Tourism agency pursuing district renewal, assessment increase to better attract tourist to Great Falls
The city’s tourism agency is requesting that City Commissioners renew the tourism business improvement district, which is funded by an assessment on lodging facilities in the city.
Great Falls Montana Tourism is also recommending that a tiered structure for the assessment that would maintain the $1 per night for facilities with 30 or fewer rooms and increase the rate per night to $2 for facilities with 31 or more rooms.
The TBID is a 10-year special district and the current one runs through Dec. 31, 2018. The new rate would be effective July 1, 2018, which is the start of the next fiscal year.
Commissioners set a public hearing on the district for Feb. 6.
The tourism agency is looking to renew the district early in order to prepare their budget and plans. If the district were not renewed, that would wipe out $400,000 of their budget, since the TBID assessment is 70 percent of their revenue source. The remaining 30 percent comes through the state’s lodging facility use tax, which is 4 percent of the accommodation charge.
Rebecca Engum, Great Falls Montana Tourism director, said she and her team started the conversation by meeting with the Great Falls Area Lodging Association to ask if they’d support renewing the district and get their feedback.
That feedback is where the tiered fee structure came from, Engum said. The TBID board of directors is also made up of hotel proprietors and has recommended that the commission renew the district and approve the new rate structure.
“We have amazing proprietors who understand the value” of the TBID, Engum said.
In 2015, what is now Great Falls Montana Tourism was established as a partnership among the Great Falls Convention and Visitor Bureau; the TBID and the Visitor Information Center, with assistance from the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. Engum was hired that year as the city’s first full-time tourism director.
For fiscal year 2017, which was July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017, the agency set aggressive goals, including:
- increase occupancy at Great Falls lodging facilities by 1 percent. By May 31, 2017, the occupancy rate had increase 4.73 percent;
- increase Facebook page likes by 5 percent. Likes had increase 12 percent by the same date. As of Monday, the number of likes was 4,624;
- increase total unique visitors to website by 5 percent. That number increased 78 percent by the same date;
- establish 1,000 Instagram followers. By May 31, 2017, the agency had 346 Instagram followers. As of Monday, the number was 515;
- increase Visitor Center use by 1 percent. Visits had decreased by 17 percent by May 31, 2017 and the agency closed the Overlook Drive location and moved their operation to their office downtown.
Engum, her team and the hotel owners looked at what the assessment funds, which is to market and promote the region, ultimately getting more people to stay in the hotels. The funds can also be used for feasibility studies like the one planned for the ExpoPark event center.
The group has also looked to what other Montana cities are doing with their tourism efforts.
Bozeman’s TBID was created in 2009 and in 2014, the city raised their rate to $2 per night. Billings renewed their TBID this summer and maintained the $2 rate. Missoula’s TBID was established in 2010 and has a $2 per night rate.
In recent years, the Great Falls TBID assessment has generated about $400,000. Bozeman’s generates around $2 million and Missoula’s more than $1 million.
“We’re at a disadvantage with other Montana cities because they have more funding” to invest in marking their towns, Engum said.
For the city to take action, at least 60 percent of proprietors have to support renewing the district. Engum said that survey has been completed and that threshold met.
Only lodging facilities within the city limits pay the assessment and the tourism budget doesn’t include any general fund support. There are exempted facilities under state law and the assessment only applies for stays up to 30 consecutive days. If someone stays for 31 or more consecutive days, the proprietor doesn’t pay the TBID assessment for that room.
The TBID also makes determinations in how the assessment funds are used and the TBID is required to make an annual work plan and budget that must be approved by the commission.
Since the TBID was created, there has been a 7 percent increase in demand; 3 percent increase in occupancy, new direct flights into Great Falls and new signature events, according to Great Falls Montana Tourism.
“Our peer cities have seen stronger success. All of our peer cities collect a $2 TBID assessment and are out competing us—securing more direct flights, securing more conventions, groups, events, and leisure travelers,” according to an informational sheet from Great Falls Montana Tourism.
Currently, the tourism agency is making a
- $204,000 investment in covering current direct flight and leisure markets, digitally and socially;
- $134,000 investment in meeting industry, which involves developing and following up on leads, meeting with potential planners of conventions, meetings and events with a focus on 300+ attendees over multiple days. Securing this level of event requires additional investment—for site visits, attendance building, itinerary development, sponsorship support, logistic assistance, incentives, customized in-market attendee materials, local expert connections and on site personnel support;
- $64,000 investment to support the multipurpose event center project at Montana ExpoPark and wayfinding work being done in partnership with the City of Great Falls and downtown groups. The agency and the city have applied for state grants for those projects and the city did not receive the wayfinding grant, but the one for the event center feasibility study is still in limbo.
- $35,000 investment for development of what the agency calls “Great Falls Champions” to speak positively about the region, engagement with retail and dining establishments and otherwise ensuring a positive visitor experience.