With no contract extending beyond February of 2021, the Visit Madison Inc. Board of Directors voted Friday to lay off Executive Director Tawana Thomas for financial reasons.
“Our director was laid off for financial reasons,” VMI Board Chairman Lucy Dattilo said. “We hope she will be back soon. Until then, we will try to muddle through without her, and do more with less.”
The board did just that on Monday morning when it met without Thomas but with the VMI staffers that have been retained.
Jefferson County’s Board of Tourism at its meeting in January agreed to fund Visit Madison for January and February, but still has not approved a contract for the remainder of 2021. However, that contract was listed on the agenda for JCBT’s meeting later Monday evening.
Dattilo noted that once JCBT presents a contract, the Visit Madison Board of Directors and its attorney will have to review the contract and that leaves the financial status of the local tourism promotion group and its staff somewhat clouded.
“We’re no closer to having that,” Dattilo said. “Maybe we’ll see it in March. I don’t know. It’s very frustrating. It’s hard to do your work when you don’t even have a contract, but I think it’s in the best interest of tourism that we keep pushing forward even though we don’t have a contract.”
Thomas was hired as executive director in 2017. Before that, she had served seven years as Director of Tourism and Development for Elk City, Oklahoma, and one year as executive director of the Wichita Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau. Originally from southwest Oklahoma, Thomas has also been an on-host and producer in community and public relations for Insight Communications in Florence, Kentucky.
Dattilo said that VMI staff has decreased from nine employees to now four, and as budget issues continue, there is the possibility that the board of directors will have to become working members pitching in as staff. “We have had people step up and say what they do can do,” but Dattilo said it will be a challenge having only four remaining paid staffers — Sarah Prasil, marketing and advertising director; Tiffini Poling, office manager and visitor services; Katie Burress, event coordinator; and Holly Love-Gibson, visitor services and group/event coordinator.
“We had cleaning staff and had weekend staff (that have been laid off), and our staff that is still here has assumed all of that, and now we have Tawana out of the equation, so that will make it even more difficult for the people who are here. We have a marketing director who is a paid specialist in her field, and she’s cleaning toilets, and she’s not above that, but when you prioritize how she spends her time that’s going to be added stress to our staff.”
Dattilo said the board is working to maintain its focus on planning events that bring in tourists.
“We still have all our volunteers on board,” said Dattilo, also adding Burress is still working to coordinate events. “That is a priority that we had to make sure events still happen. The return on investment is great. It cost $100,000 minimum to do Chautauqua a dozen years ago, it brought in $2.1 million.”
At last month’s JCBT meeting, it was proposed to fund Visit Madison from allocations that have been dedicated to festivals. “That is an asset for VMI, but is not something that we touch. It should not be used as operating. Our board does not find it to be a sound business practice to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Prasil talked about the importance of Visit Madison’s work while citing a 2018 Rockport Analytics cooperative county study with the State of Indiana that reported $42.3 million in visitor spending in Jefferson County and a $15.5 million direct visitor economic impact. Prasil said that report summary is always two years behind and that visitor spending was actually up 4% in 2017-2018.
“The impact of tourism on our community is great, enormous,” Prasil said. “I don’t think we survive without tourism ... Those numbers speak volumes to me. Everything we did here at Visit Madison is so important.”
“In order to be sustainable, you have to have money coming in from somewhere else,” Dattilo said. “We can’t just cycle what we have here, and we have money going out, but we need to have money from other sources, and tourism provides that. It didn’t happen by chance. A $40 million industry didn’t just plop into our laps. It has taken years to build, and VMI, the CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) has always been a part of that.”
Emilee Roberts, executive director of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed support for Visit Madison and its tourism efforts, noting that many businesses “heavily rely on that.” She expressed the need for a budget.
“I know that in my organization it would be very hard to plan if didn’t have months-to-come budget or a half-year contract with what you can bring in with the budget that you’re getting.” She said “we have something really special here with our visitor center” and if the “visitor center were not to be here, or not as much” conversations would need to take place with other organizations to provide those services “because somebody has to do tourism, somebody needs to plan those things or take on those events.”
In January, the JCBT emphasized that VMI should focus its efforts more on digital and less on print, and suggested the visitor’s guide be printed less frequently. Prasil said she is “looking to upgrade the publication service to make it more digital, and reduce the amount to print.” VMI had originally planned to print 40,000 copies of the guide for distribution but has updated the marketing plan to print only 20,000.
“We have got more feedback from our business community when the guide will be printed, and when it will be in their shops,” Prasil said, adding VMI has already had 1,100 requests for the 2021 guide.
“There is still a significant amount of people that want a printed guide,” Prasil said, noting that 80 businesses have actually paid to participate in the visitors guide. “We have a signed agreement with them and they are expecting their product.”
Jefferson County Council member Gary Copeland participated in his first meeting as a Visit Madison Inc. board member, replacing Ray Black Jr. Copeland offered ideas to the board including the possibility of connecting Madison with other destinations in cooperative marketing.