ITHACA, N.Y. — According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tourism (Hospitality/Leisure) is the fourth-biggest jobs producer in Tompkins County, behind Education & Health Services, Government, and Trade, Transportation and Utilities (the sector that includes retail). 5,300 jobs, about 8% of Tompkins County’s total, are tied into the tourism industry. With that in mind, the county makes it a priority to keep an eye on trends and find ways in which it can improve.

That’s where the county’s Strategic Tourism Planning Board (STPB) comes in. They’re an advisory board of citizens whose purpose is to advise the Tompkins County Legislature on all aspects of tourism development in Tompkins County; the way most people know of the STPB is that they’re the board that divvies out the county’s annual hotel/AirBnB occupancy tax revenue after reviewing applications and presentations from local festivals and programs.

One of the tasks that falls into their duties is preparing a strategic plan, in this case, one that will be good through 2027. This plan, which started work in August 2018, is intended to look at current trends, address potential shortcomings and identify new opportunities based on feedback from local hospitality and leisure industry professionals, tourists, the general public, and some outside consultants to help keep the ball rolling. The tourists are surveyed through a Visitor Profile study, which has over 2,000 reports, and the general community survey included about 300 more reports. Once the draft plan was completed, the plan was circulated around for a few weeks of public comment, and the report was revised to produce the 42-page final product we have here.

On the numbers side of the equations, the goals aren’t big shockers. The average tourist spends 2-3 nights in Tompkins County, and the STPB would like to get that boosted to 3-4 nights. The average visiting group (3.3 people) spends $366 locally, and they’d like to increase that 5% to $384. Most travelers into the county are repeat visitors, with newcomers being only 24% of visitors according to the advisory board’s studies; the STPB would like to get a few more first-time visitors, and have they comprise about 30% of the total. Overall, by 2027, the STPB hopes to have 900,000 overnight visitors annually, spending $300 million, and reducing the local tax burden by an average of $950 per household.

Looking at the more qualitative side, the STPB would like to grow access opportunities to Cayuga Lake, and offer more year-round indoor and outdoor visitor programming. Beyond that, the recommendations lean toward vague soft skill practices, like providing accurate information to “decision makers”, continuous refine communication techniques and media strategies, and foster collaboration among tourism partners.

At a glance, none of these are unrealistic goals. The percentage of overnight visitors has increased from 63% to 78% since 2009, and the current $366 average expense by those visiting groups is an increase from $331 in 2009. That’s less than inflation, meaning the purchasing power is less, and the STPB is aware of this, citing a drop in non-food retail sales as the culprit.

If you’re thinking all the visitors are Mom and Dad bringing their kid to check out the colleges, you wouldn’t be totally wrong, but you’d be exaggerating. That makes up 32% of visitors. A larger proportion, 38% of visitors, just come here for a vacation getaway (this is especially prevalent in the summer), 16% come on business, 14% come to visit friends and family. The typical visitor is middle-aged, comes from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or California, and most comes by car, though the proportion coming by plane has doubled over the past decade, to 21% of the total. Interestingly, LGBTQ-identifying individuals make up 20% of visitors, though they only make up 4.5% of the general population.

So what are the trends they’re keeping on? Yes, the gorges and schools don’t change much, strictly speaking. But enrollment trends at Cornell and Ithaca College could have an impact, especially as the number of college-age individuals continues to slip nationwide. The rise in short-term rental platforms like AirBnB and VRBO, an influx in Chinese and Asian visitors, ride-shares, climate change, and cannabis legalization may also have impacts on the way Tompkins County handles visitors.

Along with the access initiative to Cayuga Lake (which emphasizes both public assets like the Waterfront Trail and collaboration with private developments like the non-profit Farmer’s Market and for-profit City Harbor project), other initiatives being explored include the proposed conference center on East Green Street, expanding the trail network further, and boosting agriculinary tourism for locally-crafted food and drink.

What stands out here is a proposed initiative to develop sports tourism, which the plan calls “largely overlooked”. This includes attempts to grow interest in collegiate-level sports as well as statewide events for high school athletic events and making use of all the local playing fields to draw in invitationals and tournaments.

It’s a whole bunch of studies, initiatives and goals wrapped into one package, but it’ll take some time to see if the efforts espoused in the plan pan out. The county legislature’s Housing and Economic Development Committee is set to review and potentially endorse the plan at their meeting on Thursday, and the whole legislature gets a look next month. Once endorsed, it becomes the official guiding document for the STPB and its supporters to implement and execute. With thousands of jobs dependent on visitors, there’s plenty of incentive to encourage and share Tompkins’s attractions to the outside world.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.