As the Eastern Regional Tourism District moves toward resolving a breach of contract dispute with the state regarding funding, the district will next need to determine what actually to do with the $400,000 or more that it will receive from the state government for marketing campaigns.
“If we’re not effectively putting a positive effect on everybody’s bottom line in the region then we’re not doing our job,” said Chris Regan, who represents Stonington on the district board. “We have to look at how we can maximize that $400,000 to help everybody in our region, and that will help the state of Connecticut because it would drive up revenue.”
They might differ on specifics, but several members of the board’s recently appointed executive committee interviewed for this story agreed that the district will have to do a better job supporting and working with its member towns and stakeholders if it’s going to make the most of those dollars.
Tracey Hanson, who is the First Selectman of Voluntown and chair of the district board’s bylaws writing committee, said that the district has not done enough to make many of its smaller towns in the north feel that it’s worthwhile to join.
“The southern towns in the district dominate because they’re bigger and have more money, and the smaller towns in the north back out because they feel they’re not being heard and that the attention would just go to the southern towns anyway,” Hanson said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I’m trying to make it known that we’re now trying to do it differently.”
Chris Regan, who is the property manager of Olde Mistick Village and chairs the district finance committee, agreed that the district will need to do more to include the smaller towns but added, “We can’t fault the success of Mystic being the reason why other areas were not included. That was more of the prior inactivity of people [on the board] not reaching out to other areas of the district.”
He said in a Thursday phone interview that he wants the district to seek more public-private partnership, raising private dollars for marketing campaigns to be matched by state funding.
Stephen Gencarella, a communications professor and Lyme resident who chairs the board’s marketing committee, said that specific attractions like those in Mystic and the casinos have been “anchors” of tourism in the region, but that the district board has not sufficiently promoted outdoor tourism and the area’s cultural heritage, to the detriment of the entire region.
“When you start to promote the area rather than just specific attractions in the area you are going to have people stay longer, spend more, and engage more,” he said in a Wednesday interview. “And you’re going to have economic benefits to the area of more businesses opening up, and that is going to have a benefit to Mystic just as much as it does to the smaller towns.”
Small towns feel crowded out
Hanson said that the state has neglected to promote potential tourism draws in the rural parts eastern Connecticut. As the chief elected official of a town that has about two-thirds of its land as state forest, Hanson pointed specifically to Pachaug State Forest and the Air Line State Park Trail.
“We have visitors that come to the state forest for hiking, fishing, swimming, camping, boating and also the private campgrounds as well,” Hanson said. “We’re highly dependent on outdoor recreation, so for the [town’s] economic development commission, our plan has been to promote Voluntown as the outdoor tourism destination for everything you can think of.”
The town designed trail maps in 2017 to promote their attractions and has updated them annually. But Hanson said they’ve been impeded by poor communication from the state.
She pointed specifically to CTVisit.com, where the entire portion of the state is labeled “Mystic Country.” Agreements with the state prohibit the Eastern District from making its own website.
“If they want us to use CTVisit.com and they want us to be in line with them on things, then they should change the website to be more in line with the actual districts,” Hanson said.
“At one of the last [tourism district] meetings people didn’t even know about the Air Line Trail,” she added, “and that’s had multiple grants to get approval to get it built, and that’s what I’m trying to get the northern towns in the district to get involved so they can promote these areas in their towns.”
Gencarella separately criticized CTVisit.com in his interview:
The website, he said, “has a tiny narrative mentioning the Quiet Corner and the small towns, and then it advertises Mystic Marriott, the submarine museum, Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, the Seaport, the Aquarium, yesterday it was the Flo Gris, and today it’s Sharpe Hill Vineyard. That is six out of seven things within a few miles of each other. [Those towns] are doing a great job fighting for their constituents, but if you want to think about the district and cultural heritage tourism we have to expand. Because all of those small towns are part of the story too.”
Gencarella attributed missing the small town attractions to a “top-down” approach from the Connecticut Office of Tourism that focuses primarily on major attractions. He advocated instead for a “cultural heritage approach,” a method he said is supported by research from tourism industry experts, that would tell a story about the region.
“What you find is when you’re promoting a sense of place and a sense of culture, people have reasons to join in, people become proud, people want to connect with others because then you’re not competitors,” Gencarella said.
Cultural heritage tourism, he said, “is an approach to tourism that emphasizes culture and a unique sense of place. It’s an approach to tourism that emphasizes stories rather than advertisements, and it’s an approach to tourism that invites people to experience a place holistically. Not just going to the iconic attractions.”
He said his plan for a marketing campaign would begin with a listening tour, to go out to each individual town and identify their potential attractions, the critical tourism leaders or influencers in the towns, and create an “inventory” of all the experiences that they offer.
“What are the arts that you see?” he said. “What types of cuisines and local services and local products, what are the natural history elements, and what are the heritage elements? When you have those literally mapped out in the inventory, patterns begin to emerge to show you what the culture is of a particular place, or in this case the region.”
After that, he said, the district could use those patterns to tell a story about the district with traditional advertising methods as well as videos, radio segments, a good web presence, and guidebooks.
The goal with all of this, he said, would be to get people to feel that they can get a wide range of experiences out of the region.
“In a cultural heritage model you’re making so many different types of more opportunities for people to come so that new groups will come, more groups will come, people will stay longer, and more people will spend. Those are the things that you want when you approach with a cultural heritage model.”
Finance chair emphasizes return on investment
Chris Regan, chair of the finance committee, said that all of the district’s work has to be grounded in getting the best return on investment for all of the district’s member towns and tourism stakeholders.
“Have we been effective in getting everybody to feel included? No, I don’t think so. But at the same time we have limited dollars to try to get people coming into the state of Connecticut.”
Regan proposed using the district’s funding from state, which would be about $400,000 under fiscal year 2019-20’s contract, as matching funds for private donors and grants to other area marketing campaigns.
He added, “As a district board, we need to pay attention to the entire area and try to be as knowledgeable as possible because it’s very limited with that $400,000. I would love to see $100,000, to at least start out that way, to be used for co-op funds or grant funds” to local campaigns.
He said that this could be a way to include towns and stakeholders from the more rural parts of the district, encouraging town governments to get business leaders to make investments in campaigns geared toward their specific constituencies. He said state officials in Hartford would also be more receptive to funding tourism marketing programs when the local groups have “skin in the game” and a clear plan.
He said that such programs have been successful in Mystic and as part of other tourism business associations that he’s been a part of. He specifically pointed to the recent “See Mystic” campaign.
Regan said that it was in the best interest of the area’s major attractions for the entire region to highlight its offerings. The casinos, for example, could make themselves more competitive against gambling markets in Boston and Atlantic City if they can show that there are other attractions such as outdoor opportunities nearby.
“At the end of the day we’re coming in collectively as a community to advertise our assets,” he said. “We can change everybody’s mentality to push the marketing and not just be territorial about it. I think we need to really come to the table with no hidden agendas, and try to keep it in a positive light. Because we want to bring tourists here to have a great experience and at the end of the day if we’re not showing them what we have, then we’re not going to be able give them that great experience.”