R.I. tourism leaders excited about $10.6M from feds to boost industry

Updated at 3:10 p.m. on Nov. 10, 2021.

RHODE ISLAND TOURISM LEADERS are excited about the state's receipt of $10.6 million in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce that will be used to fund the state's tourism, travel and recreation needs. / COURTESY BLOCK ISLAND TOURISM COUNCIL

PROVIDENCE Rhode Island’s tourism leaders are excited about the Ocean State’s $10.6 million in federal grant funding available to devote to tourism, travel and recreation needs.

The leaders expressed excitement, positivity and a collaborative spirit about receiving the first round of federal funding designated for tourism that could lead to recovery and growth.

The grant funding comes from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, which is disbursing the funding to 34 states, and the District of Columbia, from a combined $314 million in grants per the American Rescue Plan State Travel, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation grant program. The funding may be used for marketing, infrastructure, workforce and other projects aimed at boosting leisure, business and international travel.

It is unclear how the funding would be apportioned around the state, but part of it will be aimed at addressing tourism priorities.

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Kristen Adamo, CEO and president of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, said while her wish is to address an approximate $2 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year, she is hoping the funding helps with staffing needs.

Adamo said the pandemic reduced her staff from 25 employees to a staff of seven full-time workers. She said PWCVB now has 22 employees, so she is hoping that the funding might lead to the hiring of three more employees to put the bureau back at full staff.

Adamo and the regional tourism directors attended a pre-scheduled all-day meeting at R.I. Commerce Corp. on Tuesday where they touched on the funding and how it could be allocated. Adamo said the meeting was “very optimistic, very collaborative,” and involved brainstorming next steps with the state’s new Chief Marketing Officer, Anika Kimble-Huntley.

Adamo said a pandemic success story has been the collaboration between the tourism regions and R.I. Commerce Corp.

“We’ve been working on unified branding, unified messaging, strategy – a whole collection of things,” said Adamo. “They have a new chief marketing officer, and she’s great. So, this [meeting] was about our first steps together collectively to make sure that we use the resources that we’re being given collaboratively and smartly.”

“We’re still recovering in Providence,” added Adamo, noting that Providence has not generated hotel tax revenue like it did pre-pandemic, and PWCVB expended advertising dollars to try to ignite a rebound. “So, this funding is kind of coming in the nick of time, as I am hoping to get some advertising funding to fund the back half of my fiscal year.”

Adamo noted caution regarding a recovery, as it will be a slower process for Providence since the market is driven by meetings and conventions.

“I don’t expect a full recovery until about 2025, since we’re not leisure driven,” Adamo said. “Meetings and conventions are coming back, but they’re coming back at a slower pace. So, it’s not going to be overnight for us.”

Jessica Willi, who has been executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council for 15 years, said it’s a different scenario on Block Island, where there are no pressing financial wants or needs. Willi said her interests are longer term and the focus should be on helping the state as a whole.

“I don’t see any direct needs. I want to see the state do what is best for the state,” she said, noting that dollars for the state’s marketing and advertising programs provides opportunities for the six tourism regions.

“It’s exciting that this money came in right now,” said Willi.

Willi said Kimble-Huntley asked the tourism leaders to provide ideas they have for spending the funding during the R.I. Commerce Corp. meeting. “I think the state is going to do a great job with it,” she said. “I’m very confident in the state tourism office right now.”

Louise Bishop, CEO and president of the South County Tourism Council, echoed Willi’s sentiments, noting the importance of the funding for the state’s entire tourism sector.

“It’s incredible,” said Bishop. “This is really the first round of funding that goes to tourism. We had not received any funding – especially since we’re the third of fourth leading revenue generator in the state.”

Bishop intends to use the funding for a new sand sculpture competition that the council will be unveiling during Columbus Day weekend in 2022. “It will be the largest in New England,” she said, noting that more than 10 artists will be invited to participate.

Bishop said that the grant funding will provide assistance for expansion and development of new and existing events. “It’s all very positive, and exciting,” she said.

Evan Smith, CEO and president of Discover Newport, said the funding will be of great help to the industry and each of the regions.

“There’s a deep sense of excitement that there is financial assistance coming at a time when we need it most. That’s awesome,” said Smith. “We‘re anxious to learn the specific details about how we’re going to communicate with either the legislature, with the governor’s office, and R.I. Commerce, about how the money will be distributed.”

Smith said his region needs funding for marketing and advertising, as well as to address transportation from R.I. T.F. Green International Airport, the Amtrak station in Kingston, and issues associated with ride sharing. “We have a mobility issue here,” he said. “We have a lot of people coming, but we don’t circulate well. So, we need better forms of transportation across the board.”

Smith said the meeting at R.I. Commerce Corp. on Tuesday was the best he has ever experienced at the agency in his 33 years in the tourism industry. “It’s very refreshing to see the embracing of travel and tourism at a new level consistent with the type of effort and resources that has been put into all other business developments,” he said. “So, I think we’re in a very good place right now.”

The funding is part of the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better Agenda and is funded through the American Rescue Plan Act.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo made the announcement for the grants on Nov. 8, when the federal government opened up international travel to the United States.

In response, Gov. Daniel J. McKee said, “We are so glad to share the good news that Rhode Island will be getting more than $10 million to help our tourism and hospitality industries, and all of our small businesses in those areas. This sector has been severely impacted by the pandemic, and these funds will go a long way in ensuring this sector not only bounces back but is even stronger going forward.”

R.I. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said of the grant funding, “Tourism is a foundational part of Rhode Island’s economy. This industry not only supports thousands of jobs, it also attracts more than $7 billion in spending annually. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted so many elements of this important industry, but this grant will help the state recover and become even more resilient as we continue to emerge post-pandemic.”

Elements of the state’s grant proposal included:

  • Increased paid advertising in partnership with our tourism regions and airport to support marketing campaigns to attract new, overnight visitors.
  • Technology upgrades and improvements to the Visit Rhode Island website and websites of the state’s tourism regions.
  • Development of new attractions and destination events, particularly to boost year-round visitation.
  • A strategic analysis to focus on improving accessibility throughout state and its attractions.

McKee’s administration said in 2019 the state hosted 26.2 million visitors and the total traveler economy surpassed $7 billion. Tourism in Rhode Island generated $843 million in state and local taxes that year. As a result of the pandemic, leisure and hospitality jobs in the state fell to 61.5% between February and April of 2020.

Previous efforts to support small businesses impacted by the pandemic have included distribution of more than $140 million in federal funds to assist more than 8,500 small businesses.

Update: Adds comment from Evan Smith in paragraphs 21-24.

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman.

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