A marketing consultant contracted by the Door County Peninsula Strategic Marketing Coalition pulled no punches in assessing all parts of the county’s tourism engine during an informal question and answer session Wednesday, May 31 with 19 attendees at the Baileys Harbor Town Hall.
“Change is never easy,” said Marshall Murdaugh of Marshall Murdaugh Marketing. “It’s time to look at a new paradigm here. You all are going to have to go through some major changes.”
The coalition secured Murdaugh’s services to develop a strategic marketing plan for the county after evaluating proposals from agencies earlier this spring. Coalition president Murdaugh has worked in tourism promotion and management for 36 years, including stints as president of visitor and convention bureaus in Atlantic City, Memphis and New York City, among others.
Murdaugh didn’t hold back in criticizing business attitudes, the Chamber of Commerce, and statements from county government.
After being read the Chamber’s mission statement, which is in part “to promote Door County as a single destination for sustainable tourism,” he questioned its objective.
“Is your mission to promote, or is the mission to produce business?” he asked. “Then if we state that we need to show it. You need to put programs out there that actually produce business.”
To that end, Murdaugh said he would produce a “customer-focused, market-driven and brand-oriented program with quantifiable results.”
He also called the Chamber’s marketing plan dysfunctional, saying “it makes absolutely no sense,” and said the organization needs to be restructured. Murdaugh said his initial impression is that the Chamber has too many committees guilty of trying to micro-manage the organization’s activities.
“The work of the Chamber should be staff-driven, not committee-driven,” he said.
Chamber Marketing Director Jon Jarosh said the criticisms were blunt but constructive.
“It may not be easy to hear that stuff,” he said. “Going through change is difficult, but sometimes you need to change to improve. And if people have a bad impression of us, we may need to change to gain that respect back. “
Jarosh said Murdaugh’s presence was in itself a response to criticism, pointing out that the destination assessment performed last summer by Roger Brooks of Destination Development Inc. specifically recommended developing a strategic marketing plan.
Murdaugh offered defense for the Chamber as well, particularly concerning its budget and staff limitations.
“You have one membership director in charge of 800 people,” he said. “How can one person interface with 800 accounts?”
Murdaugh said he was currently in the process of a generic, drive-by familiarization with the area. This will be followed by meeting with stakeholders, Chamber staff and focus groups. He said his plan will include a visitor profile analysis and a stakeholder survey, both of which will be internet-based.
Murdaugh is extremely confident his plan will produce tangible results for the area and said most of it will be doable with a staff of four.
“This will work,” he said. “You really will be surprised.”
He did say, however, that it can’t be executed for the Chamber’s present overall budget of $600,000 a year, requiring the need for a room tax.
“There are no viable alternatives to a room tax,” he said, without hesitation. “Forget thinking about it. But the way you have gone about it is all wrong. What you need to do is go to the stakeholders and say, ‘This is the performance-based program we have in place. In 12 months we will produce these quantifiable, achievable dollar numbers.’ You need to show them what the campaign is going to be. We can’t get financial funding until we can show the community we can do it.”
When an attendee said many in the lodging industry were against the room tax despite being told of its benefits, Murdaugh was incredulous in his response.
“The program has never been offered to them,” he stated. “What could they possibly think? That you’re going to give them a bigger version of the program that’s not working.”
Murdaugh has seen Brooks’ 2005 assessment and said it has value if it’s used. He said it appears to him the Chamber has responded to some of the recommendations, but the municipalities and businesses have done little.
“It’s probably sitting on some shelf somewhere,” he said. “You can’t allow that to happen with the report I’m going to give you. It will require that the Chamber stay on top of the program long-term.”
He suggested coming back to it with a facilitator at regular intervals to find out who has achieved its goals and recommendations. He cautioned, however, that the report will not be all things to all people. For instance, it won’t address in detail labor issues or the manufacturing industry.
Murdaugh said if the tourism industry is unwilling to alter its approach, the equation for the peninsula is simple.
“If changes are not made, and you’re losing market share, you will continue to lose market share.”