RECAP: Tourism Business Improvement District Meeting, November 30, 2023
Little action on reform at the Twentynine Palms TBID but glimmers of progress nonetheless
At a heavily attended meeting the afternoon of Thursday, November 30, the TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) Advisory Board listened to criticism but took few actions.
Since the Twentynine Palms TBID was founded back in 2017, community interest, as gauged by TBID meeting attendance, has been lackluster.
But over the last few months several festering TBID issues have come to a boil, as evidenced by the many critical comments voiced by attendees at the October 30th TBID Strategic Planning meeting held jointly with the City Council.
On the heels of that meeting and with more than 20 community members present, this TBID meeting was the most closely watched in recent memory. However, just three Board members attended: Chair Rakesh Mehta (SureStay by Best Western), Heidi Grunt (Historic Inns of Twentynine Palms), and Patricia Knight (Desert Vacation dot Rentals LLC). Board member Maria Madrid is on maternity leave and one seat is empty due to the resignation of Vice Chair Nalini (Ash) Maharaj (Harmony Motel).
Did attendees hoping to see TBID turn over a new leaf get their wish?
AGENDA ITEM 1—Visit 29 Palms TBID Marketing Updates
TBID Marketing Director Breanne Dusastre showed slides of the new Visit29.org tourism web site. To build the new site the TBID hired Simpleview, a company that specializes in creating tourism sites. The new site launches December 6.
She outlined a "fam" (familiarization) tour she hosted in September for five Central American airline executives and tour operators, with complimentary lodging provided by hotelier Veno Nathraj at Oasis Inn and Suites.
Likely anticipating comments like those voiced at last month's Strategic Planning meeting about the TBID's lack of progress so far on social media, she said "I completely hear everybody, I don't take any of this lightly. I know that I'm not moving expectations when it comes to social media."
She said that the City of 29 Palms Visitor Center on Highway 62 had greeted 4,000 visitors so far this year, an average of 12 visitors a day.
Finally, Dusastre presented slides showing TBID revenue at $390,000 for the TBID's fiscal year running October 2022 through September 2023.
According to Dusastre, this is an overall increase of 9% over the previous year. Versus the previous period, revenue from STRs was up 23% while revenue from hotels was down 2%.
If the trend from the last few years persists, City and TBID revenue from STRs may soon surpass that from hotels.
In public comment, Cindy Bernard asked, doesn't TBID have spending authority? Interim City Manager Larry Bowden replied that TBID only recommends, it's the City Council that has the actual spending authority. So when TBID makes no recommendation to Council—for example, if the TBID made no recommendation to fund a proposed event—then there would be no "TBID" spending for that event, unless the Council decided to take up the matter themselves.
Mary Jane Binge asked, "If the Joshua Tree National Park headquarters in Joshua Tree is getting 4,000 visitors a day, and [the 29 Palms Visitor Center] is only getting 4000 a year, how can we improve ourselves?"
Dusastre responded that "I'll be honest, we don't really spend advertising dollars to advertise the city's Visitor Center." Mehta then chimed in, "We have worked with the park and they don't put signs in Joshua Tree that the biggest entrance is in Twentynine Palms, to divert traffic to come up here."
In fact the Park often places an electronic notification along Highway 62 notifying visitors of the eastern entrance in Twentynine Palms as well as social media posts to encourage visitors to use the entrance.
AGENDA ITEM 2—City Council and TBID Strategic Planning Follow-Up Discussion
Dusastre presented a slide showing various proposals collected by third-party contractor New Deal Hospitality at the recent Strategic Planning meeting.
These included instituting term limits for the TBID board; funding and executing a solid social media marketing campaign; improving community collaboration on events; implementing more meaningful success metrics; and improving the TBID's overall destination marketing strategy for the City.
Dusastre briefly mentioned a few of these items, then moved on to suggest the TBID consider collecting in-depth metrics using a service like Placer.ai, an analytics service that collects geolocation data from mobile phones to glean insights into location-based consumer behavior.
Public comments and responses from the TBID board followed. A woman who didn't give her name suggested people with ideas drop by the Visitor Center and speak directly with Dusastre.
TBID board member Patricia Knight chimed in, "Cindy Bernard during the [October Strategic Planning] meeting mentioned that she didn't feel like it was a strategic planning meeting, and I have to agree with her. I was really disappointed with how the moderators moderated the meeting.…I don't feel like our money was well spent on this, and I know that we did not have a choice in this at all."
Regarding the TBID's recommendation earlier this year to Council for Council to fund additional TBID staff to support initiatives including social media, Knight said, "We need to bring it back to the City Council to put the full-time employee back into the budget. As the [TBID] board recommended back in July."
Mehta opined, "Let bygones be bygones. We can discuss why this happened, why that happened. If you attended all the events and all the subsequent planning sessions, it was something that was out of the Board's control."
Cindy Bernard then commented, "I really appreciate your acknowledging what a farce the strategic planning session was. Yes, we should let bygones be bygones. However, I would still say that some of what has happened is the responsibility of the Board. [It was] due to the lack of vision on the part of the Board, as funds were accumulating, for what might be done with those funds. Go back to strategic planning, follow up and give attention to structural change. To make sure this doesn't happen again."
Bernard went on to speak favoring term limits, board turnover, and expanding the board to accommodate business owners.
Mehta responded that TBID subcommittees enable participation by non-hoteliers and community members who don't own an STR, and suggested that interested business owners join these subcommittees.
Sarah Beck then commented suggesting that as an STR host she'd like to receive a weekly local events email blast from the TBID.
Dusastre responded that people should bookmark the Visit29.org event calendar, and that the new site will have a downloadable visitor guide. Mehta then reminded everyone that the new web site will enable business owners to update the site themselves with current hours and events.
Sounding a bit exasperated, Susan Peplow asked, "What are you looking for, from us, to help you through these bulleted items? What's the next step? Is [this list of strategic planning items and changes] just a page on the slideshow, then we move on to the next agenda item and forget all about this?"
Mehta's response sounded dismissive. "So again, the [strategic planning] suggestion[s] that came from this agency is something that we've already talked about. If you want to talk about the social media I believe that we had discussions in the past meeting about trying to get either an agency or a person to do more social media engagement. As far as the event sponsorship, I believe, Breanne, we have on the agenda right? About the events. Yes, we'll get to that."
Dusastre chimed in, "Terms on advisory board appointments would [have to] be discussed at a City Council meeting."
This comment about Board turnover was followed by back and forth between Mehta and several attendees. Mehta contended that TBID board positions are renewed yearly as an "annual reauthorization." Peplow pointed out that the City Council could amend this process at any time. Bernard then said that the City had failed to publicize the dates or details of the existing Board seats' yearly appointment or reappointment—effectively hiding the fact that anyone else but the existing Board members could apply to be appointed to a TBID Board seat.
Anja Walker then commented, suggesting that the TBID could accomplish social media promotion on the cheap, if local businesses promoted local events in their own social media accounts.
Victoria Nicoll commented, saying she had successfully done social media for several thriving local businesses. "Where's all this digital marketing money going? I worked for brands, I built Kitchen in the Desert's brand online."
AGENDA ITEM 3—Visit 29 Palms TBID Staffing and Contract Services
Dusastre outlined the current staffing situation: the TBID-managed City of 29 Palms Visitor Center now operates 42 hours per week. Dusastre covers most weekday shifts alone, with part-time staff supporting weekend operations. The budget funds one part-time position but the Visitor Center needs additional coverage to maintain operations. Operating hours are now 10 AM to 4 PM but will need to be reduced without an increase in funding.
Mehta, Knight and Grunt voted unanimously to request funding from City Council for an additional staff person whose focus would be social media.
In comments following this vote, Sarah Beck suggested the entire TBID budget be reviewed and redone line-by-line. To this Mehta responded that "The [present] budget was already planned and approved. It'd be like reinventing the wheel and we're already into the third month of our calendar year. So line-by-line would be difficult. But yes, the suggestion [of changes] within those categories is definitely available."
Cindy Bernard then voiced bafflement at how the TBID was managing its budget, contrasting the TBID with the Public Art Advisory Committee (PAAC).
A woman who didn't give her name asked why the TBID funds the Visitor Center and wondered why the Visitor Center wasn't staffed with volunteers. Mehta replied that they'd tried to solicit volunteers but had few to no takers.
Mary Jane Binge suggested hiring a social media specialist, rather than someone who split their time helping to run the Visitor Center.
Susan Peplow then suggested that the Board present the City Council with several options for funding the new position, rather than just a single ask, because the Council will likely respond with a request for multiple options in any case.
Dusastre then contributed some history, describing how until a few years ago the 29 Palms Chamber of Commerce, not the TBID, had run the Visitors Center. "It was a surprise to us that in the summer of 2019, the Chamber of Commerce moved out of the building and intended to open up in a new location beside Starbucks. We've never really written into our tourism marketing plan that we would take over full operations of the Visitor Center! It's just sort of how it turned out, because it has value."
AGENDA ITEM 4—Event Sponsorship Guidelines and Subcommittee Appointments
Dusastre introduced this item by showing a slide listing the existing event sponsorship guidelines.
This is a simple list of five items developed last year—when the TBID event budget was a fraction of its current $200,000 amount.
Mehta reminded everyone that one of the guidelines is that proposals for 2024 events must be submitted by December 31, 2023.
In discussion, Cindy Bernard pointed out many ways that these legacy guidelines fall short, including lack of any application form, and argued that the 30 remaining days in the year was woefully insufficient to generate decent event proposals. She suggested looking to the event grant processes and forms used by other Southern California cities as potential examples of successful event grant systems.
Susan Peplow provided the Board with the event grant application forms used by Missoula, MT, as examples of what the TBID should consider, and recommended the Board scrap the present year-end deadline.
Bernard offered to join an event subcommittee that would quickly create new event guidelines. The Board then voted to revisit the guidelines and the application deadline.
Kathy Miller, President of the Board of the 29 Palms Art Gallery, was hoping to apply for a small event grant, less than $1,000, for a March event and wondered how she could proceed. After some back and forth, Mehta said it should be possible to have new event guidelines approved in time for her event.
AGENDA ITEM 5—Participation at U.S. Travel Associations's International Pow Wow (IPW) in May 2024 in Los Angeles, CA
The Board voted unanimously to fund staff attendance at this travel industry event, the cost of which would be just food and lodging.
AGENDA ITEM 6—City of Twentynine Palms Public Arts Advisory Committee (PAAC) Proposal to Restore/Relocate 29! Sculpture
Anna Stump, PAAC Chair, spoke on this item, joined by new PAAC Board member Paul Razo.
Stump presented the findings of an art conservator the PAAC engaged to assess the condition of the 29! sculpture. They found that the piece's Cor-Ten steel needs to be stripped of its coating and that it has a number of punctures that need to be repaired. Stump said the PAAC has been in touch with Chuck Caplinger, who created the piece, and reports he "is distressed about the state of the sculpture."
She also noted that the piece's existing location on Donnell Hill suffers from lack of ADA access. One way of addressing this concern is moving the sculpture downtown, to Freedom Plaza.
Stump presented rough cost estimates for restoring the piece, leaving it at its existing site but constructing a parking lot to make the sculpture ADA accessible, for around $96,000; and for restoring the piece and moving it to Freedom Plaza, which would cost approximately $14,000.
Patricia Knight chimed in saying she favored relocating the piece to Freedom Plaza.
Public comment was mixed on moving the artwork with Interim City Manager Larry Bowden chiming in that he felt the $10,000 moving cost was exorbitant.
Susan Peplow then reminded everyone that the City Council had already considered the question of whether to relocate the 29! sculpture and had voted against it. She suggested that perhaps the City could commission Caplinger to make a second, similar piece for Freedom Plaza.
Knight moved that the TBID fund $5,000 for restoration of the sculpture, and the Board approved this unanimously.
AGENDA ITEM 7—Sponsorship Proposal for 2024 Second Edition Twentynine Palms Book Festival
Patrick Zuchowicki, co-owner of Desert General and creator of the Twentynine Palms Book Festival, spoke on this item. Zuchowicki delivered an oral summary of his written proposal, in which he asks the TBID for $25,000 toward this 2024 Twentynine Palms Book Festival event.
Owing to the revised application guidelines that had been discussed earlier, Zuchowicki will need to resubmit his event application accordingly. As Mehta phrased it, "Guess we'll just have to wait till our guidelines come in."
DIRECTOR OF MARKETING COMMENTS
Dusastre reminded everyone that applications were being accepted for the open TBID seat. "Submit a letter of interest or cover letter with your resume to the City Clerk by Monday, December 18. Applications will be reviewed by City Council and the recommendation will be made at their January 9 meeting."
Desert Trumpet writer and editor Cindy Bernard is a member of the Events Subcommittee of the TBID.
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