Facing cuts that put his organization in survival mode, top tourism leader Billy Dunlap says his group can bank on itself.
Dunlap, who took over as director of Visit York County a little more than a year ago, outlined a plan May 29 for how his group can continue competing to host large events despite one dwindling source of county funds. His proposal would rely heaviest on money from what the visitor bureau does best — putting people in hotels.
“Accommodations tax funding is a true test of how we’re doing,” he told York County Council during a budget hearing. “Putting heads in beds is the way that we grade ourselves.”
His group is about to get far less money from food sold in York County, so Dunlap wants Visit York County to get more money based on hotel stays.
Council is scheduled to give its annual budget final approval June 3.
“We need to grow,” Dunlap said. “We don’t need to just survive. Facing a $600,000 deficit, we’re in survival mode.”
A year and a land sale
This year, Visit York County got $1.16 million from two county tax sources. One source is hospitality tax, charged on prepared food and drink. Restaurants charge customers and pay it to the county (via the state), with funds going to promote tourism. Visit York County got $900,000 this year, or 31% of the hospitality tax revenue that was generated.
Visit York County also got $262,500 (42% of all collected) from accommodations tax. Accommodations tax is a charge on overnight stays. Hotels charge and pay it, as would bed and breakfasts or similar businesses.
The $900,000 in hospitality tax for this year was more than council initially planned to give Visit York County, just weeks after Dunlap arrived. Council gave the higher amount but also said funding changes could come. Then late last year, the county agreed to buy 1,900 acres along the Catawba River near Rock Hill for an outdoor recreation site.
Funding for that site comes largely from hospitality tax revenue. The county plan includes cutting money to the visitor bureau by $300,000 each of the next two years.
“We need stability,” Dunlap said. “That’s the most important thing here. We are recruiting events for 2023 now. We cannot confidently recruit those events until we stabilize our funding.”
The visitor group started a new destination marketing fee program in the past year for hotels. Ten participating hotels had committed to the deal worth $300,000.
“Our plan was to use that to grow (Visit York County),” Dunlap said. “Well, when we found out we were going to get cut $600,000 then we went into survival mode and knew that we had to use that money to get back to where we wanted to be.”
Visit York County gets 85% of its funding from the county. Dunlap would like that rate to continue, but knows it won’t.
Dunlap instead proposes money from the accommodations tax, which still wouldn’t put his group at current county funding but would lessen the impact.
He’s also asking for more than flat allocations.
“The more important part is the percentages,” Dunlap said.
If his group is getting 21% of the food tax money in the coming year and 10% of it the following, Dunlap asks for an increase to 60% of the hotel tax in the coming year and 75% the following. If his organization does what it’s designed to do — put people in hotels and restaurants — Visit York County would see increased funding.
“We have to compete with Columbia and Greenville and Myrtle Beach and Charleston to bring events here,” Dunlap said.
More money coming
Visit York County already has worked to bring in new money.
Dunlap’s department submitted a 2019-20 budget at $1.58 million. That amount includes increased hotel stay tax from Rock Hill, Fort Mill and York. It includes $166,000 in new event expenses.
“That is 33 new partnerships. That is us partnering with existing events to help keep them in York County, and that is us bringing 19 new events to York County next year,” Dunlap said.
Rock Hill, Fort Mill, York, Clover and Tega Cay all committed to money from one or both tax revenue sources, combining for $205,000. There was another $53,000 in sponsorships and $30,000 from a state grant. In all, the coming year budget has $410,000 in new money.
Successes like the YoCo Brew Trail, Battle of the Rock and MLK basketball showcases, a new mobile visitor center and the Road Trip York County YouTube series all came in the past year. Visit York County landed state and national tourism awards.
Dunlap’s group had a hand in introducing a writer to York, ahead of the city being named a top small town cultural scene in the country by a national newspaper.
“That is something they can tout year-round,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap said his group’s economic impact of $37 million this year is twice what it was last year.
“I think we’ve proven ourselves,” he said. “We’ve taken this organization places that it hasn’t been before, on the state level and on the national level.”
Dunlap reached out to other visitor bureau directors to see how they’re funded. Coastal bureaus, he said, work on budgets of up to $40 million. Greenville budgets $7.8 million and Columbia $4.7 million.
Visit York County is well below those at less than $1.6 million.
The communities also vary in how they get to those amounts, Dunlap said.
Columbia puts 85% of its budgeted hotel stay tax to its visitor bureau, plus all additional money from that tax beyond the projection. Spartanburg gets 52% of the hotel stay tax and 30% of the food tax. Greenwood gets all the local and 30% of the state hotel stay tax in that area.
The York County request would have 39% of its budget coming from the food and drink tax, another 36% from the hotel stay tax.
Big and bigger business
With all the dollar figures and percentages on the table during what Dunlap sees as a critical budget cycle, there’s one variable that could wipe them all away. And it’s getting closer.
“Tourism is big business in York County,” Dunlap said. “The Panthers coming to Rock Hill will change the tourism landscape of this region.”
For months there have been discussions about the Carolina Panthers moving their practice facilities to a site in Rock Hill. State legislators passed a bill helping that move with economic incentives. Gov. Henry McMaster will be in Rock Hill Wednesday to sign the bill at a pep rally.
“Those numbers that I presented to you?” Dunlap told Council. “When the Panthers come, double them. I’ve been to Frisco, Texas. I’ve seen what the (Dallas) Cowboys have done. I’ve seen the development that surrounds that facility. Rock Hill has never seen anything like it. York County has never seen anything like it.”
Discussed improvements surrounding a Panthers site include everything from a medical center to hotels, businesses, restaurants, and light rail.
“When we’re talking about significant tourism,” Dunlap said, “the Panthers change everything.”