From its roots, the Saranac Lake region has prospered greatly by tourism. Flocks traveled here for health, relaxation and to live like a Rockefeller. For most of its term, word of mouth, intrigue and a promise of health were the methods of marketing and advertising.
Over the last 10 years, the methods of advertising and promotion have been entirely reinvented with Internet, social media and online marketing. The public reach of the Internet is massive. The measurability is in terms of at-hand, accurate data, such as number of viewers or visitors. Its accessibility is attractive, and options are endless. Social media enables us to connect on an almost one-to-one basis and is now the fastest-growing market. With so many competitive destination locations utilizing these techniques and the market's heavy saturation, the message has to be quick, intense and memorable.
One week ago, the Press-Republican released an outstanding article highlighting the impressive work of ROOST (Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, based in Lake Placid) in promoting and marketing their area. Much of this article's focus was social media, research and trends. The question was then formally asked to the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, when are we getting involved with this effort?
We have understood for many years that Essex County-ROOST contributions to Saranac Lake have been minimal, even though many of the Saranac Lake hospitality businesses are located in Essex County and collect occupancy taxes paid to Essex County for the stated purpose of promoting the area. We have also understood the Saranac Lake chamber's budget is so extremely tight that there is virtually no money to do anything but pay salaries and operating expenses. So we are left with a tremendous sense of lack of services and resources.
We now have learned from ROOST that of the $75,000 bed tax collected annually from the Saranac Lake lodgings in Essex County, $48,000 is returned to the Saranac Lake chamber (last year's figure). If this is accurate, it is a significant amount and is far more than perceived. It is understood that some utility expenses and operations costs are part of that money returned, and therefore not available to directly fund marketing and promotion activities, although still considered real dollars. How has this "targeted" money been used? (Money derived from occupancy taxes should, by design, be used for the promotion of the region's hospitality business.) Why, with these dollars, are we not part of the new market?
Often, members are told the Saranac Lake chamber is half and half: part member services and part visitors bureau. The Saranac Lake chamber is currently reliant on the support of the occupancy tax dollars; however, it is difficult to understand, beyond the website and partial calendar of events, what the visitor service is. The association needs to clarify what its visitor bureau program is and how it utilizes the contribution from ROOST. Further, how does this relate to its other chamber services? What exactly are the member services provided? How much of the budget is allocated toward functional visitor marketing and services?
The answer often discussed is the chamber shifting focus to only business. Tourism and visitors bureau should be a separate entity, possibly contracted out with an experienced group. This is one of the only viable options left. Saranac Lake businesses need the help to leverage what they are doing to promote not only their business but also our region.
Similar communities that have tourism as a major industry have often separated traditional chamber functions that are the business services from tourism promotion. Those destinations place value in their hospitality initiative as they understand that is what keeps the wheel turning - literally, they are the bank. If you promote and market your area, the revolving tourism dollars spins off to our community, including our merchants, restaurants and other business partners. There is a clear structural issue as long as the chamber tries to do everything. It will not be as successful as it could be for any of its members. It cannot compete with other destination areas that are more aggressive, sophisticated and successful in reaching prospective visitors.
It is now time to do the same. There can be a win-win situation for the creation of a regional chamber led by the Saranac Lake chamber for business services and a separate effort, perhaps by ROOST, for tourism promotion. The possibility of an independent tourism board made up of all partners can then communicate and work with ROOST. Saranac Lake is in a very unique position; it is between two counties and towns. Here we have an opportunity that requires an additional level of care. The Saranac Lake chamber should take the lead in developing business services and relinquish control of visitor services. The dollars currently collected to support the visitor service should, in turn, go to their original intention.
We need a structured marketing effort to gain new residents, new business and visitors. This alternate organization should also provide service to those working to promote our community and their business. This organization can then communicate with hospitality-based partners on research, models and trends. It can also encourage ways to utilize communication and promotion through social media services like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.
This group can also provide support to businesses. Help with take-home strategies for those looking to learn more about current, up-to-date marketing should be an option - support also for the various event coordinators who volunteer their time to bring and keep such prosperous events in our community.
By separating the two, and recognizing a coordinated visitor service and marketing effort, is the only way our area can create long-term sustainability.
Each year the peak season gets shorter and the shoulder season grows larger. With our season shrinking, the fewer rooms we rent, at lower rates, ultimately everyone loses. One hand feeds the other in a community like ours, made of small businesses. If we close or sell our properties, the bank closes, too. Reduction in lodging choices results in more people bypassing Saranac Lake. These results include business losses to all services and increased property and school taxes.
A vibrant, functioning visitors bureau is paramount. Maybe you will read this and pause for a few moments to reflect on the message. Understand the impact on this community without the lodging and restaurants that are favored by the visitors and tourist trade. The consequences of remaining stagnant, as we are, will be devastating to everyone. We must move forward with a new model of two specialized organizations effective in planning, execution and results. The opportunities in embracing this path are endless.
Communication, support and response are indeed member services, and we should not settle for less.
Nicole C. Brownell lives in Saranac Lake and is co-owner and director of marketing of Gauthier's Saranac Lake Inn.