Jeff Heuchert, email@example.com
A key recommendation in a new review of the Stratford Tourism Alliance calls for a "substantial increase" in funding support from the City of Stratford towards the beleaguered organization.
The municipality contributed $415,000 in operating funds to its independent tourism body in 2015. The review, researched by tourism professionals Randy Garfield, Minto Schneider and John Winston, concluded that an additional $200,000 annually is warranted.
"In our view (the tourism alliance is) underfunded," Winston told members of city council Monday evening when presenting the group's findings.
He suggested that without more resources the organization will be nothing more than an information centre.
"You need to make a decision on how you want this organization to function, in terms of what its mandate is going to be," Winston added.
"Does the community want a tourism office that has the financial resources to drive the appropriate activity that you require to attract business?"
The review makes note that, despite inflationary cost increases, the city's contribution to the tourism alliance has failed to come close to the $600,000 that was recommended in a report back in 2005, forcing the organization to pursue alternative funding sources that are less predictable.
In 2014 a series of mishaps left the organization with an operating deficit, forcing it to seek a municipal loan to pay back outstanding debts. The budget shortfall was attributed to an under-performing Savour Stratford culinary festival, two of its members backing out of charging what's called a destination marketing fee – a three per cent levy on hotel and B&B guests that goes back into tourism initiatives – and missed government grant opportunities caused by an early provincial election.
At first the tourism alliance announced it would be slashing marketing efforts in 2015 but then in March the organization's first and only executive director resigned. No reason for his exit was provided.
City council on Monday referred the review to the tourism group, which is holding its AGM Wednesday, while the financial considerations will be dealt with by council during its 2016 budget process.
The review recommends the city rescind its provision that the alliance pay back its municipal loan, noting the requirement weakens its ability to fund marketing activities and programs.
Garfield told councillors that Stratford has "an embarrassment of riches" when it comes to potential tourism drivers and warned officials against relying too much on the Stratford Festival to attract visitors, noting the theatre has some "significant gaps" in terms of when it pulls in crowds.
"The Festival does a great job being the number one magnet, but the Festival really has no accountability to fill your B&Bs, to fill you hotels, or to drive retail business into your stores and restaurants," he added.
A large number of the city's tax base downtown is derived from the tourism sector, Winstone noted.
"You take that away, what do you really have," he said.
Among the other key recommendations in the review are that the STA strengthen partnerships with regional tourism offices and organizations, revise its destination market program to improve accountability, develop off-season events and programs, and hire new leadership to drive success.
Despite a new-look website that was launched just this year at a cost of $60,000 - half of which was contributed by the province – the review also calls for a complete overhaul of the STA's online page along with an overall stronger social media presence.