Tourism revenue on Block for the summer of 2020: “Amazing.’

Thu, 12/17/2020 - 6:00pm
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Despite dire predictions last spring, Block Island Tourism Director Jessica Willi called the results of the tourism season on the island: “A little bit amazing.” The R.I. Department of Revenue has just released its report on collections of hotel taxes and meals and beverage taxes, and on Dec. 16, Willi got the members of the council up to speed at their monthly meeting.

If one had the impression that September was busier on the island than ever, one would be right. The local one percent hotel taxes collected for September, which include rental homes, was actually 54.5 percent higher in 2020 than in 2019, at $39,475.

The year-to-date numbers — July through September — tell a slightly different story, with an overall decrease in hotel tax revenues of 16.8 percent. This was much better than expected and Block Island was the outlier in the state. Newport saw a decrease of 20.4 percent, and the state as a total was down 30.5 percent.

In other news from upstate, Willi said that the general budget had just been passed and there were no changes to the formula that determines just how much of those collected taxes the town and the Tourism Council will receive for the remainder of the fiscal year. “There were no changes to anything that would change our distribution,” said Willi. “It will be status quo for the next six months.”

In anticipation of lost revenues, the council’s budget for the year was shrunk, but based on the actual numbers, discussions have been underway to revise the budget. Before the latest revision, anticipated revenues from hotel tax flowing through to the council were estimated at about $130,000. Under the revised budget, they go back up to $260,000.

Most of the increase will go towards promotion and the revised budget bumps that number up from $111,000 to $166,000.

Members of the Tourism Council were, for the most part, comfortable with the revised budget, especially with the assurance from Willi that if things changed, further revisions could be made. The revised budget was voted on and adopted for the remaining fiscal year.

“We’re lucky we had the summer we had,” said Treasurer Julie Fuller.

Turning to new business, the members had an extensive discussion on the topic of listing fees for businesses on the council’s website. Currently there is no fee for Block Island businesses to have a basic listing on the sight. An “expanded listing” includes a picture and website link, and a “premiere listing” includes a larger picture and priority placing.

Member Steven Filippi, who had asked that the item be placed on the agenda, called for expanded listings to be made available to all Block Island business for free, instead of the annual charge of $150. This, he said “would level the playing field,” and help small businesses.

Such revenues amount to approximately $15,000 per year – enough to cover the cost of maintaining the website. Filippi thought by providing expanded services for free and increasing business on Block Island “we could get back more.”

For comparison purposes, Willi had reached out to other tourism councils in the state and found that they charged from $120 to $150 per month for an expanded listing.

Member Zena Clark said of the $150 annual charge: “I think it’s very reasonable for what you’re getting. I think it’s a good value, but I’m willing to compromise.” Slightly later she suggested simply including a link to a business’s website for free. “No one picks up a phone and makes a call” anymore.

“A website is a huge revenue maker,” said Filippi. “You’ve got to treat everyone the same – give them a fair shot.”

Member John Cullen said that these days, “Everyone has to have a website.” For those that don’t, the Department of Revenue has a program for helping people set them up for free, he said.

The agenda item was for discussion purposes only and will be placed on the upcoming meeting’s agenda for further exploration, and possibly, action.