Large city tourism slacking, small town increasing
As published in The Daily Mississippian on November 12, 2014.
Oxford tourists are not shy to pull out their pocketbooks. Tourism revenue is skyrocketing in the college town, but larger U.S. cities are watching total visitor spending stall.
Across the nation, small town tourism is on the rise. Oxford is one of the many small towns in the U.S. seeing rapid growth in number of visitors, visitor spending and tourism tax revenue annually.
“(Tourism) has constantly increased each year,” Visit Oxford Director Mary Allyn Hedges said.
“With all the new infrastructure and the four new hotels breaking ground this year, it just goes to show the need and demand for all of our visitors is huge, especially those that come to Oxford for the university and literary and culinary reasons.”
Oxford collected $2,138,144 from the food and beverage tax last fiscal year, marking the first time the tax reached the $2 million mark. In addition, the city’s hotel/motel tax revenue increased 6 percent from the previous year. Total visitor spending reached a record $113.7 million, an 8 percent increase from the previous year, according to Visit Oxford. New York City only saw a 5 percent increase in total visitor spending, according to NYC & Company.
The number of total visitors to New York City is increasing, with a projected 55.8 million visitors traveling there this year. The city has seen a 15 percent increase in visitors since 2008, according to the city’s official marketing, tourism and partnership organization, NYC & Company. How much money these tourists are spending, however, is not increasing as rapidly.
In 2010, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg set a target of $70 billion in economic impact based on tourism annually, according to a July 2014 report by The New York Times. NYC & Company has projected tourism’s economic impact will reach $61.1 billion by the end of the year, still $9 billion shy of Bloomberg’s 2015 goal.
Tourism economic impact is also slowing in Chicago and Los Angeles. Both cities saw only slight increases in lodging occupancy last year. Chicago recorded overnight leisure occupancy increased 3.8 percent in 2013, compared to the 10.2 percent increase in 2012, according to Choose Chicago. Overnight business occupancy had no change. In Los Angeles, total lodging occupancy increased only 2.2 percent in 2013 compared to the 4 percent increase in 2012, according to Discover Los Angeles.
Where are all the tourists going? They’re hitting the road. A recent study by the Center for Rural Affairs showed that small towns and rural communities are seeing economic growth by “being exactly who they are.”
The past five years have seen travelers losing interest in the “cookie cutter restaurants, lodging and attractions” of large cities, and visitors are craving “local food, local attractions and connections to the lifestyles of local people” in smaller communities, according to the report.
“A lot of the visitors we see coming to Oxford are doing a road trip through the South,” Hedges said. “It’s so expensive to fly now for a family of four. They’re just saying ‘Let’s load up the car and hit the road.’”
In 2013, Oxford was dubbed No. 2 in the Top 10 Best Small Towns report by Livability.com. Oxford fell between Dickinson, North Dakota, at No. 1 and Rock Springs, Wyoming, at No. 3. Like Oxford, both towns are seeing a similar growth in tourism.
Dickinson, North Dakota, has seen its tourism economy rise and fall over the years. The town is a major hub for the oil and energy industry, and the 2009 oil boom has made it one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., according to Visit Dickinson. For several years following the oil boom, the town’s lodging occupancy increased dramatically.
“Previously, long-term contracts with energy and oil companies kept our hotels full, but that number dipped last year. We’re now seeing higher numbers of tourists. Leisure travel is back,” said Terry Thiel, executive director of the Dickinson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The town reported 70.3 percent lodging occupancy in September 2014, an 8.7 percent increase year-to-date. Like Oxford, Dickinson is seeing larger numbers of families hitting the highway rather than boarding a plane for the big city, according to Thiel.
“We’ve seen an increase of traffic on the Old Red Old Ten Scenic Byway,” Thiel said. “People are getting off the Interstate and into our towns.”
Dickinson is also the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which encourages visitors to stop by while on the road.
Rock Springs, Wyoming, is also seeing substantial growth in tourism. In February 2014, the town’s lodging tax was up 11 percent year-to-date, according to the Sweetwater County Joint Tourism and Travel Board. In addition, Rock Springs recorded 85.5 percent average lodging occupancy in 2013, an almost 5 percent increase from 2012. Total visitor spending reaches approximately $183 million each year.
“A lot of our tourism has to do with our marketing campaign,” administrative assistant Carol Volsey said. “We do a lot of advertising, and it makes people want to do more things locally.”
Oxford has poured more funding into its advertising budget, as well. On Sept. 30, Visit Oxford announced an additional $30,000 will be geared toward advertising in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, raising the total advertising budget to $90,000.
“We focus our advertising within our five-hour drive market,” Hedges said.
Through print and leisure magazines, a large digital advertising push, social media and Pandora radio advertisements, Visit Oxford attempts to reach potential tourists from Birmingham, Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis and various cities in Texas.
“There’s so many Ole Miss students coming from Texas now,” Hedges said. “We thought that would be a nice market to test out.”
Oxford and other small towns offer charm, affordability and an experience that large cities cannot, Hedges said.
“Oxford’s affordable for a family,” Hedges said. “There’s plenty to do. We have a wide range of dining options and hotels, so people can kind of pick their price point.”
However, there are drawbacks to the family road-tripping trend small towns are noticing.
“(Families) are hitting a lot of different southern towns in one vacation,” Hedges said. “The downfall is that maybe they won’t stay in Oxford for long. They’ll move on to the next city. But that just generates more travel to other small towns. Even if it’s only one night in Oxford, it’s still beneficial.”