CVB's mission is wrong

Sunday, May 23, 2004

By Steve Robertson

Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk: "The buck stops here." That certainly isn't the case in Cape Girardeau, whose motto could be "The boat stops here, but not the buck."

Cape Girardeau is apparently in a financial crisis. A successful business in a financial crisis looks for new sources of revenue. It identifies its target audience, determines where the audience is concentrated and finds cost-effective ways to entice its audience to spend its dollars at the business. If we apply this business philosophy to Cape -- in particular, to the Convention and Visitors Bureau -- we see that changes are in order.

I believe Cape has misidentified its greatest asset. It's not the Mississippi River. It's not the historic district or the university. It's Interstate 55. Cape has a front door, (the Cape-Jackson exit) and a back door (near the airport). Now, with the completion of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, we have a fabulous side door. What's missing are the "Welcome" mats. There are millions and millions of dollars flowing right through our city, and we are letting those dollars slip through our fingers.

Sure, there are dollars at the conventions and on the excursion boats that stop here periodically. But the relatively few tourists who get off the boat are not looking for $2-a-gallon gas, overnight lodging, groceries, supplies or several meals. While those tourists browse our antique and gift shops and visit our museum and historic attractions, literally thousands of highway travelers pass through our city limits without spending a dime. And that's a real shame, because those tourists will stop somewhere to fill their gas tanks and their stomachs, buy supplies and spend the night.

It's nice to show the boat people a good time when they visit. But in times of financial crisis is this a wise use of CVB funds? Can we justify bus tours and additional payroll expense for what will be, at best, a marginal sales-tax-generating activity?

It's a matter of priorities. One luxury RV pulling off the interstate and into our city for gas, meals and groceries would generate more tax revenue than two dozen boat people. Likewise, a gas-thirsty SUV carrying a vacationing family of four would be a high-priority target audience.

Promoting a city is a lot like fishing. A fisherman wants to know "What are they biting on?" and "Where are they biting?" Likewise, we should be asking "Where are the bucks?" and "What are they being spent on?"

Deep-pocket traveling retirees are looking for interesting shops, historical memorabilia, overnight lodging, fuel and quality dining experiences. A cost-effective way to reach that lucrative market is billboard advertising. Other cities do it. Cape has the resources to do. Why don't we do it?

For this to happen, there has to be a change in thinking at the CVB. The mission shouldn't be "to get people into the community" as the CVB director was quoted as saying in the paper. In a time of financial crisis the mission should be "to get sales-tax revenue into the community." Every CVB dollar spent should be for that purpose, and that purpose alone, and there should be accountability and oversight.

The CVB director was quoted as saying that it would be unethical to promote one business sector over another, and I am happy he is sensitive to that concern. So let's stop catering to the business sector that promotes travel on the Mississippi River and start concentrating our promotional dollars on generating real sales tax revenue. I don't particularly care where the traveler spends his money, so long as he spends his money in Cape Girardeau, and there's more money flying up and down the interstate than floating down the river or coming into town for conventions.

I once had a great boss who used to say, "Tell me how I can help make you successful." If the CVB would concentrate on making our business successful, tax revenue would flow into the city and the financial crisis would be averted.

Consider that when you travel south from St. Louis toward Cape Girardeau you will learn how many rolls Lambert's Cafe has thrown. You will learn how many hamburgers McDonald's has served. But you won't learn anything about Cape Girardeau, despite the fact that last week I counted eight blank billboards between St. Louis and Cape. When traveling west from St. Louis on I-70 you'll be reminded several times to get off the Interstate and visit Herman, Mo. Yet Herman doesn't even sit on the interstate. As you travel east toward St. Louis you'll be invited several times to visit O'Fallon, Ill., and Hannibal, Mo., yet neither of those towns are on I-70, and O'Fallon is a good 20 miles from Missouri. Another good example is Santa Fe, N.M., which promotes itself heavily along I-40 yet sits more than 50 miles north of the interstate.

Resources

Cape Girardeau sits on an interstate and is a traveler's dream. We have hundreds of hotel rooms, dozens of restaurants and the lowest gas prices in the Midwest. RV travelers know they can park overnight for free on Wal-Mart parking lots, but there is no effort to tell them there is a Super Wal-Mart in Cape Girardeau. We will soon have a new RV park in the city limits, but I'll bet there are no plans within the CVB to help promote it. The city owns interstate frontage at the airport yet does not have a single billboard there welcoming travelers to the city or inviting them to get off the interstate.

Southeast Missouri State University also has interstate frontage at the demonstration farm and benefits greatly from its relationship with the city, yet it does not use that fabulous resource to promote its host city. That's a shame, because without Cape's financial support there would be no Show Me Center or River Campus.

Why don't we get our message out? Do we tell travelers that the president of the Missouri Senate lives here? Or that a Supreme Court justice lives here? Or that this is Rush Limbaugh's hometown? Or that we have the two finest hospitals in the region? Or that Pampers are made here? Or that this is a great university town? Or that we have a new state-of-the-art river bridge? Or that we have hundreds of motel rooms, great restaurants and cheap gas?

No, we just let travelers sail right through town. Worse, we let southbound traffic get off at the Cape-Jackson exit, turn right, and spend their travel dollars in Jackson.

The CVB should start a co-op billboard-advertising plan with city businesses. The idea is to increase sales tax revenue. There is so much more we could do.

Accountability

Finally, the CVB should be accountable to elected officials. The chamber of commerce is a great organization, but it is not accountable to the voters and should not be managing our CVB -- that's what the CVB manager gets paid to do. The director of the CVB should report directly to the city manager, who reports to the city council. The director should prepare an annual advertising plan with detailed objectives, goals and expenditures, and that plan should be presented annually by the CVB advisory board in an open meeting to the city council for final approval.

Steve Robertson of Cape Girardeau is a business owner and newspaper columnist. He has served on several city boards and committees and is married to Mary Robertson, who served on the CVB advisory board for several years.

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