Government

From 'evolve' shadow, city takes on Tourism 2.0

But officials demur on just how Cedar Rapids markets itself

“Greetings from Newbo” reads the side of a building near the corner of Third Street SE and 13th Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids. The mural was painted to be part of the “newbo evolve” festival’s gardens. The festival last August proved to be a financial debacle, with $2.3 million in unpaid bills and loans. The GO Cedar Rapids tourism bureau that produced it later folded, and Cedar Rapids is relying for now on a temporary arrangement to continue tourism marketing. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
“Greetings from Newbo” reads the side of a building near the corner of Third Street SE and 13th Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids. The mural was painted to be part of the “newbo evolve” festival’s gardens. The festival last August proved to be a financial debacle, with $2.3 million in unpaid bills and loans. The GO Cedar Rapids tourism bureau that produced it later folded, and Cedar Rapids is relying for now on a temporary arrangement to continue tourism marketing. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — As they try to create distance from the now-defunct GO Cedar Rapids — yet continue many of its initiatives — city and tourism officials have been guarded about some of the inner-workings of the new Cedar Rapids Tourism Office and certain functions the office is and isn’t performing.

The GO Cedar Rapids tourism operation abruptly folded Oct. 15 after the finances for a summer festival called “newbo evolve” went terribly wrong and the bureau couldn’t pay $2.3 million it owed to vendors and a bank.

Shortly after, the tourism operation essentially reopened as a scaled-back version with a new structure and a new name — Cedar Rapids Tourism Office — but with many of the same staff picking up where they had left off at GO Cedar Rapids. The mission was to continue booking conferences and sporting events and marketing the community as a place to visit.

“Right away we wanted to reach out to the clients they’ve been working with for several years,” Mike Silva, executive director of VenuWorks, which houses the Tourism Office, said during a January presentation to the City Council. “We are still in business. We are still moving forward. We are honoring all of the incentives promised by the previous organization.”

The Tourism Office was intended as a stopgap until the city and stakeholders devise a permanent plan for a new convention and visitors bureau.

The city government, which oversees and pays for more than half of the Tourism Office budget through hotel-motel taxes, has a 12- to 18-month memorandum of understanding with VenuWorks, a company the city already contracted with to book events at city venues, to run the operations day-to-day. Silva and city leaders have praised the work of the office so far.

Silva declined to be interviewed directly by The Gazette, show The Gazette its offices in the city-owned DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel or let the five staff members tasked with promoting the city be interviewed about what they do.

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The Tourism Office is slated to move to a first floor space with better visibility in the coming weeks, he said.

He responded to questions from The Gazette by email but struck-through most of them, particularly ones referencing GO Cedar Rapids, which he indicated he would not answer. Silva had no role with GO Cedar Rapids.

One of the questions he crossed out entirely: “What services and how much of the mission from the old GO CR carries forward to the new organization? Are there things you are no longer doing?”

Cedar Rapids Finance Director Casey Drew, who oversees the contract and agreement with VenuWorks and the Tourism Office, did not address a similar question about how GO Cedar Rapids and the Tourism Office are different in terms of services.

“City staff were tasked with operating a Tourism Office and operations began in October 2018,” Drew said in an email provided by Maria Johnson, a city spokeswoman. “City staff were not tasked with operating a (convention and visitors bureau).”

Understanding the Tourism Office is important if the community is to weigh in on a model for a new convention and visitors bureau — or give thoughts on if one is needed at all — and how much public money to invest in it.

The Tourism Office is continuing many of the same core services as GO Cedar Rapids, but at about two-thirds the cost.

The office’s only five staff members have all rolled over from the defunct bureau. They are tasked with group services, sports tourism, business development, communications and marketing and meetings and conventions. The same website design with a new Tourism Office logo is used and filled with much of the old GO Cedar Rapids content, and it is supporting events and conferences that had been booked under its predecessor.

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The Tourism Office is funded through the same basic mix of sources: hotel-motel taxes; destination marketing fees charged of guests — $2 per room, per night — at 13 hotels; and membership dues. It’s not clear what extra services the hotels receive for the fee.

The city is budgeting $750,000 in hotel-motel fees for the Tourism Office, which is more than half the $1.4 million in expected Tourism Office revenue in fiscal 2020. The office expects to see $1.2 million in expenses.

By comparison, the city had been funding $1 million of the GO Cedar Rapids budget, which had grown to $2 million most recently.

One area the new Tourism Office appears to have trimmed is producing its own events, which is a debated practice among tourism industry professionals.

City leaders sought a consultant in 2014 to provide a high-level view of the Cedar Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau — later rebranded as GO Cedar Rapids — and stated their desire for the organization to produce events to attract and retain young people. One of the consultant report’s recommendations was to create an event producer position, which city leaders endorsed.

Aside from “newbo evolve,” GO Cedar Rapids created a number of successful events.

The Indian Creek Nature Center took over the Fat Sac & Fox Enduro Ride, a winter fat tire bike race. The Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance — at its request, according to Silva — took over Restaurant Week and Dinner of Champions, which took place in February.

Silva would not answer directly whether the Tourism Office still is producing events.

“The Tourism Office has already financially supported events already like the Halloween Ball, (and would have supported Crown Rally) and other events and will continue to do so,” Silva wrote. “There are a lot of events out there that we financially support in order to bring visitors to Cedar Rapids. No I am not going to give you a list of them ... The mission has not changed — attract visitors and tourism to Cedar Rapids. We are doing that full time.”

Tourism consultant Bill Geist of DMOproz in Madison, Wis., said producing events in the 1990s and 2000s was mainly a non-starter for tourism bureaus. But in recent years many bureaus have created successful events, such as FRYfest in Johnson County or Stroll on State in Rockford, Ill.

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But given the history in Cedar Rapids, he said, he is skeptical whether events should be part of a new tourism bureau.

“It really comes down to what does the community need and at this moment in time, I think given the history, if I was the new CEO — and I’m not applying — if I was the new CEO of the new DMO, the last thing I would do is events because there’s a history here that just causes all kinds of consternation,” Geist said. “If the city really believes that events is where they need to go, they need to form an events organization.”

DMO stands for destination marketing organization, another name for a tourism bureau.

Geist said tourism bureau services are essential to a city, and stand-alone organizations are the ideal model. City governments do many things well, he said, but marketing typically is not one of them.

“Every community needs a voice supporting, promoting and proclaiming ‘this is a great place,’” Geist said. “Maybe it is a place to live, but it all starts with a visit ... We are a first date.”

Geist said the GO Cedar Rapids “newbo evolve” debacle is well-known in the tourism industry, but he considers it an anomaly. As local leaders envision a new organization, it is important not to plan expecting the same thing to happen again, he said.

“We understand that you’re in pain,” he said. “We understand that this is an embarrassment. But that doesn’t mean that the new organization would do the same thing. We really do believe that DMOs — and it’s not just because it’s our business — but as we go through communities across this country, the ones who have really aggressive and effective DMOs are the ones that we hear about. They are the ones that are getting written up in Midwest Living, and Condé Nast and USA Today. Those articles in USA Today don’t happen because they stumbled upon you. It happens because there’s an agency in town that is banging on the door of that feature editor saying, ‘Hey, take a look at Cedar Rapids. This place is pretty cool.’”

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said he believes the services of a bureau are necessary, and the organization should be a separate entity from the city. He would like to see conversations for developing a new one begin this quarter, and a long-term solution in place possibly by the end of the year.

“We do believe we need to have a separate entity to handle our CVB, our convention and visitors business,” Hart said last month. “That is my long-term plan. We are starting to gather people to start talk about that. And we plan to bring in an expert to help us figure what are the best practices of CVBs around the nation.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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