Jefferson hotels considering new tax to boost tourism

Posted on: February 17 2014

Leaders still working out details

Jefferson Parish tourism officials are looking into a proposal that would allow hotels in the parish to decide whether to impose a new tax on their guests and direct that money to bolstering tourism efforts in the parish.

The plan, still in its early stages, is modeled on a similar assessment the state Legislature authorized for hotels in New Orleans last year. Orleans hotel owners are now in the process of deciding whether that additional charge will actually be put in place.

At the moment, Jefferson tourism leaders are still working out the details of the plan, such as determining whether there’s support among hotel owners and how large a charge would be imposed on hotel guests.

“This is a starting point, and many steps have to happen from here,” Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Violet Peters said.

Senate Bill 44 is a “mirror image of what (Sen.) Ed Murray did last year for Orleans — a way to get some money to the tourism business,” said Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, the measure’s sponsor.

Until the details are worked out, the proposed legislation is essentially a placeholder to ensure something can be passed this year.

The measure was introduced at the request of the parish Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Martiny said he’s looking to that group for guidance on exactly how the details of the measure will play out.

Traditionally, the Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau’s $1.2 million annual budget has been focused on attracting groups of visitors to Jefferson Parish, with little money going to marketing directed at individual tourists. That changed when the organization received a $2.1 million grant from BP, spread over three years, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

With that new money, the organization was able to expand its efforts toward persuading tourists to spend at least part of their time in the New Orleans area in Jefferson Parish through efforts that highlight outdoor activities and seafood restaurants.

“One of the things we’ve been working on with the grant dollars is to try to help that trend, to get the New Orleans visitor to know what we have to offer and to day-trip into Jefferson as well,” Peters said.

Peters said Jefferson has more of a complementary than a competitive relationship with New Orleans when it comes to attracting visitors, and the two areas are focused on different types of travelers. “The leisure visitor that wants to stay downtown is not our visitor,” Peters said. “We’re more of the outdoor enthusiast, the economical visitor, the visitor that wants to be close to the airport.”

Competition, instead, comes from areas across the state that are similar to Jefferson Parish.

The Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau operates with a relatively small budget compared with similar organizations across the state, Peters said. The tourism organizations in Lafayette and Lake Charles both have $3 million budgets, while Baton Rouge’s group spends about $2.5 million a year, she said.

“These are the folks you’re competing against when you’re looking at the leisure business,” Peters said.

Replacing the BP dollars and helping to bridge that gap would be the main purpose of the hotel charge, Peters said.

Under the New Orleans plan, hotels can impose a 1.75 percent tax on guests’ bills if the hotel owners agree to the proposal. Each hotel that is a member of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau is able to cast as many ballots on the issue as it has rooms.

The actual vote is being handled by the New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, and only hotels that are members of the organization are liable for the assessment.

Ballots for that vote have been sent out to hotels and are due back by Feb. 21, said Mavis Early, executive director of the Hotel and Lodging Association.

Though not required by the law itself, city and tourism officials said last year that about 1.5 percentage points of the new 1.75 percent tax would go to the Convention and Visitors Bureau to aid in marketing efforts. The remaining .25 percent would go to the city to be spent on infrastructure, public safety and other issues.

The New Orleans plan raised concerns from some neighborhood activists, who said not enough of the money was being directed toward the city and its residents. The Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan think tank in New Orleans, also came out against the proposal, arguing that levying a new hotel tax would make it more difficult to pass other, more general tax measures to fund city services or obligations.

In Jefferson, Peters said, the new assessment would help bring in additional tourists, encouraging more spending that would benefit businesses and residents. A 2012 study found tourism in Jefferson is about a $1 billion-a-year industry, compared with about $3.5 billion in New Orleans, she said.

“You really can see the results of what we’ve been trying to accomplish,” she said.