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Analysis: Tourism officials say a fight with Mayor Bob Filner over marketing dollars is crippling the region’s ability to draw visitors.
The Tourism Authority, which works to lure travelers to San Diego, canceled an advertising campaign set to begin in February because it couldn’t access funds to pay for the promotions. (For more details on the battle over tourism marketing dollars, check out this video explainer.)
Kerri Kapich, the Tourism Authority’s senior vice president of marketing and strategic partnership, suggested on Twitter that the lack of advertising is already hurting the industry.
Those views got top billing in a Tuesday U-T San Diego story:
Hotel occupancy fell last month, a direct result of San Diego’s lack of advertising promoting the city as a tourist destination, believes the Tourism Authority.
To back up its argument, the Tourism Authority cited statistics from Smith Travel Research, the tourism industry’s top data supplier, that show San Diego saw the largest percentage drop in hotel occupancy among the top 25 travel markets from Feb. 17 to March 16.
We decided Kapich’s statement deserved more vetting. Advertising can certainly draw business but it seemed excessive to suggest that a campaign set to begin less than eight weeks ago could have been the sole driver of the 4.8 percent drop in hotel occupancy.
Hotel occupancy is one metric the travel industry uses to track its success. It’s calculated by dividing the number of rooms sold by the number that are available.
Smith Travel Research provides weekly, monthly and annual updates on this and other measurements.
A recent report revealed San Diego’s hotel occupancy rate during the 28-day period the Tourism Authority cited was 69.7 percent, which places the region comfortably in the mid-range of the top 25 cities. The San Diego area performed better during the same period in 2012, with a 73.2 percent occupancy that ranked 10th among the top 25 markets.
That change translates into the 4.8 percent drop the Tourism Authority described so that portion of Kapich’s statement is correct.
The decrease was the largest among the top 25 travel markets during the 28-day period.
The year-to-year decrease lines up with the local tourism industry’s attempts to persuade Filner to sign an operating agreement that would allow the city’s Tourism Marketing District to collect a 2 percent surcharge on hotel stays to promote the region as a destination.
Kapich and Tourism Authority chief Joe Terzi claimed that the drop in hotel occupancy was proof that the lack of advertising negatively affected San Diego’s economy, but travel industry experts say zeroing in on that variable could be deceptive.
One of them is David Brudney, a Carlsbad-based marketing consultant who has counseled cities including Baltimore and Vancouver on tactics to draw tourists.
“Yes, the decline of advertising (and) the commitment to advertising dollars certainly could be a contributor (to the decrease) but to not look at other factors would be a mistake,” said Brudney, who has worked in the travel industry for nearly five decades.
For example, he said, a decrease in conventions can sway the numbers.
The Tourism Authority expected a drop in convention attendance this year.
A February Tourism Authority report included attendance numbers for past and upcoming Convention Center events and projected 52,092 fewer attendees this year than in 2012.
While the Convention Center anticipated modestly higher attendance in February, officials expected a significant decrease in March.
While the center drew roughly 47,000 visitors last March, only 17,000 were projected this year.
That’s just one other potential impact. Sequestration cuts, the continuing economic recovery and even cooler weather could have skewed the numbers.
The same Tourism Authority report featuring the Convention Center projections also predicted a decrease in San Diego tourism this year:
Visits to San Diego are expected to slow to 2.1% in 2013. The first half of the year is expected to be markedly slower than the second half.
The Tourism Authority hasn’t mentioned this in recent media accounts or appearances before the City Council.
Instead, they’ve focused on the short-term drop in hotel occupancy.
Brudney and Jerry Morrison, an Encinitas-based tourism analyst, cautioned against focusing on such a brief period of time.
Trends are established in months, not in seven or even 28 days, Morrison said.
In fact, year-to-date numbers show San Diego hotel occupancy was actually up 3.2 percent after the first two months of 2013.
Jim Durbin, general manager of the San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter, said that uptick matches the business he saw earlier this year but he’s expecting year-over-year drops in March and April.
Durbin, who serves as chairman of the board of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association, suspects the lack of advertising has discouraged travelers from Los Angeles, Orange County or other nearby areas who may make a last-minute decision to spend the weekend in San Diego.
“The thing that we’re concerned about is the short-term market,” Durbin said. “Without the message getting out there and influencing buyers’ decisions it will soften that market.”
Still, he didn’t suggest a direct correlation with the loss of advertising dollars.
Kapich didn’t stand by that claim when contacted by Voice of San Diego.
She acknowledged she could have better clarified that advertising isn’t the only factor that may be affecting occupancy rates.
The larger issue, Kapich said, is that hotel occupancy is down and the region isn’t being promoted as its peak tourism season begins.
Rating her claim was complicated.
San Diego did see a 4.8 percent drop in hotel occupancy from mid-February to mid-March but there’s no way to prove that a canceled advertising campaign is the only reason for that decline — and the Tourism Authority itself knew hotel visits would be down before the advertising money was out of the picture.
We dub a claim Huckster Propaganda when a statement is not only inaccurate but it’s reasonable to expect the person who made it knew that and made the claim to gain an advantage.
The latter is certainly true here. Kapich later acknowledged that advertising isn’t the only variable that has affected tourism, and various experts suggested the same.
But the 4.8 percent drop in hotel occupancy Kapich cited is correct.
A claim is misleading when it contains an element of truth but badly distorts or exaggerates it, leaving a deceptive impression. This ruling fits Kapich’s claim.
If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.
Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0528.
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