Mayor’s Task Force unites Lake Norman Hospitality Industry

 

William E. "Bill" Russell, CCE

(Feb 24, 2011)  At a luncheon in February featuring Lynn Minges, the Assistant Secretary of Tourism, Marketing and Branding for the North Carolina Department of Commerce;  Mike Butts the Executive Director of Visit Charlotte; and Sally Ashworth the Executive Director of Visit Lake Norman a question was asked: Would events and visitors come if Visit Lake Norman, the authority charged with tourism development, did not exist?  While the answer may be simple to many, the bottom line is you can build it, but no one is coming unless you market it.

What that means is this – you can build a Disney, but if no one knows that it is there, or how it can bring positive benefits to your life, then no one is coming there to experience it.  There is a reason that the largest attractions in the world spend billions in marketing annually.  As Vinay Patel, a hotel owner representing two hotels in Huntersville said, “Why bother employing sales representatives if just building a hotel entices visitors to stay here?”  The fact is, if there is no one to sell the world what you have to offer, then you shouldn’t have built it in the first place.

Reducing or eliminating financial support to Visit Lake Norman will have a dramatic negative impact on our hotels, restaurants, and attractions.  All of us here in the lake region are directly impacted by the hospitality industry and the friends, neighbors, and family members they employ.  When our hotels and restaurants do well, we all benefit from the dollars which are generated in our community.

Our local municipalities are facing debt from facilties and decisions that they themselves may not have made.  Yet, those town boards are dealing with the difficult challenges of balancing town budgets using financial resources they may have at hand.  While most attractions spend revenue, Visit Lake Norman is a proven revenue generator for the hospitality industry, and the towns benefit greatly from increased sales and hospitality taxes.

There is one inescapable conclusion we are all reminded of every day.  When government makes a mistake, all of us as taxpayers pay for it. When a business makes a mistake, it could lead to that business closing its doors.   Allowing decisions to be made which hurt our visitors spending efforts and the businesses supported by those dollars is simply a mistake we cannot afford our local elected leaders to make.  Many of you have asked what you can do. Consider writing or emailing your elected officials. Many of their email addresses can be found on the town websites for Cornelius,  Davidson, Huntersville or write Letters to the Editor at The Herald, Business Today, Cornelius Today, The Lake Norman Citizen, or DavidsonNews.net. 

In the end, the job you might be saving could be your own!

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Growing Together at Lake Norman

W.E. "Bill" Russell

Robert Copeland once said, “To get something done, a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent.”  Mr. Copeland obviously has served on a committee and my guess, had a really bad experience.  All of us at one time or the other have served and will serve on committees – and all of us will have good and bad experiences.  A committee is no different than any other team with whom you have been affiliated.  Good leaders and good members yield positive results.  The opposite is also true.

Our Lake Norman Chamber is a little different than many of the businesses which are members.  In a growing region, with a diverse and growing association, we often have a number of programs and events going on at the same time.  It is typical that we might have an informative luncheon at noon with ribbon cuttings during the day followed by an afterhours that evening.  I suppose it is that challenge, with the variety of deadlines and the number of events and programs we accommodate which excites me and drives my performance.  If the pace were routine with the same projects and the same issues I would likely grow tired of it quickly.

A few years ago, two of my past chamber chairmen were charged with performing my annual evaluation as the chamber’s chief executive officer.  They were kind and appreciative of my work and spoke flatteringly about the number of balls I seemed to juggle in the air at the same time.  Then one of them said something I have never forgotten, “Introducing more balls does not increase your talent – it increases the likelihood of dropping one.”

In their subtle way, they were telling me I better learn to delegate a little more or one day there may be a problem.  In many respects, all four of our Chamber employees are trying to juggle a variety of balls and I’m certain you at your business are doing the same!  Fortunately, we have some outstanding Chamber volunteers helping us carry out our mission..

January’s Chamber Banquet coordinated by Angela Swett, this fall’s Golf Classic with Co-Chairmen Bryan Spach and Lu Rogers, and all of the volunteers who assist with our Annual Expo are just a few of the folks that make our success possible.

Robert Reed, 2011 Lake Norman Chamber Chairman

Chamber Chairman Robert Reed’s theme this year is “Let’s Grow Together.”  Robert has already shared some exciting news as we look at ways of improving our Chamber and delivering outstanding programming and events for you and your employees. In addition we will continue to focus on our Buy Local campaign, encouraging Chamber members to support each other and the public to Shop Lake Norman first!

Our success will be dependent on great leadership and your involvement.  Please consider volunteering this year in one of the exciting opportunities we have in the chamber.  President Lyndon Johnson perhaps said it best, “There are no problems we cannot solve together and very few that we can solve by ourselves.”

Lake Norman Mayor’s Task Force Taking On Water

Bill Russell, CCE

Mayor’s Task Force on Travel and Tourism

(Feb 16, 2011) Roughly ten days after the announcement of a Mayor’s Task Force on Travel and Tourism, the mayor appointed committee has been suspended at this time.  As you may recall from last week’s message to the membership and subsequent reports in Business Today and the Lake Norman Citizen, the Chamber objected not to the composure of the Task Force but the obvious omissions of significant stakeholders – namely the hotel owners themselves.  The press release sent out by the mayors created a great deal of dialogue within the business community and the hospitality industry.  While the mission and composure of the committee may have been the initial discussion point, a much greater focus is now on the actual reinvestment into the hospitality industry from the taxes which were created to support and promote visitors spending.

Our North Mecklenburg towns collect approximately $2.6 million in hospitality dollars between an accommodation tax and the prepared meals tax, of which less than $500,000 (actually $428,145) is provided to Visit Lake Norman, the authority charged with creating events to generate room night stays and restaurant revenues.  That means approximately $2.17 million dollars of hospitality taxes, intended through state legislation to promote visitors spending, and is currently being spent in ways which may or may not increase hotel and restaurant revenues.

Perhaps in an ironic way, the Mayor’s Task Force on Travel and Tourism may have already served its greatest function without ever convening by creating a dialogue and awareness that Visit Lake Norman is not receiving the funding it needs to make the Lake Norman region a destination for the amateur sports, recreational, and leisure market. While Visit Lake Norman is able to generate $24.26 in economic impact for every $1 invested, there is much that could be done if the funds from the hospitality industry was reinvested in the hospitality industry as the legislation intended. Members can download and view Visit Lake Norman’s Annual report which details the 2009-2010 year highlighting its successes, events, and economic impact by clicking on Annual Report.

While much of the discussion has been focused on the hotels, with additional dollars the Visit Lake Norman could also give additional exposure to the restaurants and entertainment in our region. It is very important to the economic health and vitality of a community and region to have a vibrant and thriving entertainment district. Fine dining, theaters, dance clubs are critical components to not only attracting our visitors and tourists but an element we must have to cater to a young demographic who work and live in the Lake Norman region.  The bottom line is the dollars spent after five p.m. are just as important to our overall economy as those spent from nine to five!

 

Reaction to “Mayor’s Task Force on Travel & Tourism” at Lake Norman

W.E. "Bill" Russell, CCE IOM

This past Friday, a press release announced the formation of a “Mayor’s Task Force on Travel & Tourism” appointed by the three North Mecklenburg Mayors, without the knowledge or notice to Visit Lake Norman, the experts charged with the promotion and marketing of the Lake Norman region since 2001. Media reports from Business Today and articles in the upcoming editions of the papers will likely detail the concerns from the multiple stakeholders in the hospitality industry and business leaders much better than I can.

I must admit many of us representing your chamber of commerce were surprised at the formation of any task force which would make “recommendations for a more focused vision for our small business, destination and tourism entities” stated in the release, without any representation from the Lake Norman Chamber or the leadership of Visit Lake Norman. However, the more troubling aspect of this was the lack of any hotel representation in this task force.

Perhaps there is no greater stakeholder in travel and tourism than our hotels whose properties generate the revenues and subsequently the accommodation taxes and are the real experts when it comes to how best to attract visitors and tourists to our region. While we can debate goals, objectives, mission statements, and priorities, ultimately what is at stake here is how we should best allocate the use of hospitality taxes.

So why is this all important to Lake Norman Chamber members?

According to the Annual Report by Visit Lake Norman, events recruited by their organization in 2009 – 2010 brought $11,987,300 in visitors spending (a 59% increase from the previous year). That visitors spending in Mecklenburg County saved each household in Cornelius, Davidson, and Huntersville $304 in taxes last year that would otherwise have been passed on through property taxes. The bottom line is that for every $1 invested in Visit Lake Norman by the towns, $24.26 was generated back to our local economy!

So what is the hospitality tax anyway and how can it be spent? There are several taxes: the sales tax we are all accustomed to, the accommodation tax 6% levied on the hotel rooms and the 1% prepared meals tax. In 1983, legislation was created which levied, at that time, a 3% tax on the gross receipts of hotel rooms (later amended an additional 3% in 1989). It was stated in this legislation that these funds would “be allocated for activities and programs aiding and encouraging convention and visitor promotion.” Section 8C of that bill went on to say the remaining money, after a dedicated portion (50%), could be spent for “acquiring, constructing, financing, maintaining, and operating convention centers, civic centers, performing arts centers, coliseums, auditoriums, and museums, and for visitor related programs and activities including cultural programs, events, or festivals.”

In essence, this was a tax that the hospitality industry at the time supported, having imposed on itself the task to create visitor’s spending. Much like Senate Bill 647 in 1990 when the restaurants agreed to a 1% prepared meals tax for the same use. In 2001, the Lake Norman Chamber led the charge for House Bill 715 which returned a share of the prepared food tax to the North Mecklenburg towns (previously all of it went to Charlotte) with the agreement we would create a tourism authority known today as Visit Lake Norman and formerly known as the Lake Norman Convention & Visitors Bureau. That agreement in 2001 allowed for a 50% investment of accommodations taxes and a 25% share of the prepared meals taxes to promote and create events resulting in increased visitors spending for hotels, restaurants, and local businesses!

Today, the North Mecklenburg town’s investment to Visit Lake Norman has been decreased steadily over time by the town boards to $428,145 or 28% of the accommodation tax and none of the prepared meals tax, which is thought to be well over $1 million dollars. It was $615,243 in 1999. The North Mecklenburg towns take in $1.6 million in accommodations taxes, leaving them collectively with $1.1 million or 72% to spend in ways which may or may not create room night stays.

The events created by Visit Lake Norman, whether a soccer or softball tournament or a fishing tournament on the lake bring in significant dollars as families and guests stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants, fill up at the gas station, shop in our stores, etc.

While health care and the financial investment companies are strong economic generators in North Mecklenburg, they are largely so because of our proximity to Charlotte and being the second largest financial district in the country. However, we have two home grown industries that fuel our lake economy: the commercial and residential real estate market and the hospitality industry.

We all know when building and real estate have a downturn, we all feel it in the pocketbook. The same can be said with our hospitality industry – hotels, restaurants, attractions, marinas, boat dealerships, etc. When Visit Lake Norman has a tournament in town – our business community positively feels it!

Ironically, next week the Chamber will host a luncheon on Thursday, February 17 at Northstone Country Club in Huntersville on the Direct Effect of Visitors Spending on Local Citizens and Businesses.” Featured at the luncheon is Lynn Minges, the Assistant Secretary of Tourism, Marketing and Branding for the North Carolina Department of Commerce; Mike Butts the Executive Director of Visit Charlotte; and Sally Ashworth the Executive Director of Visit Lake Norman. To register for the event click here.

While the statesman Edmund Burke was much stronger in his language, to paraphrase him, “All that is necessary for the triumph of our misfortune… is that good people do nothing.’’  That is not the case here, as the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce will continue to support our hotels, restaurants, attractions, hospitality partners and our local business members!  

Citizen emails should be kept confidential

Bill Russell, CCE

 The following is a “letter to the editor” distributed to area media January 31, 2011 regarding The Charlotte Obserever’s request of local municipalities to turn over data on residents as a matter of public record.   As of this date, while The Observer has stated the data will not be used for marketing, but they have not relented in their request of the lists.

In 1997, I signed up for my first AOL account and heard the familiar little jingle “You’ve got mail!”  Now 14 years and several email accounts later, I receive more email than I really care to receive. According to research by the Radicati Group, the corporate user alone receives approximately 99 emails a day. That does not take into account any email you may receive at home. Now, The Charlotte Observer would like to add theirs to the list. The newspaper is using the North Carolina Public Records law in requesting information municipalities have on hand regarding residential email, addresses, and telephone numbers.

Steve Gunn, the Director of Strategic Products and Audience Development for The Charlotte Observer states that, “The Observer has requested the listings because we believe that many of the engaged citizens on the list would be interested in helping us improve our journalism by telling us about stories they see.”

The legislation was written to create transparency in government, making sure the media could serve as the “watchdogs” against government and the elected officials themselves operating outside of the lines of their jurisdiction; and to keep the citizenry informed. It was not, however, created for the private marketing use of the paper, or any business for its profit.

The Charlotte Observer’s request and the existing rule, while legal, makes possible for any business or organization to request the data for their own use. Anyone who has signed up for a town or city generated newsletter, Parks and Recreation bulletin, or communicated with Town Hall about trash service would have their private information turned over to anyone who requested it.  The Observer’s Editor, Rick Thames has defended the paper’s decision and says the paper will not use the email addresses to spam the recipient and echoed Gunn’s statement that it is merely to allow the public to advise The Observer on their reporting.

The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, representing more than 1,000 business members in the Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and greater Lake Norman region is opposed to releasing individual citizen data to any organization or business, regardless of its use. It is a violation of the trust between government and its citizenry.

Residents should feel free to contact City Hall or their elected officials, and enjoy communication without the fear that their private data will be used for commercial gain. While we encourage healthy business growth and the spirit of free enterprise, the Lake Norman Chamber supports legislation which safeguards the private citizen’s personal data.

If The Charlotte Observer feels that the newspaper itself cannot adequately serve as a vehicle to solicit reader and citizen opinion, then perhaps it should turn to the option many businesses practice each week – take out an advertisement in their publication or a local paper, Internet media source, or magazine. There are several here in the Lake Norman region, with significant market penetration and readership, which would be happy to sell any business, organization, or competing newspaper for that matter – an ad.

Bill Russell, CCE IOM