Tourism, more than ever, is bringing major economic benefits to the Omaha area. Visitors now spend around $904 million annually on attractions, restaurants, stores and hotels. That activity generates $62 million in tax revenues for local governments.
Now we need to raise Omaha’s regional and national promotional efforts to the next level.
Omaha needs to build on its impressive successes with the College World Series, the Henry Doorly Zoo and sporting events at the CenturyLink Center such as the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials (attended this year by more than 167,000 fans), an early round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the NCAA women’s volleyball Final Four and, in just three weeks, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
An important step toward that goal is for the City of Omaha and the Douglas County government to reach agreement on the structure and funding of the lead agency marketing Omaha as a tourist and event site: the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Omaha and Douglas County officials say they want to get that agreement done. It’s time for them to do it. This isn’t some minor bureaucratic issue. If done right, the structuring and financing of the CVB can have a major impact on our area’s long-term future.
Since 2002, the CVB has operated as a city entity funded primarily by money collected by the county. A five-year city-county agreement for the CVB’s operations ended last March, and the two sides have extended the agreement as a stopgap measure while they try to agree on transforming the CVB into a not-for-profit corporation by 2014.
A consultant this year told local officials it would be a sound long-term move to make that change. The consultant also said that if Omaha’s marketing is to be competitive with that of comparable cities, the CVB should have a budget of around $6 million. The budget currently is $3.8 million.
In 2010, the CVB’s budget was $2.9 million. The tourism promotion budgets for some other U.S. cities at that time: Cincinnati, $7 million; Portland, Ore., $7.5 million; Indianapolis, $10 million; Pittsburgh, $11.5 million.
In other words, the Douglas County government — and above all, the Omaha city government — have big decisions on how much financial support to provide for tourism promotion.
People can reasonably disagree on what that contribution should be, not least given the competing needs for limited local tax revenues, but an increase of some size in tourism promotion would be a worthy investment.
Next spring, Omaha holds elections for mayor and City Council. Candidates need to describe what the best strategic move should be for Omaha tourism promotion.
Nationally, on average a convention and visitor bureau will receive about 46 percent of a city’s hotel tax revenues. In Omaha, the Convention and Visitors Bureau receives 8 percent.
For county hotel tax revenues, a convention and visitors bureau nationally receives an average of about 65 percent of those funds. Here, the CVB receives 50 percent.
In addition, Nebraska has a new state tourism commission with the mission of setting a tourism promotion plan for the state. Part of that new vision should include cooperative strategies among communities and governments, plus funding approaches that deliver the greatest bang for the buck.
As part of this statewide effort, it makes sense for Omaha, Sarpy County and Council Bluffs to coordinate more closely on their promotional efforts.
The state tourism commission will likely decide how certain tourism-related dollars are allocated at the local level across the state. That decision could have a significant impact on Omaha tourism strategy. For Douglas County, such funding currently is about $2.6 million.
With these statewide developments, it’s clearly the right moment to raise Omaha’s tourism program to the next level. As the numbers at the start of this editorial showed, tourism promotion can mean a major difference for the Omaha economy.
It’s out-of-town visitors, after all, who are spurring the extraordinary burst of hotel expansion downtown. That number is set to top 3,000 hotel rooms in a few years — an increase since 2007 of some 75 percent.
Omaha would be smart to keep that momentum going. If Omaha and Douglas County officials demonstrate vision and commitment on the CVB, they can make a major positive difference for the local economy. Let’s get this done.