In the Omaha area and Nebraska as a whole, our leaders need to grab hold of a crucial fact about tourism.
Tourism isn't a mere nicety. It's a significant and growing part of Nebraska's economy. And that means our communities and the state have a big obligation to step up our game.
Last year, more than 11 million visitors came to the Omaha area, and for the first time tourism spending topped $1 billion here — a genuine milestone. That's the result of hard work in building strong attractions and events and promoting them energetically.
Tourism supports 16,200 jobs in the Omaha area and generates $132 million in state and local government revenues.
Statewide, tourism is a $3.7 billion industry supporting 43,900 jobs and generating $582 million in annual tax revenues.
Future success on the tourism front isn't going to happen on its own, though. We need to be proactive, building on our successes and tackling the challenges. After all, our regional competitors have frequently been more aggressive and better-funded.
The good news is that Omaha and Nebraska have been taking positive steps. A standout effort in Omaha is the way that seven local attractions — the Henry Doorly Zoo, the Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens, the Joslyn Art Museum, Village Pointe, the Omaha Children's Museum and the Amazing Pizza Machine — have come together to jointly market themselves under the coordination of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, an effort now in its fifth year.
“All these business interests have come together as one marketing team,” says Dana Markel, executive director of the bureau. “We're pulling it all together for one cohesive message.”
The bureau is doing impressive work in carrying out regional marketing, honing social media techniques to spread the word and gathering detailed numbers on the tourist demographic. The bureau benefits, too, from having a capable advisory board.
Question marks remain on some Omaha-area tourism issues, though. Of the many issues on the Omaha city government's agenda, it seems tourism promotion rarely gets mentioned as a top-shelf issue. That needs to change.
A key example: The Omaha and Douglas County governments have long been in discussion about how to fund and support the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. Strengthening the bureau's marketing ability in the competition with other regional cities needs to be a key goal.
This isn't a trivial matter. How this issue is resolved can have a huge effect on Omaha's future success, or lack of it, in maximizing its tourism opportunities.
On the state front, Nebraska last year rightly began to put more emphasis on tourism promotion by making the state tourism commission an independent agency. Kathy McKillip, the commission's executive director, notes various steps underway.
>> Three tours so far of Nebraska by travel writers with national publications.
>> New grant projects aimed to help Nebraska communities compete for national events.
>> Partnerships with the state Game and Parks Commission and Nebraska public television — one example is their joint sponsoring of a helicopter photography project a British firm, Skyworks, just completed across Nebraska. Segments of the Nebraska video are at this YouTube site.
One of the state tourism commission's most important tasks will be to set up best-practices guidelines for how county governments distribute tourism promotion dollars generated by lodging taxes. The funds are given to local attractions and events.
A 95-page consultant's report last year looked at a wide range of Nebraska tourism issues. It provided a needed warning on how the lodging-tax funds are being distributed in some instances.
“In some cases, funds are spent on projects that may not have a direct bearing on supporting and growing the visitor industry,” the consultants wrote. “Allocating these funds in a strategic manner designed to truly enhance the visitor industry product and impact should be a paramount goal.” Indeed.
In 2010, these promotional funds totaled $13.9 million statewide. In Douglas County, they totaled $5.1 million.
Omaha and Nebraska are seeing success on the tourism front, but more needs to be done. This is the right time to step it up.