To start to address concerns with the lack of tourism industry representation on its board, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau will add public comment, start inviting industry representatives to speak at its meetings and will ask elected officials to consider modifying the makeup of the existing board.
Industry representation on the board has been an ongoing concern since a revamp of the CACVB and its board that added elected officials in 2018.
After its April meeting — where board members heard about concerns from tourism industry members — the board is looking at ways to better connect with the industry within its current operating agreement, as well as potential changes to the agreement in the future.
Heather Hill, a Charlottesville city councilor who also is on the CACVB board, and Chris Eure, executive director of the Paramount Theater and the arts community representative on the board, collected feedback from board members on the issues.
Some of the concerns were around wanting to have better working relationships with those in the tourism industry, that investment in the CACVB is lacking and that some board members are hesitant to disagree with elected officials.
“There’s a perspective that the industry has the boots on the ground and can really help us to inform decision-making in real time,” Hill said at the CACVB board’s meeting Monday. “And so as we’ve talked about the last meeting and I think what we’ll be touching on later, what are some structures for communication that will allow that to inform the board in the future?”
One suggestion was to create a CACVB board subcommittee that would plan and work to select people in the tourism industry to present to the board about what is happening in their sector.
“Every board meeting, there would be a 15-minute slot that would be filled with an industry representative or some group that would be asked in advance to come and make a presentation to the board,” said Chris Engel, the city’s director of economic development, who also serves on the board. “This was our attempt to try and address the issue of additional engagement without any additional change to the current operating agreement.”
After some discussion about whether that committee would be subject to open meeting requirements, and thus tourism individuals still not feeling that they could comfortably weigh in, it was decided that bureau Executive Director Courtney Cacatian would work to bring a regular schedule of sector presenters to meetings.
Sector suggestions included accommodations, dining, attractions, agritourism, arts and culture, outdoor/recreation and weddings.
Another suggestion was to cut two of the four city and county staff seats, likely the city manager and county executive, and cut two of the four elected official seats and replace those four seats with industry representatives.
Of the 15-member CACVB board, eight represent local governments and four of those are elected officials. Monticello, the University of Virginia, the area’s Chamber of Commerce and four direct tourism industry reps round out the board. An advisory board initially was included in the agreement that governs the CACVB, but it was removed in early 2019.
George Hodson, the Albemarle tourism representative on the board, who works with Veritas Vineyard & Winery, said he thinks the tourism industry is underrepresented on the board and that the organization is underfunded.
“With as many elected officials on here, I feel a little bit like a guest sometimes because you guys are so well versed in the procedures and rules and regulations that govern such activity as this,” he said. “If you came to a wine meeting and if you came to my world, I think you would tend to feel the same way as an elected official.”
Charlottesville City Manager Chip Boyles said the boardcould be one where there is not an “urgent need” to have the city manager on it.
“Very similar to some of our other boards, the [Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development] being one where … Chris [Engel] serves on that for the city and he just keeps me abreast of what’s happening on the board so that we’re not overstaffing that with our personnel,” he said.
Ann H. Mallek, a county supervisor who is also on the board, questioned conflict of interest in having industry representatives give input on financial decisions that could affect their businesses.
“It is a tricky situation to have people who run a hotel or do any business really who are making fiduciary decisions that are going to directly benefit their pocketbook, and I may be imagining something that doesn’t really exist but I would sure like some guidance about that,” she said.
Hodson said key performance indicators and specific goals can help.
“It’s the rising tide — my goal to bring more wine tours puts more people in beds, which puts more people into restaurants and in hotels and doing all the things that this board is designed to do,” he said. “That’s why industry representation is going to work because we’re going to move towards hitting the goals, and if we have that common point of those key performance indicators, then we’re at least all moving in the correct direction, which is then guided by a larger board.”
Susan Baumgartner, a senior assistant county attorney for Albemarle, said that any direct benefit to a board member is going to be a conflict of interest, “but the rising tide, not so much.”
“Having a potential conflict of interest certainly doesn’t prevent anyone from serving on the board; it just may require them to abstain from certain decisions and recuse themselves from certain discussions and votes,” she said.
The County Board of Supervisors and the City Council would have to approve any changes to the CACVB agreement.
“I can speak with our entire [Board of Supervisors], and then we’d be prepared to come back at a later date and talk about our entire board’s discussion,” County Executive Jeff Richardson said.
Boyles said he will bring up the issue with the City Council.
The CACVB board agreed to add public comment to its agendas going forward. Engel said that could be used for tourism industry members to speak about timely or urgent issues and needs.
In terms of more funding for the CACVB, Cacatian said the bureau is going to see its budget decrease as of July 1 by about 20% and by at least 50% the following year. Funding for the bureau comes from a portion of the city and county’s transient occupancy tax, which is levied on hotel and short-term rental guests
“It’s hard to plan and keep competitive when we know that that budget is going to continue to shrink,” Cacatian said. “My immediate concern is maintaining our budget levels where we are right now. But down the road, it depends on what we want to accomplish as a board.”
Albemarle’s economic development director, Roger Johnson, who serves as the CACVB board chairman, said that he previously had questioned the return on investment after the prior interim director suggested that the localities increase funding, but he did not receive an answer.
“So if you’re going to need additional funding, at least for one member of this board, I’d like to understand what the ROI on that investment is and how that money would be utilized to better improve our tourism sector, and not just adding additional money without understanding those outcomes,” he said.