Local business associations are struggling to retain their community and tourism coordinator positions, straining continuity in the management of events and marketing. Former coordinators say politicization of the position makes for a tough work environment.
A solution they offered was to better coordinate across communities and centralize the positions, which now work in the vacuum of separate business associations. This model has been used successfully in the Fox Cities, but only through collaboration and belief in a larger common goal, something that hasn’t taken hold in Door County between competing interests.
“There comes a time where you’re not going to have the resources you want to truly groom these people,” said Rachel Willems, former tourism administrator at the Ephraim Business Council (EBC). Willems spent six years in the position, starting when room tax was first implemented in 2007-08.
Willems said she was paid a fair wage and enjoyed working with the EBC board members, but left the position after the board saw significant turnover.
“The people and the personalities are what kept me there but the politics can become challenging,” Willems said. “Once that core group of people that hired me started to see a little bit of turnover, it seemed as though it was the right time for me.”
Since Willems left in 2014, EBC has had three different tourism administrators. There has been similar turnover in Sister Bay, Fish Creek, Baileys Harbor and Egg Harbor.
The Door County Visitor Bureau (DCVB) markets and promotes the county as a whole, but events and community marketing is left to local business associations. Former coordinators say these positions may be better served under one large umbrella, suggesting a centralized workspace and structure that would open doors to collaboration and upward mobility.
Collaboration and Centralization
When the room tax statute was first implemented in Door County in 2007 and tax dollars began flowing back into individual communities for local tourism marketing and promotion, many municipalities hired coordinators to lead local business associations.
“The hurdle back then was proving that this position was even needed,” Willems said. “The last 10 years has humbled all of us to the fact that this really is needed.”
Early on, Willems and fellow coordinator Paige Funkhouser, who has worked for business associations in Fish Creek, Sister Bay and Sturgeon Bay, began hosting monthly meetings between the coordinators.
“All the communities were facing somewhat of the same challenges and I think we realized that, because we were one-woman shows, if there was an opportunity to not have to reinvent the wheel or piggyback off something, we wanted to take advantage of that,” Willems said.
The informal meetings often included a representative from the DCVB.
“Those meetings were so helpful in seeing the bigger picture of what’s going on,” said Willems. Although Willems and Funkhouser left their jobs as community coordinators, those meetings have continued.
Another former community coordinator who wished to remain anonymous said these meetings spurred further conversation of finding a shared office between people in these positions.
“We would have our respective communities, but we could share office resources,” the coordinator said. “When you’re a one-person office and you’re spending your time answering tourist questions, it’s taking you away from the focus.”
These coordinators function as the primary event planners for a community as well as the social media and marketing manager. They are also responsible for answering to the municipal boards and their membership base.
The Baileys Harbor Community Association has one full-time employee working out of the visitor center and one part-time employee for marketing and design of the association’s flyers and publications. Brynn Swanson, former coordinator for the association, still oversees the two employees while acting as liaison to the town board.
Willems supports the idea of a centralized office, but also stressed the importance of being in the community you are representing.
“When I was tourism administrator, I worked part time in the visitor info center,” Willems said. “For me it put me in front of the tourists. I knew what the tourists were asking for.”
All tourism coordinators interviewed admitted that business owners and communities could feel slighted if these positions were housed in an office outside of the communities they serve.
“There’s a lot of people in Northern Door who… don’t want that to happen because they want the control,” one former coordinator said.
David Eliot (publisher of the Peninsula Pulse) chaired the Strategic Marketing Coalition in 2006 that fought for the creation of the Tourism Zone and later served as chairman of the Door County Visitor Bureau. He said the concept of centralizing coordinator management and responsibilities under the visitor bureau umbrella came up in 2006, before the zone was even in place.
“That would give them opportunity for advancement within the DCVB, access to formal training in the tourism profession, as well as access to benefits,” Eliot said. “The community board structures would continue as advisory, creating bylaws and policies, collecting membership dues of some sort, provide input in creating annual marketing, protecting their individual brand, but the administration would be left up to the DCVB under mutually agreed upon objectives, and resulting in a reduction in expenses and an expansion of the marketing reach.”
Because these groups are funded in part by municipal tax dollars and business membership fees within those municipalities, intergovernmental agreements between any or all of these municipalities are difficult. The Door County Tourism Zone Commission, which collects and redistributes room taxes, was an intergovernmental agreement that took years to create. When it began in 2007, it did not get buy in from all 19 Door County municipalities until 2009.
Amy Barker is executive director of the Neenah-based community development nonprofit Future Neenah, which, paired with the Fox Cities Visitor Bureau for tourism marketing of the region, could serve as a potential model for Door County. She said individual communities need to retain a local voice and personality for such a structure to work.
“What can get lost when you create a regional entity is each place still has their own personality and own goals and if you don’t leave room for that to thrive, whatever the process may be, then they start to feel this rising need to do this on their own and they don’t invest in the collaborative anymore,” Barker said.
Barker’s group manages the area’s concerts in the park, a task performed by community coordinators in Door County, and funds tourism-related projects through grants from the Fox Cities Visitor Bureau.
Willems said any agreement between these groups would likely end up under the umbrella of the DCVB.
“That seems like the likely next step in my mind only because, these community business association boards, they’re all volunteer based,” Willems said. “I think the DCVB operates at such a professional level that, to me, that would make sense to have them under the umbrella. It would bring a level of professionalism to the jobs.”
One former coordinator said business owners would be concerned about leaving their local business association operations to the broader DCVB.
“Some business owners feel slighted unless they have their own community business association representation.”