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Laurelle Pacey - 14 April 2015

Laurelle Pacey made the following comments in the Public Access Session at the Ordinary Council Meeting on 14 April 2015.

Councillors, you are on the brink of making what could prove to be the most backward and disastrous decision of your whole career in local government.

For Council to bail out of managing and staffing the shire's two visitors' centres could seriously undermine the shire's major industry of tourism, currently worth $338 million to the shire. (Destination NSW figure - four year annual average YE September 2014). This could seriously erode the shire's rate base and increase unemployment.

I am not alone in stating that the report before you from March does not provide you with sufficient and accurate information to take that gamble. Noone would dispute Visitor Information Centres everywhere are operating in a changing environment and need to adapt to the more digital economy. BUT the role of centres is changing, not ending as the report to you might suggest.

Numerous recent studies around Australia have explored the value of VICs and the ways they can adapt to the more digital worlds. But nowhere across Australia are there any moves, particularly in multi-award winning regional destinations like ours, for local government to pull out of operating and staffing visitors centres.

Nationally recognised tourism guru John Larkin of Aurora Research and Development, who is in charge of accreditation of NSW Visitor Information Centres, is scratching his head. He says, 'I just don't get what Eurobodalla is doing...' He stresses VICs are vital components of best practice destination management. Some of the models being suggested to you, such as mobile or temporary visitor centres, are usually considered additions to VICs, not replacements. To quote Larkin again, 'People want local knowledge and the inspiration they get from centres' professionally trained and independent staff once they get to their destination. That's on top of the work staff do for visitors before their visit, including taking calls, developing local product and the stores that go with Eurobodalla's unique products.'

Larkin says Accredit Visitor Information Centres continue to be vital shop fronts for a region and for delivering Destination NSW's major objective of doubling overnight visitor expenditure by 2020.

There are glaring holes in the report to Council, including no attempt at evaluating the economic value of VICs to the industry. Such a study should have been part of this review. Contrary to your report's claim and claims made last Tuesday night at Narooma, recent research in several states including NSW shows conclusively that VICs DO have a major influence on decision making once people get to their destinations and give the shire a compelling return on investment.

Aurora's study in northern NSW for example found that as a result of visiting a Visitors Centre:

- 22% of visitors to VICs stayed an extra night to what they intended

- 21% did an additional activity

- and 59% visited additional attractions.

surprisingly in Eurobodalla, no attempt has been made to determine this added value to the shire's economy from VICs. Such a study should have been part of the report.

BUT if we marry Aurora's and Destination NSW's research with Council's now revised door count figures of 91,620 people using our two VICs in 2012-2013, admitting the old door counters pre January 2015 were 'dodgy,' we can get some idea* (*email from Catherin Reilly 13 April 2015)

(That's now 8.2% of estimated visitors in 2012-2013, using Tourism Research Australia estimate for 2013, up from 5% in the March report to Council. We are still waiting on the 2013-2014 figures which should start to reflect a lift from lower Australian dollar!)...

[Combining Aurora figures with Council's latest revised estimates of visitor numbers to Eurobodalla's two VIC, This means in Eurobodalla...

- 20,156 visitors spent an extra night x $123 average spend = $2.48m

- 19,240 spent on additional activities x $40 average = $769,608

- 54,056 visited additional attractions x $25 average = $1.35m

So extrapolating the total extra visitor spend, over and above what they intended to spend on accommodation and tours as a result of visiting Eurobodalla's Accredited Information Centres would be about $4.6m. If we use Destination NSW figured, the figure is even higher.]

The EXTRA visitor spend in the Eurobodalla that comes from face-to-face talking with informed and enthusiastic staff at Eurobodalla's two Visitor information Centres could be in the region of between $4.6m (Aurora's figures) and $6m (Destination NSW figures). That's over and above what visitors intended to spend on accommodation or tours already booked or intended to make with the Centre or on their smart phone or ipad, or from their previous phone call to the Centre.

That's rather an impressive ANNUAL return on Council's investment of between 660 and 1000%. Are you as councillors prepared to sacrifice that?

AND nowhere in the report is there any attempt to measure the potential impact on the shire's economy should the visitors centres have to close altogether.

On volunteers versus paid professional staff - Larkin says volunteers led by professional staff can successfully deliver visitor servicing across NSW> BUT Council needs to continually train, develop their skills and manage them to ensure visitors has the best experience possible. We want them to return. That costing is not apparent in the report.

Now to focus on Narooma, I detail some more of the report's other deficiencies:

1. Incomplete information about phone calls - only Narooma's poorly advertised 1800 number which amounts to five calls a day which is a nonsense. The landline takes the bulk. My observation suggests in Narooma it's more like 10 an hour - even up to 20-30 an hour in peak periods...that translates to more like 60,000 to 100,000 phone calls a year.

2. All door count figures 2009-2013 are from the period where we saw a decline in domestic tourism , largely from the increased value of the Australian dollar and therefore overseas holidays becoming more attractive. There was a drop in the initial year and then it plateaued. Even graphing the old figures against Destination NSW visitor figures for Eurobodalla for the same period, it shows an increasing proportion of visitors used Eurobodalla VICs.

3. There has been NO open dialogue with Narooma businesses, including Eurobodalla Tourism members, nor with the wider community about any perceived problems with the operation of VICs. If Council was concerned about the future of our Visitor Information Centres, why has there been no attempt to discuss how to improve improving their viability with the local industry or the community.

4. If volunteers - Council will need to train and manage on an ongoing basis - at what cost? Threat to accreditation?

One question to councillors - Council has already started dismantling the revenue stream to VICs, and cut off every opportunity to increase income. This obviously a follow on from councillors' decision to bail out of managing and operating VICs themselves. However, I have been unable to find any record of Council having made that decision - so would someone please enlighten me as to when exactly that was/

I urge councillors to:

1. Hold off making any decision about changing the current model for 12 months until you get more complete and accurate information to consider, including a cost-benefit analysis.

2. Meanwhile invite John Larkin of Aurora Research to talk with you, the Tourism Board and the local tourism industry and interested community members to explain how Visitor Information Centres and the digital economy can build on each other, and the continued role of local government.

3. Have the long overdue face-to-face and open discussion with industry and the community about how to both increase people through the door and if you are still concerned, the financial viability of VICs.

4. Seriously consider increasing your tourism spend for marketing.

Thank you,

Laurelle Pacey.