I-55 traffic should be CVB's target

Monday, June 7, 2004

My recent guest column suggesting that the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau's mission is wrong sure stirred things up. Chamber of commerce president John Mehner has called me twice and wrote a rebuttal column, and I've had a long (and congenial) conversation with Mayor Jay Knudtson and other interested residents.

The exchange of ideas has been helpful, but Mehner has distorted my position in statements he has made to chamber members and in his letter, so a reply is in order.

My position is simple: The CVB's priorities are out of whack. The CVB spends too much time and money chasing dollars that will never come to Cape Girardeau and not nearly enough money trying to capture the millions of dollars that automatically flow through our city.

I wish Mehner would use statistics to address this issue. Here are my statistics: We know that on an average day there are more than 15,000 vehicles traveling Interstate 55 between St. Louis and Memphis, a distance of 285 miles. That's 5 million vehicles annually, and we don't have to do anything to get them into Cape. The interstate will do that for us. Nearly every vehicle will need fuel somewhere along the interstate, and every passenger will need to freshen up and eat somewhere.

Many of those passengers will need lodging, and many of them would like to browse and shop. But they will be tempted to stop at Ste. Genevieve, Ozora, Perryville, Biehle, Fruitland, Scott City, Benton, Sikeston and other points south and north, because stopping for fuel, food and bathrooms is to a large extent an impulse decision.

But if we provide travel information and relevant reasons to stop in Cape, if we build excitement and suspense with an innovative billboard advertising program like other progressive cities do, many of those millions of travelers will stop in Cape. Remember, they have to stop somewhere.

Cape is a traveler's dream. We have low fuel prices, wonderful places to eat, great hotels, great shops and wonderful stores. If we want sales-tax revenue, if we want a better economic base, all we need to do is put out the welcome mat.

Other cities use cost-effective billboard advertising to inform travelers. Why doesn't Cape? Here are a couple of examples:

"Hungry? From tacos to tahini and everything in between … Cape Girardeau! Exits 96 and 99."

"Gas? You're just 35 miles from the cheapest gas on I-55. Cape Girardeau. Exit 96."

Now compare a relatively inexpensive billboard campaign to the CVB's enormously expensive campaign to bring conventions to town. The interstate has millions of potential customers who will spend money somewhere. How many potential conventions can be lured to Cape? How much do we spend annually on staffing, travel, meals, printing and gifts to attract those conventions? Which is more cost-effective?

I'm not saying we shouldn't court conventions. I'm saying there are more cost-effective ways to bring revenue into the city, and a change in priorities is in order.

Summertime is the peak travel season. Gas prices are high. People want to save money. We're wasting time. We don't have time to wait until 2005.

Mehner says I'm "passionate about billboard advertising." I would be passionate about postcards if they would give Cape the biggest economic bang for the buck. I am passionate about promoting Cape, and I am passionate about a cost-effective CVB. But passionate about billboards? I don't think so.

Steve Robertson of Cape Girardeau is a business owner and newspaper columnist.

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