Taken for a ride: Iowa taxpayers send tourism officials on a bus tour and get questionable numbers in return

Posted: May 15, 2014 11:35 AM
Taken for a ride: Iowa taxpayers send tourism officials on a bus tour and get questionable numbers in return

By Paul Brennan | Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa taxpayers just spent $29,000 to send state tourism officials on a nine-day bus tour of the state, all in the name of promoting tourism.

The Epic Iowa Road Trip, which concluded on Saturday, was a collaboration between Travel Iowa, the state’s tourism office, and the Eastern Iowa Tourism Association, the Central Iowa Tourism Region and the Western Iowa Tourism Region.

Riding in a custom-decorated bus, tourism officials accompanied by videographers visited 33 counties and made more than 60 stops at local attractions and businesses.

“The goal was to showcase places in Iowa for Iowans to travel this summer,” Jessica O’Riley, communications manager for Travel Iowa, told Iowa Watchdog. “We were met by local media at some of the stops and shared photos and the videos shot on the trip through social media to broaden our reach.”

The Epic Iowa Road Trip differed from the standard bus tour used to promote tourism, according to an economist who specializes in tourism and travel issues.

TAKEN FOR A RIDE: Taxpayers spent $29,000 on the questionable choice of sending tourism official on a tour of the state on a customized bus. Equally questionable, it turns out, are the figures those officials cites to show tourism impact on the state.

“Usually when you stage a bus tour to promote tourist spots, you fill the bus with members of the media and take them on the tour. That’s considered the most effective approach,” said Steve Morse, director of the Hospitality and Tourism Program at Western Carolina University.

“A tour by tourism officials is typically less about getting visitors to a spot, than it is about making locals feel the state is taking an interest in them,” Morse told Iowa Watchdog. “It’s a way for officials to show that they are doing something.”

But according to O’Riley, who was on the trip, all involved felt the trip was a success.

“We were very pleased with it,” she said.

She also said the money spent to customize the bus with a wrap promoting Iowa tourism was well spent.

“It acted as a rolling billboard. I recall seeing a lot of people pay attention to it as the bus rolled through.”

Whether the bus tour will have the desired effect of boosting tourism is impossible to say. There’s no actual metric to measure the tour’s impact. Just as there’s no as no actual measurement of the impact of tourism, as most people understand the term, in the state.

Travel Iowa says “tourism in Iowa generates more than $7.6 billion in expenditures.” Most people reading that will interpret tourism as the dictionary does: “traveling to a place for pleasure.”

The state’s definition is different.

“We count anyone driving 50 miles in one direction or staying overnight as tourists,”  O’Riley said.

The figure of $7.6 billion comes from an annual report prepared for the state by the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group representing travel-related businesses and state tourism bureaus.

The USTA uses the same criteria as the state to determine who should be included in its figures.

“The U.S. Travel Association model is widely used and by using it we can more easily track changes year by year,” O’Riley said.

Morse agrees that the USTA model is a widely used standard, but adds a note of caution about simply presenting it as a measure of what most people consider tourism, because it can dramatically inflate the numbers.

“It varies by location, but up to 40 percent of the figure cited can be business travel — salesmen on the road, long-distance truckers hauling goods and others traveling on business — rather than people traveling for leisure,” he said.

“That’s why I always use the term ‘travel’ instead of ‘tourism’ when I present figures,” Morse said. “So I can be clear and prevent confusion.”

Contact Paul Brennan at pbrennan@watchdog.org