CHATHAM – The chamber of commerce is seeking an increase its annual appropriation from the town in order to step up its efforts to promote and brand Chatham as a destination for both short-term and long-term visitors.
Executive Director Lisa Franz said the chamber has largely been responsible for marketing and branding Chatham, and hoped that by providing additional funds, the town could become a partner in the effort.
“The chamber is putting in the paid and volunteer manpower to promote Chatham as a brand and as a destination so it is extremely important to acknowledge that we need assistance with marketing and advertising so we can reach our target audience with our brand,” she write in a memo to the board of selectmen outlining the budget request. “If successfully done with the investment of the town, we can promote Chatham and ultimately increase the money collected from the room and meals taxes, increasing revenue to the town.”
The $75,000 request is a 20 percent hike over the current year's $62,000 in town support for the chamber. Franz said $68,000 of the money will go to support the paid visitor information staff, and takes into account a state increase in the minimum wage. The additional $7,000 is for “economic development,” specifically branding and promotion of Chatham as a destination.
After a resident brought concerns about branding of the town to selectmen last year – chiefly about the association of Chatham and great white sharks – Franz said the chamber met with the resident and representatives of Osterville public relations and marketing company Pierce Cote. Franz said she also plans to meet with the town's economic development committee to discuss other branding opportunities.
Sharks in the Park, which Franz said is one of the chamber's most successful events, has helped create a positive response to the great white shark presence in Chatham waters. “Sharks will continue to contribute to the rebranding of Chatham as a town that effectively takes a possible negative and turns it into a positive and educational effort by the community.” Sharks in the Park, the cost of which is paid by chamber members, will return again in May.
Other promotions held throughout the year, including Oktoberfest, Christmas by the Sea – decorations for which cost $10,000 – and a Veterans Day weekend event honoring veterans, bringing thousands of people to town and help promote Chatham as a destination, she said. The chamber also distributes 65,000 copies of its visitors guide, which this year will focus on the commercial fishing fleet. These efforts contribute to the both the room and meals taxes that the town collects, while most of the cost is paid by merchants, she said. In 2016, the meals and rooms taxes raised $1.7 million, while the town provided the chamber with $55,000 that year, just 3 percent of the total of the taxes. Based on the first two quarters of the current year, combined room and meals taxes will be even higher this year.
At last week's meeting of the board of selectmen, Cory Metters asked if there was any aspect of the marketing aimed at attracting younger people to town as full-time residents. Franz replied that the idea was not just to attract visitors, but to create an environment that would be seen as attractive for prospective residents, highlighting the schools, low tax rate and other benefits. But she said it's “really a matter of getting people here to begin with.”
“The vast majority of people who wind up living here start out as visitors,” she said.
Selectman Dean Nicastro noted that the finance committee voted to support a branding and promotion campaign two years ago. “This is consistent with that,” he said of the funding request.
Selectman Seth Taylor said while visitors may generate room and meals tax revenue, they also cause the town to spend money on additional services. “It's not an arbitrary assessment of tax that has no service cost,” he said.
It's not just attracting tourists, it's remaining competitive with other Cape towns, said Chamber President Steven Williams. Orleans and Provincetown both contribute more to their respective chamber budgets than Chatham. The chamber's main mission is to promote the town as a destination, “something we want to be able to do more,” he said. The chamber is really the town's marketing arm, he added.
He also suggested that more marketing will help provide more data on the return to the town from visitors. Taylor liked that idea, saying that a town/chamber partnership that produced usable metrics would be “huge.” Having a demonstrable component of their “bang for the buck” was “the best thing I've heard since I woke up this morning,” he said.
The current year's town contribution to the chamber represents 35 percent of its budget, Franz said. The chamber also pays the town $3,000 in rental for use of the Captain Bassett House in South Chatham as its headquarters, but expenses there and at the downtown chamber booth in 2016 amounted to nearly $7,000.
All of the visitor information staff are part-time and work for minimum wage, Franz said. Last year there were 28,047 visitors to the Bassett House and the information booth, down from the previous year and the least since 2009.
Taylor suggested the chamber use volunteers in the town's tax work-off program to help staff the visitors centers, but Franz said she was open to that, but paying the staff, even at minimum wage, ensures they are vested and dependable, as well as having a good knowledge of the town.
Selectmen agreed to include the entire $75,000 request in the budget that will go before voters at the May 8 annual town meeting.