer housing services and provide hotel rates at a group's request. Hufham said a new county tourism website will allow CVB staff to set up pages for a specific event listing hotels and special rates, but it won't be able to track how many guests booked rooms.
She said many event planners are unaware of the CVB's services, and many hotels don't communicate with the visitors bureau about special packages for events.
"In order for them to be successful, we have to work together," she said.
Meanwhile, Saffo said he was interested in finding an efficient system to track tourists. He said it might be worth the cost to purchase software and other tools if it provided officials with more information about the impact of tourists.
"We're growing as a community. We're growing as a region. Tourism plays a big part in this," he said. "We just need to do what we can to track all this information. We're not just a small city anymore with a little bit of tourism here."
Shannan Bowen: 343-2016
On Twitter: @shanbow
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Copyright (c) 2011, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.
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