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April 30, 2019

Tourism in CT: 'We need to get in the game'

PHOTO | Contributed - Frank Gilroy 'We are getting beat every day by our neighboring states,' says Stephen Tagliatela, owner of Saybrook Point Inn (pictured), 'because they understand the importance of tourism marketing.'

When tourists visit the New Haven region, they have many fun choices for entertainment, whether it is a day at the beach or art museum, island cruise, or visit to a vineyard or brewery.

And companies that cater to tourists reap the rewards. Statewide, tourism is a $14.7 billion industry, and it generates some 83,000 jobs at tourist destinations, shops and restaurants, according to the state Department of Economic & Community Development’s Office of Tourism.

The question is: Is enough being done to attract tourists and let them know exactly what greater New Haven and Connecticut have to offer?

Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz (D-30) formed a Blue Ribbon Panel on Tourism to study this question last fall. Its conclusion? The state could be doing much more to market itself. If it did, area companies would reap more dollars from more tourists electing to vacation and spend money here.

“The Connecticut tourism sector is strong, but we need to recommit to our investment and retool our marketing efforts to attract more visitors to our beautiful state,” Aresimowicz said.

David Skelly, director of New Haven’s Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, served on the panel, which included tourism industry representatives from around the state.

“It was pretty much clear to everyone that the state went from really investing in tourism to not doing it in a way that makes sense,” Skelly says. “Advertising dollars make a huge difference and help people see what the state has to offer. There are targets we are not reaching.”

Skelly notes how the state’s spending for tourism marketing has declined precipitously in recent years. The annual budget stood at $15 million in 2012, and dropped to $4 million in 2018, as state leaders sought to cut costs.

Stephen Tagliatela, president of the Connecticut Tourism Coalition and managing partner at Saybrook Point Inn, Spa & Marina in Old Saybrook, also served on the panel. Tagliatela says Connecticut needs to do much more to promote tourism. For every dollar spent, the state gets a significant return through tax revenue, he says.

“We are getting beat every day by our neighboring states because they understand the importance of tourism marketing,” Tagliatela says.

In contrast to the $4 million Connecticut spent last year, neighboring states are spending considerably more for tourism marketing. In 2018, New York spent $70 million and Massachusetts spent $10 million, according to a 2018 Office of Tourism Marketing Review. Even tiny Rhode Island spent $5.5 million. The only state in the Northeast to spend less than Connecticut was Vermont, at $3.1 million.

“New Haven is a fabulous place to visit, with a lot to offer, including arts, culture, history, Long Island Sound and beaches,” Tagliatela says.

The New Haven area has plenty of attractions for tourists — such as the Peabody, Long Wharf Theatre and the Shubert, the Knights of Columbus Museum, Hammonasset Beach State Park, Lighthouse Point Park, Sleeping Giant State Park, Thimble Island boat tours, Yale University, museums and galleries, vineyards and breweries.

“The message we have to get out there is that the New Haven area punches above its weight in terms of art and theater,” Skelly says. “There is a lot going on here to attract visitors, and people who visit for one time are blown away. It is a wonderful place, and when we can get people to come here, they will come back.”

Aresimowicz says the New Haven area and shoreline have so much to offer that he believes the area should be marketed as a cruise-ship destination. He plans to reach out to port officials to see if that is feasible.

“I am not opposed to having a couple of cruise ship ports in Connecticut,” Aresimowicz says. “There are a lot of things to draw people here.”

Cruise ship travelers might enjoy spending a day walking around Yale University, visiting museums, eating at local restaurants, and taking day trips — such as to the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat, Aresimowicz says.

A more welcoming place

The Blue Ribbon Panel made several recommendations to the legislature’s Commerce Committee on how to improve the state’s tourism industry.

Opening and staffing welcome centers and easing restrictions on highway signage directing motorists to attractions is key, the panel concluded. The state Department of Transportation operates the state’s rest areas, and DOT personnel currently staff the buildings for a single daily 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift due to a dearth of funding. According to the Office of Tourism, its staffing of welcome centers was eliminated in 2016 due to budget cuts.

“With the welcome centers closed, it is the opposite of a welcome,” Skelly says. “It tells people to keep going. It is very clear we need to get in the game.”

Aresimowicz calls it “counterintuitive” to have a welcome center that is closed. He plans to push to allocate funds so they will be open.

Randy Fiveash, director of the DECD’s Office of Tourism, wants to open and staff all welcome centers immediately.

“We never wanted them to close,” Fiveash said. “We believe there is a serious need for welcome centers to be open. They service the traveler. If we can tell them about everything going on [in Connecticut], we can help extend their stay.”

The panel also noted that statewide marketing alone isn’t effective, and it recommended five regional destination marketing organizations, including one for greater New Haven.

Ginny Kozlowski, executive director of Visit New Haven and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of New Haven, says Visit New Haven serves as a regional marketing organization. It hosts a website ( that spotlights things to do in the New Haven area, along with events, accommodations and dining suggestions for visitors. It also works to market the region through social media.

While currently 10 percent of lodging tax revenue is used to fund tourism-related efforts, the Blue Ribbon Panel suggested increasing this to 25 percent.

According to Kozlowski, given the amount raised by the hotel tax, a higher percentage should go toward the Office of Tourism so it can hire more staff and deploy meaningful marketing dollars.

“It would be helpful for them to work with those [tourism-related] businesses on how to reach their target audience more effectively, and expand beyond what they believe is their target audience,” Kozlowski says. “With the current level of funding and resources I think they are trying to do their best. We are not just competing with our neighboring states, but globally.”

Still Revolutionary?

Finally, the panel suggested replacing the “Still Revolutionary” marketing brand with a new slogan and eye-catching attraction signage.

“From a tourism perspective, ‘Still Revolutionary’ may not be the best,” Skelly says. “Maybe we need to hire people to come up with the next ‘I Love New York.’”

Aresimowicz agrees that “Still Revolutionary” may not be the best slogan when trying to lure vacationers: “I think we can come up with other ideas.”

Fiveash notes that any change will need to be well-researched, and could have substantial costs associated with it.

“We will go back and see what customers think of the whole brand,” he says.

A unique region

The New Haven region has a “great diversity of tourism product,” according to Fiveash.

“New Haven’s location is unique — it’s where Yale is,” Fiveash says. “The nightlife activities, restaurants and events are well-known already. It has a reputation as an interesting and fun place to visit, which is helpful to us as we sell that area.”

In recent years, new breweries have attracted visitors. The New Haven area has the Milford Point Brewery and Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford. Regional events such as the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and the Milford Oyster Festival have been great draws for tourists, Fiveash adds.

Visitors also enjoy wine tasting at area vineyards, including Chamard Vineyards in Clinton, Gouveia Vineyards in Wallingford, Bishop’s Orchards Winery in Guilford, and Jones Family Farms’ winery in Shelton.

Fiveash is “thrilled” to see lawmakers looking at tourism, and his office is advocating for more funding for tourism marketing.

In spite of budget cuts, the state has used various tactics to promote tourism, from social media to billboards, website management, airport displays, and even international travel shows.

Funding for the annual printed Connecticut visitors guide was eliminated this year, according to Fiveash’s office. However, he notes more tourists are planning their vacations online. Visit New Haven provides the region with a printed Visitors and Relocation Guide.

Budget cuts notwithstanding, Fiveash says the office has seen measurable results from its efforts. For example, the state’s tourism website, at, went from less than one million web visitors in 2011 to five million in 2018. The website features more than 4,000 businesses and partners, and it has suggested getaway itineraries and events for those thinking about vacationing here.

The Office of Tourism features a statewide open house, now in its 15th year, to showcase attractions to Connecticut residents. This year, it takes place on June 8, and more than 200 businesses and attractions will be participating.

“All of that is supported by a robust marketing strategy that sells everything that is going on, and the marketing strategy is working,” Fiveash says.

His office works closely with the Greater New Haven Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce to market the region.

Garrett Sheehan, chamber president, says tourism consistently generates generous returns.

A Tourism Economics Study of calendar year 2015 showed travel in Connecticut generated $910 million in state and local taxes, and $778 million in federal taxes.

“Studies show if you invest in tourism, you get a great return on those dollars,” Sheehan says. “We welcome any increase around marketing for tourism.”

Contact Michelle Tuccitto Sullo at

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