Jamestowner and Discover Newport head says tourism is up
The Newport and Bristol County Convention and Visitors Bureau got a bit of a facelift earlier this year in the form of a more succinct name: Discover Newport. According to Evan Smith of Jamestown, who has headed the organization almost from its inception 25 years ago, the name change hasn’t affected the group’s mission.
“There’s been no change in our programming or what I do individually,” Smith said. “What we are trying to do is better accentuate our brand. We’re very proud to promote nine towns.”
Discover Newport is a quasistate organization that is borne by state-enabling legislation. The organization – which has an 18-member board of directors – is governed using bylaws and the state open-meetings law. Approximately 84 percent of the organization’s funding comes from the state lodging tax, with the balance being raised by Discover Newport through advertising on its website and ticket sales at the visitors center. The annual budget for 2012 is $2.8 million.
Smith pointed out that Discover Newport is operated on a “hub and spoke” basis, meaning that while the organization represents nine municipalities, including Jamestown, each with its own unique assets and desire for tourism development, it is important that Newport is recognized as the hub of the effort. The mission of Discover Newport is to positively influence the economic development of the nine cities and towns through travel and tourism.
According to Smith, travel is two dimensional, encompassing both leisure and business travel. Discover Newport is set up to develop both halves of the equation.
“One of the things that we have to do is to always be in focus with what the consumer wants to do, and what the buy buttons are,” Smith said. “The marketplace is always changing.”
Discover Newport represents seven segments of the tourism industry including lodging, attractions, dining, shopping, recreation, transportation and special events. Smith said that it makes the question of how tourism is going difficult to answer, since it can vary from segment to segment, and year to year.
“I like to think of us as a family with seven mouths to feed,” Smith said. “We do that as a destinationmarketing company.”
Smith has lived in Jamestown since 1995 and understands that there are concerns that the town doesn’t want to be Newport, and that the island strives to find a balance between helping local businesses succeed economically and maintaining the small-town ambience that residents treasure.
“I believe that Jamestown has done a better job on that than almost anyplace,” Smith said. “It’s a very special place.”
When Smith is called up to show customers around – as he is hundreds of times a year – he often takes them to the cliffs above Fort Wetherill.
“I would define that as my favorite spot in Newport County,” Smith said. “When I’m trying to close a piece of business or impress a client, we’ll drive up there and just stand there. I don’t have to say much because the vista speaks for itself.”
According to Smith, one of the benefits of living in Jamestown is that people here can go over the bridge to attend the plethora of events that Newport has to offer, and still be back home in a few minutes.
“Every year, Newport has one of the most robust events schedules there is,” Smith said. “Every weekend there are two or three choices. This allows Jamestowners a fabulous events calendar.”
While saying that the 2012 season will continue well into October, Smith said that thus far it has been a good year for tourism in the area. He added that it is gratifying to see the positive results in light of the double hit – the tragic events of 9/11 and the economic downturn in 2008 – that dealt a crushing blow to the tourism industry in recent years.
“We’ve had a very good year,” Smith said. “Year to date, the lodging tax is up 15 percent. Another way to measure it is the meal tax, which is up 9 percent year to date. Those figures are a blended average for the nine towns. Just about every number that came in this year was either at record or near record.”
Smith attributes the upturn to two things. One is the diversity of offerings in the area, which brings people here for many different reasons. “We appeal to so many different market segments, and our programming is so strong. It’s a testimony to the strength of the destination.”
The second factor in the success rate is an uptick in consumer confi dence. Smith said that people are starting to feel more assured about spending their money on travel, and that is showing in the tourism figures for this year.
“Labor Day is the end of the family-travel season, but it’s not the end of our travel season,” Smith said. “September and October are two of the most prolific months for us.”
Smith cited the convention market, which returns to life in the fall after summer vacations, as one of the reasons for the busy fall. There are also an increasing number of cruise ship stops in September and October, as the cruise ships head north seeking fall foliage. Group motor coach tours also add to the activity on their own foliage hunt, and international travel is another important factor in the fall.
While speaking glowingly about the efforts of Newport Grand CEO Diane Hurley, Smith was quick to point out that the Discover Newport board of directors has taken no position on the upcoming vote on adding table games to the casino in Newport.
“I think that government set this up correctly,” he said. “The people should vote. I’m glad that it’s going to a vote because this is democracy at its best.”
Another major issue facing the area is the prospect of additional bridge tolling. Discover Newport is in a difficult position because it represents northern towns where there is substantial opposition to tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge, as well as places like Newport and Jamestown, which would be impacted by additional tolls on the Newport Bridge that could be put in place if the Sakonnet span isn’t tolled.
“From a business position our board has discussed this with nine towns,” Smith said. “Newport and Jamestown have different potential outcomes than the northern communities. Our board elected not to take a position on this based on the fact that we didn’t want to side with one municipality over another municipality. Our board discussed this at length and decided to remain neutral on it.”