State tourism shakeup will help Idaho, Sayer says

The state commerce chief is aiming for targeted marketing and smarter spending.

adutton@idahostatesman.comApril 16, 2014 


    $3.4 billion: The economic size of Idaho's tourism industry

    26,000: Idaho tourism employment

    $500 million: Local, state and federal tax revenues from Idaho tourism

    About $3 million: Tourism marketing budget

    $4.7 million: Regional tourism-grant money requested for 2013

    $3.4 million: Regional tourism grants awarded in 2013

    Source: Idaho Department of Commerce


    Former Idaho Tourism Administrator Karen Ballard has landed on her feet after her layoff last fall.

    Among other things, she has worked part time on a sports-marketing project for the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau and worked on the upcoming Idaho World Trade Day for the District Export Council.

    She is preparing now to serve as a full-time foreign commercial services officer with the U.S. Department of Commerce. She is heading for Washington, D.C., in May for training. Ballard will find out where she's being deployed in June.

    "We always dreamed about living overseas," she says.

  • Changes in tourism staff

    Sayer said last fall that the reorganization would create two teams - one focused on developing new businesses and the other aimed at growth of existing Idaho businesses.

    The tourism staff has shrunk from 10 people to seven. One Idaho Tourism Council grant manager works in Commerce's fiscal department, and Tourism Media Specialist Laurie McConnell says that employee is part of the slimmed-down tourism office.

    "Part of our objective in the changes was that we didn't impair tourism [administration] in any way," Sayer says. "There was a lot of concern when we first made the changes, of people thinking we had ... demoted tourism, when in fact it's just the opposite."

    Norton visited a motorcycle trade show in Orlando, Fla., to promote Idaho's twisty mountain roads and barren-desert highways to motorcycle enthusiasts.

    "That actually was one of the events that kind of triggered our thinking on how these teams could work more closely together," Sayer says.

Two years after he took the reins as director of the Idaho Department of Commerce, Jeffery Sayer did some deck reshuffling that placed Idaho tourism in the wheelhouses of multiple people. Sayer tells Business Insider the department has been making changes as a result of "thinking about the next decade," and says restructuring the department will save money.

Former Tourism Administrator Karen Ballard was laid off in October as part of the reorganization. A nonexecutive version of Ballard's job - tourism manager - was created and went to Diane Norton, who had done public relations and marketing for the department's Division of Tourism Development.

Sayer and Tourism Media Specialist Laurie McConnell spoke with Business Insider about the changes.

Q: You talk about "synergies" that this newly structured department will create, especially in the tourism arena. What are some examples?

Sayer: The Sun Valley Film Festival. That's been an event that the [Division of Tourism Development] has supported and sponsored for a few years now. We worked with them this year and we actually, in conjunction with the film festival, brought our commerce sales and marketing team ... and actually had the governor come and kick off the film festival and have a reception with high-end business leaders.

Where before it was just a tourism event, and the tourism team handled that ... now we're piggybacking on that.

Q: How else are you changing the Tourism Division's focus?

Sayer: You're going to see us shift our Web presence in tourism to where it's driven by mobile. ... We also want to make sure we start capturing those ... microsectors of travelers, like dude-ranch travelers.

Agritourism is something we're keeping our eye on. People are actually coming to farms and ranches purposely to experience that. And if there was a part of Idaho we could put on display, it would be our farms and ranches. It's a microsector of tourism that is starting to grow, where people want to create an agricultural experience on their vacation.

McConnell: I think nationally, RVing is a growing trend ... [and] people on bikes now seems to be a real growing activity.

Q: What about international tourism? You recently ended a longstanding relationship with Rocky Mountain International, which markets Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and separately North Dakota to international travelers, especially in Western Europe.

Sayer: [That] stemmed primarily from us looking at where we were spending our dollars. We to date have spent anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of our marketing dollars on international tourism ... and yet, when we reached out to people around the state, we found it was only about 3 to 5 percent of their business. And interestingly enough, the international tourism folks were actually isolated to two or three pockets of the state ... mainly through Eastern Idaho, because of Yellowstone.

So, as we looked at it, we realized we're spending an inordinate amount of money on something that wasn't a big part of our tourism activity, and we felt it was important to really look at it and really make sure we're spending our money where we can get the biggest bang for the buck and the highest return.

There had been a long-standing tradition to use [Rocky Mountain International]. ... And yet, when we started asking the questions, it didn't seem to fit with the data we were seeing, so we hit that head-on. ... At the same time, though, we've handled it very carefully. The promise we made to RMI and the people who depend on RMI is we won't pull the rug out from under it. We extended the RMI contract through June, and we're in the process of initiating a [request for information] to go out and look at RMI and other providers similar to them, to see what services they can provide for us.

Q: Will you be marketing Idaho to overseas tourists, then?

Sayer: You're going to see us recalibrate. We'll decide how much money should be spent on international marketing in general, and then we'll ask questions about where should we spend our money. Most of our international money comes from Canada, [so] a big part of it may go to Canada.

Q: How is Idaho doing with tourism, as far as hotel-tax revenues go?

McConnell: We're really close to being back to where we were prerecession.

Sayer: It's a leading indicator of several things. It's going to be a mixture of personal travel and business travel, so to me, if those are going up, it's positive for the state.

Edited for clarity and length.

See a breakdown of Idaho tourism numbers

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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