City Council hesitates to grant Steamboat Chamber’s full funding request

The Steamboat Springs Chamber asked City Council for nearly $1,000,000 in its annual funding request on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.

“Our proposal is $975,000 split 50/50 between destination management messaging and destination promotion,” said Laura Soard, the Chamber’s marketing director, who was put in charge of representing the Chamber’s request to City Council.

However, despite listening to feedback and making earnest shifts in its marketing strategy, the Chamber is still trying to win over council, who will continue the discussion on how much money to give the Chamber during the annual budget retreat early next month.

City Council was pretty much onboard with the destination management aspect of the Chamber’s request, but they were apprehensive about funding marketing.

“Our community is telling us they don’t want to be marketed to death,” said Robin Crossan, City Council president. “And we have heard that loud and clear.”

City Council approved $715,000 for the Chamber in 2021, and $875,000 in 2020. According to Stoller, the city has provided at least some amount of funding every year since 1984 when the Chamber and the city made an agreement to promote non-ski season months in Steamboat. 

Many Steamboat locals oppose the Chamber’s marketing of Steamboat, and they’ve made their opinions loud and clear on social media and emails to City Council.

“I suggest we just take a pause on giving money to the Chamber and marketing Steamboat,” Steamboat local Molly Baker wrote on the Routt County Chat, Rant, n Rave Facebook page on Sept. 13. “The tourists will still come.”

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Baker’s post yielded 56 reactions and 28 comments.

After the COVID-era lockdowns brought an influx of first-time visitors to Steamboat, the Chamber pivoted away from marketing and toward destination management. That approach is meant to promote ecologically responsible tourism and cultivate brand loyalists who return to Steamboat because they respect the values expressed in the Chamber’s messaging.

“It’s a reflection of how we feel we can be the best stewards of our destination — working to find that sweet spot of the intersection of economic, social and environmental priorities and goals,” said Kara Stoller, the Chamber’s CEO. 

Destination management has been a part of the Chamber’s contract with the city for decades but has become a top priority in recent years. In 2019, the Chamber allotted 90% of its budget toward destination marketing and 10% toward destination management. The split was 50/50 in 2020 and 2021, and this year, the Chamber dedicated 75% toward destination management, which included the “Kindness Floats the Boat” slogan.

The Chamber also rescheduled its marketing toward the shoulder seasons in hopes of fostering a more even dispersal of visitors throughout the year. 

In its proposal on Tuesday, the Chamber rationalized the return to a higher emphasis on marketing compared to last year by citing higher costs for advertising, and a relatively slow summer for tourism in Steamboat this year.

The adjusted paid occupancy rate, which measures the percentage of rooms occupied across Steamboat’s lodging options, was down significantly this summer at 29% during the month of July, compared to 43% in July 2021 and 42% in July 2019.

“It is not a good strategy for us as a destination to just assume people are going to keep coming,” Soard said. “Marketing a destination is a long-term commitment that takes consistency, and that goes for both promotion and for destination management messaging.”

The refocusing of the Chamber’s resources is perhaps most evident by looking at the tourism data from Houston, Texas, which has long been a lucrative “fly market,” but because marketing accounted for a smaller share of the Chamber’s budget this year, promotion toward the Houston market was pulled back.

“We saw fewer guest check-ins from Houston,” Soard said. “And that’s a trend we want to look at.”

The year-over-year website traffic dropped by 68% in Houston, according to the Chamber’s data, and this year there were 40% fewer check-ins than in 2019 — the last summer before the pandemic. 

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