Bob Shallit

Sacramento firm helps promote tourism worldwide

John Lambeth of Sacramento has become a top authority on creating tourism improvement districts
John Lambeth of Sacramento has become a top authority on creating tourism improvement districts Civitas Advisors

A tourism promotion technique with roots in Sacramento is quickly spreading across the country – and catching on internationally, as well.

We’re talking about “tourism improvement districts,” which allow hotels to tax themselves to fund marketing campaigns and civic improvements aimed at luring new visitors.

They’re old hat here; six local communities, including the city and county of Sacramento, have TIDs. And there are 96 such districts statewide.

But John Lambeth, the Sacramento consultant responsible for setting up most of the TIDs in California, reports such districts are expanding “exponentially” in other states, with his firm, Civitas, at the center of most of the growth.

Florida, the No. 2 tourism destination behind California, is one of the more promising spots for Civitas, Lambeth reports.

Tampa is set to start up a TID in coming months, with several other cities in the state also interested in creating districts.

“It could go really fast there because they have such an appreciation of travel,” Lambeth said.

Big growth also is projected in Texas, where a TID has been established in Dallas with Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Arlington poised to follow. Similarly, several districts are being contemplated in New York state, said Lambeth, whose 12-employee firm now has revenue of almost $2 million.

Nationwide, 154 districts have been formed, Lambeth said, and Civitas has been involved in 83 of them.

Other countries also are getting into the act. Civitas helped set up the first overseas TID, in Inverness, Scotland, in 2014, and other cities are beginning the process to start programs in that country.

Several cities in England also are working on programs, Lambeth said.

For Civitas, the first task when helping establish a TID is to convince local hotel operators that they can benefit by paying an assessment for tourism promotion.

In the Tourism Improvement District space, there’s really no one else. We’re the dominant firm.

John Lambeth, president, Civitas

One message is that municipal funding for such efforts is unpredictable and that companies in the tourism field need a stable, dedicated source of marketing dollars.

Another is that money spent on promotion is returned multiple times in the form of new visitors.

Most places get back about $5 to $10 in new hotel bookings for each dollar spent on marketing, Lambeth said. In San Diego, the return was 19-to-1, according to one study.

“When (hotel operators) see that, they embrace it,” he said.

Lambeth, 50, is probably the No. 1 international expert on this sort of thing.

He wrote the 1994 law that created special tax-assessment business districts in California, and then used the same idea to start creating TIDs.

With Lambeth’s help, the state’s first big TID was created in Sacramento in 2000.

That program has been a game changer here, said Mike Testa, chief operating officer at the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, which gets more than half of its $10 million annual budget from TID funds.

Before the assessment district was formed, Sacramento had a hard time competing with other areas that spent a lot more on promoting tourism.

The TID, Testa said, “leveled the field.”

Logo madness

The Sacramento Kings aren’t the only local business offering up free tattoos to fans.

Donut Madness, a Watt Avenue shop with a horror movie theme, has been collecting entries for weeks from customers interested in being inked with the company’s logo – a chainsaw-wielding doughnut creature.

A drawing will be held May 20. Six “winners” will then get to choose from different variations of the logo devised by tattoo artists at midtown’s Side Shoe Studios.

After the tats are applied, a Facebook contest is planned, with voting to determine the best of the six. The grand prize? The person with the winning tattoo – and the artist who applied it – will get a free doughnut per day “for life.”

But what if the business dies before the winners do?

Manager Rebecca Wakeman admits that’s a bit of a catch, but added:

“I hope we never close.”