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Lloyd Bloodworth said it best: “The tourist business is our greatest industry and brings more cold cash than any other. We are saps if we don’t take advantage of it.”
Bloodworth, publisher of the Ruidoso News, made that statement in 1946, and it’s as true today as it was then.
Because tourism benefits pretty much the entire state, it was curious that when both parties trotted out their jobs packages during the legislative session, neither included tourism. No matter. The rainmakers bestowed an extra $2 million on the Tourism Department, and its secretary is funneling every buck into promotion, where it will get the biggest bang.
Monique Jacobson had four goals when she became Tourism Secretary: Change the way people think about New Mexico, unify and lead the state industry, run the department like a business, and inspire in-state travel.
Notice the second plank, about unifying the industry. Because the Tourism Department played Santa Claus for so long, doling out money here and there, she said, it had contributed to divisiveness. Actually, I think we start with divisiveness. We have a long tradition here of scrapping over small amounts of money, like carp swimming over each other to grab a piece of thrown bread.
With the extra money this year, the carp began splashing in anticipation of their share. Nothing doing, Jacobson said. This money will be used to promote the entire state through the New Mexico True campaign. We need to bring tourists to the state and not bicker over who gets what, she told members of Economic Forum, an organization of business executives.
Jacobson is admirably consistent. Two years ago she told the same group that the Tourism Department would not be all things to all communities. “We have got to stop viewing each other in New Mexico as competitors,” she said in 2011. “We have got to elevate New Mexico as a whole.”
She learned through focus groups the same year that the outside perception of New Mexico is that there’s nothing to do here. The department has pumped its resources into the New Mexico True campaign, and for the last six months, we’ve heard that it’s working. Visitation numbers and jobs are up, and consultants documented a 3-to-1 return on investment.
Well and good, but in 2011, Arizona spent more than twice as much, and for the next fiscal year Arizona and Colorado, which also got bigger budgets, will spend three times more than New Mexico.
“We appreciate the $2 million we got, but we can’t take our foot off the pedal,” Jacobson said.
That’s a different message from 2011, when she said she wouldn’t ask the Legislature for more money until she knew the department was making the best use of the budget it had. “We will never have the money to compete with some states. We will be more creative. Money will not be an excuse.”
Jacobson did, in fact, wring savings from the department and add it to the promotion budget.
Now she’s turned her considerable energies to two more challenges. First is understanding why New Mexico has a lower repeat-visit rate than Arizona and Colorado, “even though we have more to offer.”
Second is improving in-state tourism. Apparently the stay-cation, born during the recession, worked well in surrounding states but not here. A friend said of her recent trip, “I’ve lived here my entire life, and this was the first time I’d seen Carlsbad Caverns.” To that end, the department is publishing The Insiders Guide to New Mexico.
Something Jacobson always does when she speaks is to make every person in the audience an ambassador of tourism.
“What can you do to be New Mexico True? You can travel the state and invite friends and family to visit. You can get creative.”
Yes we can.