BRISTOL, Va. — The city’s lodging tax rate is among the highest in the state, and local tourism officials are hoping they receive at least a portion to continue marketing efforts.
Bristol, Virginia, adds a 9 percent surcharge — called a transient occupancy tax — onto each room rented in the city’s 17 hotels and motels, which is second only in Virginia behind Emporia’s 11 percent. Others in the top 10 include Portsmouth, Salem, Suffolk and Virginia Beach, which charge 8 percent, while Newport News and Norfolk tack on 8 percent plus $1, according to a 2017 report by the Virginia Tourism Corp.
In Bristol, the lodging tax is forecast to generate about $1.2 million during the current fiscal year and increase to $1.25 million in fiscal 2018-19 — according to draft budget figures. It generated $1.09 million in fiscal 2014-15 and $1.18 million in fiscal 2015-16, according to the state report.
Emporia — a city of about 5,500 — generated $1.32 million in fiscal 2015-16 from its lodging tax.
One of the unknowns in the city’s current spending plan is what, if any, revenue will go to Discover Bristol, the Twin City’s convention and visitors bureau. The organization is receiving $100,000 in the current fiscal year that ends June 30 and has requested its previous funding level of $175,000 to be reinstated. The City Council is expected to receive the draft budget on April 24.
Courtney Cacation, executive director of Discover Bristol, made a presentation to the Bristol Virginia City Council last month, but they gave no indication about funding.
“Last fiscal year we received $100,000, which was 6.25 percent of what was collected through the transient occupancy tax,” Cacation said. “That money goes into the general fund, but the purpose of taxing visitors for a hotel stay is to have a portion go back into tourism promotion to help people come back to Bristol.”
Some localities dedicate a portion of such revenues to tourism promotion, but the city of Bristol, Virginia, doesn’t.
Last year, leaders in Bristol, Tennessee, committed to provide Discover Bristol half of its transient occupancy tax revenues up to $200,000. Tax revenues from its five hotels are expected to generate between $185,000 and $200,000 for the tourism agency during this current fiscal year, Cacation said.
Each city previously provided $175,000 annually.
Martinsville and Richmond — Virginia’s two other cities that host NASCAR race weekends — have varying approaches. Martinsville adds a modest 2 percent room surcharge, which generated just $19,000 in fiscal 2016. Richmond charges 8 percent, but its revenue figures weren’t listed in the Tourism Corp. report. All Richmond funds are dedicated to the Greater Richmond Convention Center Authority to promote the city.
“Because we operate in both states, we can use state grant funding from Tennessee and Virginia. We can get up to a $50,000 match in Virginia, but those funds have to be matched 2-to-1. We got two $25,000 matching grants from Virginia Tourism Corp., but we had to spend $75,000 twice — a total of $150,000 — for those matching grants. It puts us at a disadvantage on how much we’re able to spend but how much we’re able to get.”
The CVB pays rent and utilities to the Chamber Foundation for its space in the Chamber of Commerce building. It also pays part of the salaries of the chamber’s receptionist, CPA and public relations person.
Beyond salaries for its 2.9 full-time employees, the funds are directed to digital and traditional marketing, advertising and public relations efforts, including billboards.
Members of the Discover Bristol staff are going to Washington, D.C., soon to meet with travel writers, familiarize them with this area and try to get them to visit and ultimately write about their experiences.
Cacation calls the funds an investment. The U.S. Travel Association estimates localities receive at least a 7-to-1 return on that investment in letting the public know what Bristol and the region offers in terms of recreation, shopping, music, racing and other amenities.
“You can get highway traffic by billboards or hotels in close proximity to the highway, so people stop there because it’s convenient. That’s not my job,” Cacation said. “My job is to let people know why you should come here as a destination and why you should be spending more than just a head in a bed for a night, why you should make a trip rather than just veer off the highway.”