Clovis News

New bureau to vie for Valley tourists

After a scramble to get off the ground, the Fresno-Clovis Convention and Visitors Bureau is in business.

As of Jan. 1, it replaced the Fresno Convention and Visitors Bureau, which fell victim to city budget cuts. The new bureau is funded instead through a room surcharge levied by local hotels.

"It's a brand new day, a rebirth," acting Chief Executive Layla Forstedt said.

There are plenty of challenges, she acknowledged.

The new bureau will operate on a tight budget for at least the first two years, and the staff has been cut by half to seven.

The nation is emerging from a deep recession, but California's economy remains fragile and the effect on Fresno County's $1.1 billion-a-year tourism industry remains uncertain.

The new bureau has a new, energetic board, but it and staff will need time to learn the nuances of a different way of doing business, she said.

Still, bureau and local government officials are optimistic.

Shawn Miller, city of Clovis business development manager and a bureau board member, said the new bureau will boost the city's growing tourism and convention business.

A decade ago, he said, Clovis had one hotel; now it has eight.

"We don't have the budget to advertise to the larger market," Miller said. "We need someone to [team] with."

Jay Virk -- spokesman for La Quinta Inn and Suites near Shaw Avenue and Highway 99 in Fresno, and the Fairfield Inn & Suites Marriott and Comfort Inn in Clovis -- said the new bureau is marketing the area as a "destination" rather than just a stop on a trip to somewhere else.

"We're centrally located to all your outdoor activities," said Virk, also a board member. "We have a great arts district. We have state-of-the-art centers for meetings and conventions. That's not an exaggeration -- that's the reality."

Promoting the area

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin for months had urged the creation of a new bureau. She said the board, dominated by hotel-motel owners or managers, is part of the bureau's strength.

The new bureau "puts the people who know best how to market conventions and visitors services in charge of how their resources are being used," Swearengin said. "I expect terrific things from that group."

Forstedt said she and her staff have plenty of ideas.

They're in the early stages of planning a visitors center that would focus on agriculture-based tourism and education. Forstedt said it's too early to talk about costs, sources of money and location.

Forstedt said a research and development department staffed by Fresno State interns was added last year.

She said its duties include writing grant applications to supplement the bureau's budget.

The bureau also will be politically active to improve Fresno and Clovis as tourist destinations. For example, she said, the bureau will lobby for the resurrection of a regional museum along the lines of the former Fresno Metropolitan Museum.

The bureau is ecstatic over a three-page spread in the California 2011 Official State Visitor's Guide and Travel Planner that touts the region as a "Central Valley surprise." The first page features a color photo of Fresno's Tower Theatre.

"We are a destination and it's only going to get better," Forstedt said.

Owners get creative

Everyone appears to be smiling now, but the journey was rocky.

Fresno's efforts to market its convention and tourism industries were plagued for decades by funding woes and philosophical disputes.

The old visitors bureau never knew for sure how much taxpayer money it would get from city and county officials, who also wanted a say in how things were done.

By 2010, the old bureau was getting most of its money -- $1.2 million -- from Fresno City Hall. But the city was nearly broke.

Swearengin in her Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposed to cut the old bureau's funding to $450,000 -- enough to run the bureau for six months.

After that, the bureau was on its own.

The result was a financial and organizational crisis that in retrospect was a blessing, Forstedt said. The bureau -- first under CEO Jeff Eben, then under Forstedt when Eben left in July for a job in Wisconsin -- teamed with hotel-motel owners to create a tourism business improvement district.

The key was getting hotels and motels to agree to add a room surcharge. The process was complicated -- for example, would the new entity include all of Fresno County?

In the end, Fresno and Clovis hotels and motels voted overwhelmingly to form the district, Forstedt said.

The city councils in Fresno and Clovis also approved the district.

Forstedt said hotels and motels in smaller cities in the county chose not to participate but may in the future. The 85 hotels and motels in Fresno and Clovis charge a 1% room assessment per night.

Forstedt said she expects this year's budget to be $600,000 to $800,000 and about $1 million next year.

The goal is a $2 million budget within three years, which would still put the bureau at a financial disadvantage when competing against bureaus in other large California cities, she said.

The new bureau is governed by a 21-member board, including 14 from the hotel-motel industry. The cities of Fresno and Clovis have representatives, and bureau bylaws guarantee representation by local tourist attractions such as theme parks.

Board member and hotel spokesman Virk said the new bureau will make waves nationally and internationally.

"People don't know everything we have here," he said. "We're going to tell them."