Tourism group asks Bellone for a bigger chunk of marketing dollars

Steve Bellone

Members of the East End Tourism Alliance asked County Executive Steve Bellone to increase the amount of tourism funding they get through an existing 3-percent county room occupancy tax at a meeting in Riverhead Tuesday.

Currently, the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, a tourism promotion agency under contract with the county, gets 24 percent of the amount raised by the tax, or $2 million, whichever is lower, according to Bryan DeLuca, the president and co-founder of East End Tourism Alliance, as well as the executive director of the company that owns Long Island Aquarium and Hyatt Place East End in Riverhead.

Last year, the tax raised $9.1 million, of which the LICVB received $2 million.

“Two million dollars is not much money to market Long Island,” he said.

As for the rest of the money, according to county law:

• 10 percent of the revenue is used to support cultural programs and activities relevant to the tourism industry.

• 10 percent is used to support the Vanderbilt Museum;

• 8 percent is used to support other museums and historical societies, such as the Walt Whitman Birthplace site;

• 20 percent goes to care and maintenance of historic structures.

• The rest, just under 30 percent, goes into the county’s general fund.

“We’d like to see the $2 million cap lifted,” Mr. DeLuca said. “The thing that has become point of contention and frustration for us on the East End is that we have 18,000 rooms and a $2.9 million marketing budget in one of the most expensive media markets in the world.”

By comparison, other areas with a room occupancy tax devote much higher percentages to marketing, such as Lake Placid, where 95 percent is used for tourism funding; Buffalo, which uses 32 percent and Rochester which retains 36 percent of its room occupancy tax for tourism and marketing, he said.

Those areas have higher marketing budgets than Suffolk and nowhere near the number of hotel and motel rooms, he added. 

Mr. DeLuca said 30 percent of his guests come from foreign countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada. With more advertising dollars, he would bring even more tourists here, he said.

Janine Nebons of Tanger Outlets said between 50 and 60 percent of their business comes from international tourists, who spend far more money that local customers or day trippers.

In addition to eliminating the $2 million cap, the East End Tourist Alliance would like to see a higher percent of the room occupancy tax come back to the LICVB.

The EETA also told Mr. Bellone they want to see the county change the way it funds “special interests” like the Vanderbilt museum and the Walt Whitman birth site. More money should be diverted to pay for transportation on the East End, the group said.

“We could really do stuff with the Long Island Rail Road if it had better service,” said Abigail Field of the North Fork Promotion Council. “Even if it was just a shuttle.”

“The LIRR is not going to do anything on its own,” Mr. Bellone replied. He said the county has been working with some of the top transportation firms in the world and hopes to make McArthur Airport in Islip into an international airport.

Mr. DeLuca said he’s also been researching the possibility of creating a Tourism Improvement District, in which the East End could create its own tax on hotel and motel rooms to generate tourism funds.

But that would require state legislation to take effect, he said.

“I agree with so much of what you saying but there’s a lot of different legislators with different ideas,” Mr. Bellone told the group. “I will be an advocate on many of these issues.”

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Photo: Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, left, and Riverhead Tanger Outlets general manager Janine Nebons at Tuesday’s meeting. (Credit: Tim Gannon)