Business up for travel industry

S.F. tourism bureau plans to seek more funding

Visitors to San Francisco spent nearly 10 percent more in 2005 than in 2004 and long-term convention bookings have reached a record high, but The City must fund more marketing if it wants to remain a premier destination, representatives for the San Francisco Convention and Visitor’s Bureau said Tuesday.

Speaking at its annual marketing-plan meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the bureau’s new CEO, Joe D’Alessandro, said he hopes to speak with city government officials soon about new “tourism improvement districts,” a variant on the familiar business improvement districts that allow property owners in certain neighborhoods to establish fees for beautification and outreach efforts. It’s just one idea of several to raise more funds, he said. The bureau currently operates with a $13.6 million budget, more than half of which comes from the city hotel tax and other public funds. The bureau gets only 4.1 percent of transient occupancy tax collected by The City.

“Frankly, our budget is pathetic,” D’Alessandro said, comparing it to his former city of Portland, Ore., where the visitors bureau receives a larger percentage of the hotel tax. Other cities’ bureaus have surpassed their pre-Sept. 11, 2001 budgets, he added. Travel was strong until the terrorist attacks on that date, when the industry collapsed as frightened people stayed home.

As it works on fundraising efforts through government, the bureau is also preparing to change how it advertises The City to travelers. Weekend travel and travel by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers are both growth markets, and increasing numbers of people are turning to the Internet for travel information. Meanwhile, tour operators and other travel middlemen are still booking much of the growing international visitor business and “pre-cruise experiences,” the bureau’s VP of Tourism Deborah Reinow said. The bureau will try to focus on both those areas. It is also trying to pitch The City as the West Coast’s most East-Coast-like holiday destination.

The discussion helps hotel owners plan their own marketing efforts for the 2006-07 fiscal year, according to Kimberly Higgins and Martin Gross, who are executives of the King George Hotel and The Inn at Union Square.

The bureau broke its record for conventions booked long-term, though the number of booked convention rooms is softer than the bureau would like for 2007, before rising in 2008 to nearly 800,000 rooms. The bureau will try to nail more 2007 bookings with corporate meeting business, which typically require less lead time than association trade shows, D’Alessandro said.

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