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Consortium’s $750,000 Tour de Force

I checked out one of the newest Web sites on the Internet this week promoting a Shangri-La type vacation spot. Its theme is supposed to appeal to your senses: Smell the ocean breeze, hear the water splash, see an unforgettable sunset. Find yourself in a perfect world.

You wouldn’t have to go far for this one: It’s our own backyard.

Orange County’s tourism groups, joined together as the Visitor Marketing Consortium, are about to take on their most ambitious advertising campaign yet to lure visitors to our turf. If it’s successful, it will owe a huge thanks to county government, which is footing the $750,000 tab.

That’s a lot of money, no question. On the other hand, consortium figures show that San Francisco will spend $1.7 million this year on publicly funded tourist advertising campaigns. San Diego will spend $2.3 million, and Orlando, Fla., almost double that. And what city knows better that you have to spend money to make money than Las Vegas? Its annual publicly funded tourist advertising campaign this year hit $27 million.

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Compare that with what had been the Orange County consortium’s advertising budget of $350,000.

A few members of the public who showed up at the Board of Supervisors meeting this week criticized spending public funds to promote the county’s tourist spots. Let Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm pay their own way, one woman told the board.

But this was one issue where the supervisors were unanimous. Most spoke enthusiastically that what the consortium wanted was a small price to pay for the trade-off.

“Tourism is what made this county,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

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Charles Ahlers, director of the Anaheim/Orange County Convention Center, representing the consortium, made some compelling arguments:

About 38 million visitors per year translates to $5.6 billion in spending in the county. And that’s not just money to the hotel and entertainment industry. Tourists hit the restaurants, get their hair cut, pick up their dry-cleaning. In other words, they spend their bucks for daily living while they’re here about like the rest of us.

The key, Ahlers said, is to try to reach beyond our 38 million standard. “Every 1 percent increase in the number of visitors means 1,500 new jobs,” Ahlers told the board.

That was thrown in to make sure he was talking the supervisors’ language. Job growth has a nice ring to it at election time.

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But truth is, for now, we’re not really talking about the percentage going up. Things aren’t going that well in the tourism industry. The Asian markets are down, reducing vacation dollars for families there who often hit Southern California.

And besides that, all the construction for Disneyland expansion has cut into the hotel and convention business there. I happen to live in that area. It looks like a city under siege by bulldozers.

“If we could just hold our own this year, we’d be delighted,” Ahlers said later. “But we believe our advertising campaign will mean new growth in future years.”

Principal targets of the campaign will be Northern California and the Southwest, with advertising heavy in the San Francisco Bay Area and Phoenix. Half the money will be spent the rest of this year, half next year.

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The consortium will promote the new Web site (https://www.go-orange.com/) and its new toll-free number (1-877 GO ORANGE). There’s also a slick new brochure called “Experience Orange County from ‘A’ to Sea.” The brochure then promotes an “A to Z” list of Orange County sites.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see if all this effort pays off. But one nice thing is seeing the tourism groups work together. The consortium is made up of the Convention Center, the Buena Park Convention and Visitors Office, county government, the Huntington Beach Conference & Visitor Bureau, the Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau, the Newport Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau, and the Orange County Tourism Council.

“The regional approach is the best, we all agree,” Ahlers said.

The county has kicked in small amounts in the past for such advertising campaigns, Ahlers said, but nothing this ambitious.

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“The county was set to help us out just before the bankruptcy (at the end of 1994), but of course that ended that,” he said. “For our 31 cities to compete individually with San Francisco or Las Vegas, we wouldn’t stand a chance.”

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling The Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823, by fax at (714) 966-7711 or by e-mail at jerry.hicks@latimes.com.


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