As tourism in the county grows, local business associations are struggling to retain the staff that sustains marketing and events within communities. While local officials say a lack of competitive compensation is the cause for turnover, former coordinators cited politics between boards and business members as the toughest part of the gig.
Room tax revenues have increased 44 percent since 2009, along with an increase in occupancy rates, implying there are more visitors coming to the county. While the Door County Visitor Bureau (DCVB) provides marketing for the county, local associations compete to bring those visitors into their individual communities.
Communities have increasingly turned to hiring full-time employees to manage events and marketing, but so far, those employees have not stuck around to build consistency in a community’s approach to tourism.
Politics of tourism promotion
Many of these business associations have boards of more than a dozen local business owners who hire for the position and help set the course of the organization.
But these organizations are also funded by membership fees from local business owners, room tax dollars earned by local business and municipal boards, all of whom believe they should have influence over decisions made by the coordinator.
“It’s a very demanding job because you are answering to so many different bosses,” said Brynn Swanson, former coordinator at the Baileys Harbor Community Association. Swanson still oversees some operation of the organization’s new employees.
“We answer to, not only the business members, but also the community,” said Swanson. “Then our board and then also the town board, so you have so many different people. You’re trying to balance the needs with little to no funding.”
Another former community coordinator confirmed the politicization of different interests between board members and business owners.
Since these coordinators first answer to association boards, turnover of board members can be just as challenging as short-term employees.
Mike McCarthy, president of the Ephraim Business Council, said their board is mostly comprised of new members, and the tourism administrator, Rocky Marciano, is relatively new as well. The village is on its third tourism administrator since 2014.
“The challenge becomes, if you have someone that is executing on the board’s plan, without longevity you don’t have continuity,” McCarthy said.
Board members often have different ideas on how to attract tourism.
“You have 140 members who are all only wanting you to promote their business,” said Denise Stillman, president of the Fish Creek Civic Association (FCCA). “When the social media post goes out about things to do at night in Fish Creek and several businesses are mentioned, [the association’s employee] is going to be the one who gets the call saying, ‘Hey, why didn’t you mention me?’”
“We have competing political interests within those organizations,” said Zeke Jackson, village administrator in Sister Bay, citing the village’s district consisting of Country Walk Shops as distinctly different from the downtown district near the waterfront.
Drew Bickford, president of the Sister Bay Advancement Association (SBAA), said those political interests don’t have a place on their board.
“I hear it elsewhere, it’s like [the boards] micromanage and everyone has to fight over every detail,” said Bickford. “We don’t have this problem…. We have a lot of discussion and we reach consensus on pretty much every issue.”
“Everybody has the best interest of Sturgeon Bay,” said Pam Seiler, executive director of the Sturgeon Bay Visitor Center. “How everybody gets there is sometimes different.”
Members of these association boards say the bigger problem is a lack of competitive compensation for the position.
Professional work for entry-level pay
Until this year, every employee of a local business association or tourism marketing position received no benefits and an average wage.
The Sturgeon Bay Visitor center just began offering a modest benefits package to its two full-time employees.
“It’s effectively a full-time job with a part-time salary,” said McCarthy. “That becomes the biggest challenge when you’re expecting someone to work full-time and you don’t have the ability to provide any benefit package. It’s a challenge to retain that quality of person.”
“We really ask an awful lot out of those folks,” said Jackson. “They’re really treated as starter positions. They get some experience and then they go somewhere else.”
Bickford said SBAA’s turnover is not as worrisome, since the first coordinator was there for six years and the most recent coordinator had to leave the post for personal reasons, not job dissatisfaction.
The average wage in Door County was $31,076 in 2014, according to the Department of Workforce Development, while the state average is around $45,000. In conversations with former coordinators, municipal officials and board members, wages for these positions are in the range of $25,000 to $35,000.
In addition to full-time hours, the positions also require work during events in the community, the proliferation of which has taken up many weekends throughout the year.
After Swanson’s first year in the part-time position in 2012, she went to the Baileys Harbor Town Board and said the position was no less than a full-time job. They revised the position to a full-time position and now employ one full-time and one part-time employee.
“In order to retain that level of professionalism you have to be able to provide long-term incentives and it’s not just an hourly wage, it needs to be focused on a more professional package that other larger communities provide for some of their employees,” said McCarthy.
Seiler said the Sturgeon Bay Visitor Center started offering a modest benefit package this year when their marketing and promotions director left the post after 18 months.
“At least it’s offering something,” said Seiler. The vacancy received 44 applications in four days, which Seiler believes could not have happened without the addition of benefits. “We need to figure out if we can lead by example being the biggest [tourism promotion organization] and add something to the pot.”
Jack Moneypenny, executive director for the DCVB, said the bureau offers employee benefits.
“And it’s not a Cadillac package,” said Moneypenny. “But it enables us to recruit and retain good people.”
Moneypenny has been with the DCVB since 2007. Jon Jarosh, director of communications and public relations, has worked for the bureau (formerly the Door County Chamber of Commerce) since 1998. Phil Berndt, the bureau’s membership director, has been there since 2004.
Role of room taxes
Room tax collections fund a portion of most business associations in the county. Thirty percent of room tax collections go back to municipalities to use any way they see fit. While some designate room tax dollars directly toward their business associations, others put the money into the general fund and fund the business association from there.
The DCVB further contributes funds to tourism development on the hyper-local level.
Of the bureau’s 66 percent cut of total room tax dollars collected, 11 percent of that goes into the Strategic Community Partnership Program (SCPP), which allocates funds to each municipality based on how much they contribute to the fund. This year the bureau sent $325,000 back to communities, Moneypenny said.
State law requires that the SCPP funds be used solely for marketing and promotion or a payroll of an employee, not for items such as bands or tents for a festival.
As municipalities bring in more room tax dollars, they get a bigger cut of both room tax reimbursement and SCPP funds. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger cut for the people working in the local business associations.
Of all municipalities, Ephraim uses the highest percentage of room tax dollars to fund its business association. The Ephraim Business Council receives funds equal to 50 percent of the room tax dollars that come back to the village. The Egg Harbor Business Association receives funding equal to just eight percent of the village’s room tax revenue.
Seiler is requesting a consistent 25 percent of Sturgeon Bay’s room tax dollars for the visitor center, an increase from a budget line item equal to 24 percent of room tax dollars allocated to the visitor center in 2017.
Sister Bay funds the SBAA through a line item in the annual budget.
Instead of sending a dollar amount to the business associations each year as in Sister Bay’s model, pegging a percentage of room tax to the business association will mean that as room tax revenue increases, so will funding for the business association, similar to the SCPP model.
Swanson, who grew up in Baileys Harbor, took side jobs to supplement her wage at the community association.
“It really is a labor of love more than anything,” she said. “I think I lasted as long as I did because this is my hometown so I’m very passionate about it and I was able to make it happen no matter what.”
In next week’s Pulse we will explore possible solutions to the turnover problem by looking at how similar communities across the country function to support their thriving tourism industries.