Tourism Tribulations

COVID-19 pandemic
has VisitMadison Inc. on a tight budget

Board members still anticipate holding festivals,
await new hotel opening

(February 2021) – Despite struggling through a dismal 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and still waiting on a budget to be approved for 2021, VisitMadison Inc. enjoyed a record month of innkeepers’ tax revenue in November. More than $67,000 was collected that month, which they hope will help them plan for 2021 and pay off debts still owed from 2020.
The VisitMadison Inc. tourism board met Jan. 25 and reviewed a number of issues – namely the proposed 2021 budget that had been submitted for approval in early December to the Jefferson County Board of Tourism. The latter board receives the monthly innkeepers’ taxes and decides how and when to disperse the money. In past years, the bulk of that money is provided to VMI for its annual operational and marketing budgets.
The JCBT did not meet in December, so VMI has had to wait until it met later that evening on Jan. 25 to work on the 2021 budget request, which represents a 35 percent drop from the previous year, according to VMI Executive Director Tawana Thomas. The JCBT last October also froze all marketing expenditures by VMI in an effort to reign in expenses in the wake of lower innkeepers’ tax revenues caused by the pandemic.
This year, VMI requested $170,000 for its operational budget and $110,700 for marketing. That compares to the 2020 budgets of $295,323 for operations and $189,456 for marketing in 2020.
The JCBT board, meanwhile, held a lengthy meeting later that evening during which it voted to approve $37,558 – enough money for VMI to pay its employees and operational expenses through February including $9,225 for marketing. It also approved $6,367 to pay off nearly all of its 2020 outstanding marketing debts. The only item not covered was a $2,100 bill for what was considered to be a poorly placed billboard in an industrial area near I-71 in Carrollton, Ky.

Lanier Mansion

Photo by Don Ward

The Lanier Mansion State Historic Site is one of Madison, Ind.'s top tourism attractions.

“We will leave that one up to them to either negotiate it away or pay it themselves,” said JCBT member Todd Boone.
Meantime, at the VMI morning board meeting, Thomas sounded an optimistic tone as she looks ahead to 2021. She said she had been working with management of Dora Hospitality in its efforts to hire management staff for the new hotel and create a marketing plan. The hotel company, based in Fishers, Ind., is a partner in building the new $21 million Fairfield Inn & Suites in what was formerly the Eagle Cotton Mill that sits on the Madison riverfront. The 85-room hotel is expected to open June 7, according to the company website.
Thomas told her board that Dora Hospitality’ research “tends to line up with out research on post-COVID tourism projections.” She said that research shows that families will want to travel to smaller towns like Madison and avoid big metropolitan cities to reduce exposure to the virus and feel safe. They will want to do outdoors activities, such as hiking and bicycling – all of which can be done at Madison’s Clifty Falls State Park and the Heritage Trail of Madison.
Thomas cited figures showing that Jefferson County, Ind., experienced a decline of 29.9 percent in innkeepers tax revenue in 2020, while the national average ranged between 50-60 percent.
“So the fact Madison and Jefferson County still outperformed the nation is extremely remarkable,” Thomas said. “Kudos to our local innkeepers to do all the things necessary to keep their hotels and AirBnBs clean and make their customers feel safe.”
In other news, Thomas announced that VMI had completed its negotiations with the State of Indiana on the Memoranda of Understanding that allows the tourism staff to continue to operate at the state-owned Lanier-Madison Visitors Center for another four years.
Marketing Director Sara Prasil, meantime, reported the results of a three-month-long Stay & Cash Giveaway marketing campaign held last fall. She said it generated 125 visitors to Madison – 67 percent of which came from Indiana, 13.5 percent from Ohio, 11.1 percent from Kentucky, 3.5 percent from Illinois and the rest from other states. She also said the Madison Christmas Lights Tour was deemed a success. She also said the company that produces the annual Indiana State Travel Guide has requested more than 100 photos of Madison attractions, including the new Fairfield Inn.
Prasil voiced her concerns about planning any marketing for 2021 because of the marketing budget freeze still in effect from October. She added that most planning is done far in advance, due to various deadlines.
Thomas said, “Unfortunately it is coming down to the last week of January for the Jefferson County Board of Tourism to deal with the marketing freeze and its payment to VMI. And JCBT didn’t fulfill its last quarterly payment to VMI last year, so that has made it tough.”
Thomas also discussed a new credit card policy for its staff that the board then voted to approve. After receiving criticism for allowing personal expenditures that were later re-imbursed, as had been the policy for some time, the new policy eliminates using VMI credit cards expenses for personal items. The policy also requires extensive documentation for all expenditures on the cards.
In other tourism news, longtime board member Joe Craig retired from serving on the board as a representative from the County Council. He has been replaced by Ray Black. The board also voted to approve a nomination of Cari Morrison to vice president of the board. President Lucy Dattilo and secretary-treasurer Hannah Fagen each have another year of their two-year term coming up. Others serving on the seven-member board include Jenny Eggenspiller, Kara Hinze, and Jeff Frazier.
Hinze, who represents the Madison Chautauqua, reported that her committee is still hoping it can hold the two-day September arts festival in 2021, after having had to cancel it last year. She said the committee plans to limit the number of artists to 225. “Last year, we were down a bit, but in 2018 we were up (in the number of artists),” she said.
The Chautauqua committee normally pays VMI an administrative fee of $28,000 a year in four installments to help with the festival. She said they hoped to pay the first two installments by July after the artists’ registrations and dues have come in. Hinze also requested approval from the board to cash in one of two Certificates of Deposit that are maturing. The board voted to approve it, giving the committee a cash infusion of $5,600.
Prasil reported that she had sent a letter to the Indiana Wine Trail informing it that VMI would no longer be managing the five-county program, due to staff shortages. VMI had managed the program for 12 years, she said, and that the number of wineries on the trail had dwindled in recent years to only three – Lanthier Winery in Madison, Holtkamp Winery in Sunman and Ertel Cellars in Batesville. Madison’s Thomas Family Winery left in 2019. Madison Vineyards, which is for sale, and Stream Cliff Farm & Winery in Jennings County also have left. The Ridge Winery in Vevay plans to shut down its tasting room, so it has recently left.
VMI plans to hold its annual board retreat in February, prior to its next scheduled monthly board meeting on Feb. 22.

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