There is a problem with the College Spring Break economic impact figures that have been reported in the media this past season. I first noticed it when ABC affiliate, WMBB, aired a report on March 3rd. Reporter Mark Jenkins stated that “Tourist Development Council Commissioners are expecting an overall income of $100 million this month.” Based on my prior public records requests, I was already aware that the TDC/CVB had very little research to support their official 2007 estimate of $62 million in spending. Therefore, I was surprised to hear that they were now boosting their estimate by over 50%.
Then MSNBC on March 17th referenced the same $100 million in spending. In addition, MSNBC reported that PCB was expecting “about 350,000 students”. I already knew the TDC/CVB had no research to support their 2007 estimate of 250,000 students. And now they apparently were boosting this unsubstantiated estimate by 40%. Although MSNBC did not report who provided either of these estimates, I wrongly assumed that they had been provided by Andy Phillips, chairman of the TDC/CVB. My assumption was based on Phillips being the only PCB representative quoted in the article.
After seeing these reports, I made a public records request for all records relating to these projections. Instead of receiving data supporting the estimates, I received a prompt response from TDC/CVB President Dan Rowe explaining that they “did not estimate an increase in visitation or spending this year”. Rowe also stated “I have no knowledge of the source of the figures reported in the MSNBC article or on WMBB-TV”. Now I was really confused. Chairman Phillips has explained to me that the numbers he provided to the media were those provided by TDC/CVB staff. I have no reason to doubt him since neither WMBB or MSNBC attributed these overly optimistic estimates to Phillips. So who provided these unofficial, increased estimates? Is someone trying to make College Spring Break appear to have more importance to our local economy that it might actually have? And why is the media reporting these figures without completing reasonable fact checking? I have attempted to contact WMBB’s Mark Jenkins and the author of the MSNBC story, Bill Briggs. Why would they try to keep the source of these figures secret? Are they trying to protect someone?
Until better economic analysis is conducted, the only official estimate we have is that the average College Spring Break visitor spends an average of $35.00 per day on food, activities, and shopping while they are here. This is in addition to their expenditures for lodging and transportation to and from our destination. Anyone reasonably looking at the situation knows that many of the students spend considerably more, while some spend less. But the real problem with estimating the total spending of this tourist group is that we have no idea how many actually visit.
While admitting that I do not have a reasonable estimate, I am quite sure that it is nowhere near 250,000, let alone the 350,000 reported in the media. We just do not have the available college student friendly accommodations that we had back in PCB’s spring break heyday in the 90s. The TDC/CVB has reported that there are approximately 5000 available accommodations that accept college spring breakers. This number was actually up for 2008 as some upscale condos, such as Origin at Seahaven, decided they would allow the students. But we also know that there are families occupying some of these college student friendly accommodations, especially during weeks #3 and #4 that surrounded Easter. And we know that there were very few college students here after week #4. The majority of the corporate sponsors only stayed for the first three weeks. Even mtvU and its sponsors only decided to host their village for the 2 prime weeks (#2 and #3). Even if we make the unrealistic assumptions that there were 12,500 college students here each of weeks #5 and #6 and that 100% of the units were occupied by students for the first four weeks, there would have to be 11 students per unit, per night for the first four weeks in order to reach 250,000 total students.
In addition to available accommodations, other information seems to show that 250,000 students is not realistic. To begin with, I heard that an estimated 3500 people attended the mtvU concerts. MtvU’s presence didn’t really have much relevance if they only attracted a total of 14,000 students to the four performance dates that were the centerpiece of the TDC/CVB’s marketing plan. Even 14,000 is too high when you consider that some students likely attended both of the concerts taking place in each of week #2 and #3. And it can be assumed that there were many locals making up a portion of the 3500 in attendance.
And how do we supposedly accommodate the evening activities for these 250,000 students? I would estimate that we would have to have had at least 75,000 students per night during the prime week if we were to have reached 250,000 total visitors for the entire season. Club La Vela is clearly the largest venue advertising an occupancy of 6000. I realize that we have many smaller clubs/bars and that not every student goes out every night, but can anyone provide a breakdown of where 75,000 students might be on any given night? And just as with the concerts, you also have to assume that there are a significant number of locals joining the party, but not generating any bed tax.
We know that we have a significant number of College Spring Break visitors and that they spend a significant amount of money while here. But why do we need to exaggerate how many students visit and how much they spend? It seems that some people or businesses are going out of their way to make this tourist group appear to have a greater economic impact that they actually have. Hopefully the TDC/CVB will request occupancy, attendance, and revenue figures from the primary college spring break oriented businesses and conduct a complete analysis of this data before allocating any funds for 2009. The TDC/CVB also needs to determine how many students would continue to visit regardless of whether they spend any governmental funds on College Spring Break. We cannot continue to just make unsubstantiated assumptions about the importance of spending limited marketing funds on College Spring Break.
-Bryan DurtaPrint Story