Visitors bureau focuses on Champaign during tennis tournament
URBANA — With NCAA tennis championships in Urbana this week, hotels, restaurants and stores can expect a boost — but look at the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau website, and you might think the event is at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
NCAA tennis fans are greeted with a "Welcome to Champaign County!" message on the website, and downtown Champaign and Market Place Mall are highlighted as areas to shop. Visitors can find information about Urbana, but they'll have to dig a little bit.
The focus on Champaign and other areas of the county is not much of a surprise, after the city of Urbana voted 18 months ago to cut funding for the county's tourism bureau.
But Urbana is "still part of who we are," said CVB President and CEO Jayne DeLuce, and businesses with Urbana addresses are not being left out entirely.
Since this year is the first time that the NCAA tennis championships are in town, the economic benefit to the community — and who will benefit the most — has yet to be calculated. But DeLuce expects the numbers to be significant.
"From the tennis, I think it will be a good economic impact," DeLuce said. "I think it will even be bigger in the community pride from hosting it."
The community pride comes from being able to say your hometown hosted a national event, DeLuce said, and it is also an important part of the Convention and Visitors Bureau's branding efforts.
But the city of Urbana has internalized many of the marketing duties that it paid the CVB to take care of prior to 2011. A new marketing director has spent time working with the Urbana Business Association to promote the city's hotels, restaurants, art galleries, shops and other attractions.
The UBA recently released a mobile app — called "Urbana" — available on iPhone and Android phones with a complete listing of Urbana businesses, their hours, locations and notifications regarding sales and events.
A number of Champaign County government agencies subsidize the tourism bureau, which handles the job of publicizing and assisting visitors to county events. Its staff also tries to attract conventions and other large-scale events to the county, and those events in turn drive traffic to area hotels, restaurants and shops.
A much-publicized 2011 decision from Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing to cut the city's $72,000 annual subsidy was met with criticism that the city could start losing that business if it did not contribute to the tourism bureau. But, approaching two years later, Prussing said she has been vindicated.
"There is no evidence — there was never evidence — that they were ever doing any good for Urbana," Prussing said.
The tennis championships are an example of that, she said. The tournament is a University of Illinois event, and athletes and spectators are going to fill Urbana hotels whether or not the city pays $72,000 to the CVB.
And, by her measure, Urbana has been doing pretty well since it cut that funding, Prussing said. She said earlier this year — and repeated on Monday — that hotel-motel tax receipts are growing in Urbana at a pace faster than they did in Champaign.
Total hotel-motel tax revenues jumped 35.6 percent, from $651,499 to $883,598 in 2012. That figure includes a 1 percentage point tax increase that went into effect last year.
Without the tax increase, Urbana's hotel-motel revenue grew last year at a pace faster than in Champaign. Subtract the 1 percentage point increase, and receipts jumped 18 percent in Urbana, compared with 9.6 percent in Champaign.
"I would think the best measure would be hotel-motel taxes," Prussing said on Monday.
Meanwhile, the CVB is barely getting by, DeLuce said. It has boasted successes in attracting shows like the Bloomington Gold Corvette Show, which will come to Champaign in June, and the Hot Rod Power Tour, which stopped in Champaign last summer.
But it has done so with a very limited budget, DeLuce said.
"We are still barely getting by," she said. "It's very, very minimal base. We are still the lowest funded CVB compared to our counterparts in other areas."
The CVB still works with Urbana venues like Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and Spurlock Museum, and DeLuce said it works with private businesses on an individual basis. But the process is inefficient, as the city of Urbana also does that work internally.
"The city of Urbana is now doing things on their own, and we're duplicating efforts," she said.
And DeLuce said that, even though the city does not fund the CVB, Urbana will inevitably receive some of the benefit from large scale events.
"Urbana is still part of Champaign County, so most of the time when we say something, it's, 'Welcome to Champaign County,'" DeLuce said. "People don't know geographical boundaries."