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Urdi warns council about tourism cuts

May 11, 2012

The director of Mammoth Lakes Tourism went before the Town Council Tuesday night with one basic message regarding the town’s fiscal crisis.

The message went something along the lines of, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
Citing tourism fiascos in Colorado, Wisconsin and Washington State, John Urdi warned the council that any cuts in tourism spending would be imprudent.

In a 17-minute presentation excoriating Colorado, Wisconsin and Washington State, Urdi said it is Mammoth’s duty to its citizens to “keep the funnel filled” with tourists and their dollars, particularly in a time of extreme fiscal stress, such as now.

“Let’s be very clear with what tourism means to Mammoth,” he said. “In short, there is only one industry in Mammoth Lakes. One. And that’s tourism.

“Sixty-eight percent of our workforce is directly related to tourism, and that does not include bus drivers, lawyers, construction workers, administration or grocery store workers.”

As an example of what can happen to a tourism economy when cuts are made, Urdi came down hard on Colorado in particular.

In 1992, he said, Colorado eradicated its tourism marketing, cutting $12 million.

“The result of this, in 1992, was an immediate drop in business,” he said.” Colorado in one year lost 30 percent of its market share for the country. In a matter of a few years, they’d slipped from the No. 1 summer destination to No. 17. They lost $1.4 billion in direct spending, and in the later 90s, they’d lost up to $2.4 billion a year.

Citing Colorado tax activist Douglas Bruce, who was instrumental in denuding Colorado’s tourism budget. Urdi said,“Douglas Bruce said at the time that it’s not that we’re against tourism. But the Rocky Mountains were here long before the Colorado Tourism board, and they’ll be here long afterwards. Surely the tourists will come.”

“They were not putting anything into the funnel,” Urdi said.

“We need to make sure we get people here to eat in our restaurants, to stay in our lodges and funnel down through so that government gets funded and our businesses stay in business.”

In Colorado, therefore, in exchange for a short-term gain of $12 million in savings, it turned out to be a $143 million loss.

Urdi then put the hammer down on Wisconsin, which didn’t cut the tourism budget, but didn’t grow it, either.

“Wisconsin is just letting things pass them by. Travel expenditure has lost $700,000 and there has been a loss of 15,000 jobs—not because they cut the budget, but because they let it stagnate.

“‘Pure Michigan’ is probably why,” Urdi said. “In 2009, when Michigan faced severe budget cuts and a failing auto industry, they had to make some difficult cuts and they cut throughout the state.

“But they ended up doubling the tourism budget to fund the ‘Pure Michigan,’ campaign, and if you open any magazine, turn on any TV station, you’ve seen a ‘Pure Michigan” campaign. ‘Pure Michigan’ is sponsoring the Boston Red Sox TV broadcasts, and that’s pretty crazy.”

With the increase in revenue, Urdi said Michigan was able to add 839 state troopers to a beleaguered force, and to add 844 new teachers, along with creating 10,000 new jobs.

Meanwhile, with Washington State also cutting into its tourism efforts, Montana has upped the ante, throwing billboards, bus wraps and other marketing into the heart of Seattle.

“What they’re saying is that if they’re not going to invite you to stay in your own back yard, come visit ours.”
For Mammoth, Urdi said, there are storm clouds on the horizon, coming from enemies all over the place.
“It’s evident that we need to stay competitive,” he said. “We’ve been very aggressive with travel from the Bay Area. We’ve always had a good draw in the summertime, and with the flights out of the Bay Area in the winter, we’re making an impact on Tahoe.

“The challenge is that Tahoe’s resorts are spending a lot of money in Southern California to help draw traffic past us, and if you’ve been in L.A. this winter, you’ve seen Aspen on bus wraps because now LAX is offering two flights a day to Aspen.

“We’ve actually had calls from Colorado businesses asking to advertise in our Visitors guide.

“We’ve said no.”

Urdi drew support from both the audience and the dais, but whether he was successful will have to wait until the council approves a budget in late June.

He does not have whole-hearted support.

Councilman Rick Wood, after the meeting, said the council had worked hard to create a surplus reserve in its budget, “and now Tourism wants to come in and slurp it all up.”

But the tourism supporters at the meeting seemed to be fully supportive of Urdi, speaking in tones that bolstered his stance.

“Damn the torpedoes,” they seemed to say, in unison, “and full speed ahead.”

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