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Photo by Fred Pollard
Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Brett Stawar poses with CVB mascot Seymour Bluffs during the 12th annual Tourism Summit at the Lewis and Clark Community College Commons.
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Lewis and Clark Community College
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VOLUNTEER OF THE YEAR: Charlie Hendricks, accepted by Bernie Caldwell
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The Gift Box
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Historic Elsah Foundation
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Great Godfrey Maze
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Alton Memorial Hospital
Tourism in the area is down … but nowhere close to being out.
“We were very busy in 2015,” Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Brett Stawar said. “We launched two successful restaurant weeks in January and July, and gave out more than 2,000 of those commemorative glasses that people go crazy for. This year, the CVB capitalized on the end of summer rush … and started the Kid’Cation, where we had some great success with bringing people into the region.”
In 2015, there were 326,511 unique visitors to tourism website www.VisitAlton.com (a 34 percent increase over 2014), and the CVB boasted a Facebook fan total of 22,624 (an 8 percent increase), 834 Instagram followers (more than double from the previous year), and nearly 3,000 YouTube video views.
There were 11 out-of-the-area journalists hosted during 2015, including seven international travel writers from Germany and Japan. USA Today named us among the top 5 “stealthy foliage stops” in the country.
Among the top 150 bureaus in the country, the CVB has won 19 Marketing Excellence Awards in categories such as Best Visitor Guide, Best Website and Best DVD since 2004.
Stawar also pointed out the upcoming expansions and renovations in the Alton hotel industry as well as this past year’s burst of growth in local restaurants.
“In my 11 years here, I have never seen this type of growth in the food and culinary industry,” he said.
Statewide, tourism also has been vital and, until recently, has thrived. 2013 was a record year for Illinois tourism, with 105.7 million visitors to the state, and 2014 surpassed the previous year, with a 3.8 percent increase. $36 billion was brought into the state in 2014 from tourism. The Illinois travel industry created an additional 5,000 new jobs in 2014.
Visitor expenditures were up within the three counties (Jersey, Madison and Calhoun), at $443 million in 2014.
2016 plans for the Illinois Office of Tourism include the launch of a new, biannual lifestyle magazine and the “Illinois Made” campaign, including short films and documentaries, with a focus on unexpected, under the radar or unknown destinations.
The setbacks for local tourism
But this silver lining is not without its dark clouds. Two floods, hotel upheaval and frozen funds thanks to a state budget crisis have cut deep into the Riverbend’s ability to bring in visitors. Lodging numbers have dipped for the first time since 2008, and local businesses have seen the ebbs and flows of a challenging economy and battles with Mother Nature.
“We had two historic floods, and started out the year with an antique row fire,” Stawar said. “State budget is another challenge. Our tourism funds remain tangled in the state budget crisis.”
At the end of 2015, more than $6 million was sitting in an account mandated for tourism promotion. The Governor’s Office had suspended the account indefinitely pending the outcome of the budget impasse.
Some funds were released through the Local Tourism Convention Bureau Fund, with more funding expected later this year … but that is only a portion of what the local CVB needs to climb out of what could become a painful rut for the area.
During the 12th annual CVB Tourism Summit, held at Lewis and Clark Community College on Jan. 21, Illinois Office of Tourism Director Cory Jobe recognized the crossroads the lack of funding is creating.
“It has definitely been a challenging year,” Jobe said.
Referencing what he calls the “halo effect of tourism” (creating jobs and improving economic impact and quality of life), he emphasized the importance of bringing more conventions and events into the region.
“(Through tourism expenditures and tax revenue), tourism spending directly supported more than 3,300 jobs right here in the region,” he said. “As we all know, the return of investments and the economic benefits bringing … events to Illinois can be huge. As I say, heads in beds (hotel/motel tax), butts in seats (sales tax). That is critically important as we want to grow our tourism industry.
“When visitors come here, they spend a lot of money. When they buy goods and services, they pay taxes. There is a direct economic impact to hotels, attractions and cultural institutions as well as an indirect impact to restaurants, taxi drivers, florists and other local entrepreneurs and small business owners.”
Jobe said at least $7 is returned to the state for every $1 invested in the state through tourism.
“Would we have O’Hare or Midway Airport, with the ability to get almost anywhere in the world from here, some of the top museums and cultural attractions in the world, or some of the unique concerts, special events and sporting spectacles if it were not for the visitor industry?” he asked.
Throwing down the gauntlet
Stawar has dug in his heels, determined to make 2016 a success for the Riverbend. During the summit, he pointed out the fact that visitors to www.visitalton.com stay an average of more than two minutes, looking at more than two pages at a time.
“This tells us something,” he said. “They are looking at our content, they are reading the pages, and they are wanting to be influenced by our information to make their travel choices.”
The hopes are an updated website, expanded visitors guide and the Alton Visitor’s Center becoming a hub for ticket sales for the Liberty Bank Alton Amphitheater, along with popular events such as the food trucks, work together and continue to make the area a destination.
Best of the Best 2015
Also during the summit, the CVB awarded its “Best of the Best” for 2015. The Best Special Event award went to the MS bike ride through Lewis and Clark Community College, which took place last September and brought thousands of visitors to the area.
The Best Innovation and Creativity award went to The Gift Box in Alton. The shop owner, Andrea Abbott, was recognized for her “unique approach” and for hosting more than 100 vendors.
Best Group Tour went to the Cheney Mansion in Jerseyville, and the Best Community Involvement went to the Historic Elsah Foundation. Partner of the Year went to Alton Memorial Hospital.
Godfrey’s Great Godfrey Maze, which continues to expand each year and attract out-of-town guests, was recognized as the Best Attraction. The CVB’s Volunteer of the Year was civic leader and former Hartford Mayor Charlie Hendricks, who remains involved with the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower.
TOURISM BY THE NUMBERS
• Illinois tourism saves the average Illinois household $1,300 in taxes every year.
• Illinois ranks ninth in the nation in total domestic visitors, fifth in traveler spending, and eighth in overseas visitors.
• Paid print and online ad campaigns through the Alton CVB reached more than 40 million potential travelers in 2015.
• According to PlanetWare, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is number 7 on the list of top rated tourist attractions in Illinois.
CVB INTERACTION IN 2015
• Educational delegates: 5,654
• Motorcoach delegates: 4,420
• Meeting delegates: 40
• Sporting events delegates: 2,560
• Group sales economic impact: $1,223,196
• Visitors to Alton Visitor Center: 14,175