By Charis Anderson
Faced with a crippling cut to the city tourism department’s budget last year, Mayor Scott W. Lang had two choices: Let various tourism efforts stall for lack of resources or find another way to get the work done.
“It would be absolutely ridiculous in the city of New Bedford today to think that tourism is a throwaway item or concept,” said Lang. “It was not a matter of, ‘Well, we’ll just do without this’ … We needed to fill that vacuum.”
Lang approached the board of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, which felt as the mayor did: tourism is a critical component to both the economic foundation and the continued economic development of the city.
The NBEDC agreed to step into a facilitator role, and the city’s tourism task force — a collaboration of public and private organizations that all have an interest in seeing the city continue to generate momentum on tourism — was born.
Just six months later, participants and observers said the group has already achieved concrete progress, including the recent launch of a new “Destination New Bedford” website promoting the city and its attractions, and plans for a series of digital walking tours of the city that could be implemented this summer.
Additionally, having the EDC directly involved has brought fresh ideas and a new perspective on tourism to the table, and has elevated the tourism industry’s stature, task force participants said.
“New Bedford and SouthCoast have so many assets,” said Betsy Wall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, or MOTT.
“It’s very smart to have all those different groups at the table to make sure that all the different assets of the region and the city are part of the equation.”
During the creation of the city’s fiscal 2010 budget, the City Council cut the tourism department budget from $156,775, the number submitted by the Lang administration, to $49,802, effectively eliminating the tourism director position.
The tourism industry generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in Bristol County each year and employs more than 3,000 people across the county, according to information from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.
New Bedford is the largest city in the county and has several major tourist draws, including the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Buttonwood Park Zoo and the Zeiterion Theater.
“I disagreed with that cut, but I also know we’re in an extremely difficult economic climate,” said Lang. “The council has the prerogative to make cuts.”
The tourism task force was intended to shore up the essential functions of the tourism department in the wake of the significant budget cut, said Matthew Morrissey, the NBEDC’s executive director.
The NBEDC shouldered some of the core activities — the city’s calendar of events, the planning for and implementation of a new tourism-focused Web site — and the broader community stepped in to fill the remaining void, according to Morrissey.
The Wharfinger Building, for example, a key resource for visitors to the waterfront, was in danger of being unstaffed as the tourism department — the entity responsible for manning the building — had been reduced to one part-time employee, said Morrissey.
So Jennifer Nersesian, superintendent of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, stepped up and agreed to staff the building with either a park ranger or someone from her volunteer corps, said Morrissey.
Once established, however, the group quickly moved beyond the existing tourism functions and into brainstorming new ways to promote the city and enhance visitors’ experiences, according to Morrissey.
Alan Korolenko, artistic director of Summerfest, had been researching the city’s history with the vague idea of developing some sort of walking tour.
Then, during a conversation with Morrissey, the economic development director mentioned a digital audio walking tour he and his family had taken on a recent trip, said Korolenko.
“I’m too old to think digitally at first,” he said.
But — poof! — the chat with Morrissey crystallized what had been an amorphous goal into a concrete plan, said Korolenko.
Now, just a handful of months later, there are several digital audio walks in the planning stages, including one of the city’s waterfront and a second focused on downtown, he said.
The goal is to have at least one tour recorded and available by this summer, said Korolenko.
“I hope the digital tours create in people that visit New Bedford a better, a more accurate understanding of the city,” he said.
Morrissey said another initiative the group was working on is the aggregation of the e-mail addresses collected by the various organizations into one large electronic mailing list.
Such a list — comprising potentially thousands of people who have already shown enough interest in New Bedford to visit once or to contact an organization — could be used to market events and other updates in the city on a quarterly basis, he said.
While the project is still in the early stages, Morrissey said he believed sufficient trust had been built up between the various organizations to make it a reality.
“And it’s free,” he said. “It’s virtually free marketing.”
E-mail aggregation and the digital audio tours are just two example of many ideas generated by the group, ideas that range from highly tactical to loftily strategic, said James Russell.
What the NBEDC, in its facilitator role, has been able to do is sift through those ideas to determine which are actually achievable and then, of those, which will affect the most people and have the most impact, said Russell.
“I think people respond to that approach because it takes it away from just another committee meeting to something where you can actually see results,” he said.
Many task force participants interviewed for this story said another, less tangible, benefit of the group was the improved insight into what other organizations were doing.
Kathryn V. Dinneen, director of the New Bedford Art Museum, said the group, which meets roughly once a month, had proved to be a wonderful forum to coordinate activities and share information.
“You get busy doing your own thing, trying to keep your own organization going … and you kind of get lost inside. You’re in the trees,” she said. “This, I think, really gives everybody the opportunity to sit back and hear what everybody is doing.”
That awareness can translate into more partnerships between different organizations, said Jeff Pontiff, owner of Whaling City Expeditions, whether that’s combining a harbor tour from his company with lunch at a local restaurant or creating a weekend package of events for guests at the new downtown hotel.
“I think that’s really what’s going to take us to another level,” said Pontiff, whose company provides harbor tours, water taxi, and launch service in New Bedford Harbor. “We have to be partnering up and (creating) that value-added thing that makes it more exciting for people.”
Lang also praised the assistance, financial and otherwise, MOTT had extended over the past few years to the city to aid its tourism efforts. He estimated the city had received more than $100,000 from MOTT to support a wide range of programs.
Ward 1 City Councilor Linda Morad praised the collaboration between various nonprofit and cultural organizations in the city, but said that spirit of cooperation was not new.
The city, under both the Kalisz and the Lang administrations, had underfunded tourism efforts, she said, prompting organizations to look to each other.
“You had a group of people who were doing the best with the resources they had, and they were building collaboration between different organizations,” said Morad. “This ball has been rolling for awhile.”
Morad said she supported the council’s cut last year to the tourism department budget as she did not agree with the approach Ann Marie Lopes, the then-tourism director, took to her role, nor did she agree with some of the ways in which the city was being advertised.
(Lopes is currently employed by New Bedford Cable Access and is working on developing television commercials. NBEDC reimburses Cable Access for a portion of her salary.)
While Morad said she sees tourism as important to the city’s economy — “Bringing people to the city of New Bedford helps the businesses of New Bedford, there’s no question,” she said — she said she would not want to increase funding for any city department given the ongoing budget crisis facing New Bedford.
“I would like to see a collaboration continue through some of the nonprofits in the city to promote the city … until budget issues can change and maybe additional money can be given,” said Morad.
Tourism is big business in its own right.
The tourism industry, the third largest employer in the state, created more than 3,000 jobs in the county for a payroll of about $83.7 million, said Wall, and in 2008 alone, domestic travelers spent about $385 million in Bristol County.
New Bedford is already well-positioned to capture a significant share of that market, according to Wall, director of the MOTT.
“I think what New Bedford offers is the type of thing that visitors are looking for now,” she said. “If you want to apply one word for it, it’s authentic.”
But beyond tourism for tourism’s sake, Lang, Morrissey and others see tourism as a way to push the city’s growth in other industries as well.
“The more energy generated in New Bedford around the creative economy, around quality of life issues, around growth, begets more energy, creative economy action, different projects,” said Lang. “It absolutely builds a momentum.”
Potential investors coming in to the city are first struck by the feel of the place, said Morrissey, whether that’s observing the activity along downtown Purchase Street on a weekday afternoon or dining at newly opened restaurant on Acushnet Avenue or viewing the city while motoring around the harbor.
Ultimately, said Morrissey, a person or company’s decision to invest will likely be driven by more concrete concerns: Is there an available workforce? Is the necessary infrastructure in place?
“But you don’t get to those hard questions until you travel that continuum, which begins in the soft (things), the feel of the place,” he said. “Tourism activities speak to that sense of place (and) it is the unique sense of place that enables conversations about job creation and investment to occur.”
Pontiff, who, in addition to his harbor tour company also runs Pontiff Real Estate, agreed.
As more people experience the city in a positive way — and as those people talk about their visits to New Bedford to other people — the city’s reputation as a thriving and interesting place will continue to grow, prompting more potential investors to take a look at it, said Pontiff.
“New Bedford is getting good buzz,” he said. “You’re starting to hear that more and more.”
The collaborative strategy New Bedford has taken, while not unique, is a little more advanced and thought out than in many other communities, with the exception, perhaps, of Boston, said Wall.
Addtionally, while the initial focus is on a relatively small target audience, the thoughtful, broad-based approach to tourism created by the NBEDC and the task force can be scaled up to reach a larger regional and national audience as budgets increase, said Wall.
“There’s a sense in the New England region that New Bedford is on the move (and) I think they’re capitalizing on this in a very smart way,” she said. “I think their leave-no-stone-unturned approach is really smart, and it’s paying off. It’s being noticed.”
April 25, 2010 12:00 AM
By Charis Anderson