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Wyoming Tourism Department

Wyoming Tourism Chief: Tourist Season Not Doomed; Summer is Critical

in News/Coronavirus/Tourism

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s second largest industry — tourism — might be on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, but spring could be the best time for it to happen, according to the executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism.

“Springtime tends to be a slower time of year,” said Diane Shober. “Our winter destinations are slowing down as the snow thaws, but there’s still enough snow that our summer destinations haven’t usually started ramping up, yet.”

With officials nationwide still debating the right time to roll back travel restrictions, Shober said it’s too early to determine the overall impact to Wyoming tourism, but many events, such as Cheyenne Frontier Days, are holding out for the best.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Frontier Days stays on schedule,” Shober said. 

As the state’s largest private-sector employer, tourism will be a key component of re-igniting Wyoming’s economy once stay-at-home orders dissipate nationwide. 

“This summer will be critical,” Shober said. “This is an export economy. People coming here from other places helps offset our revenues across our cities, counties and state.” 

In the meantime, the Office of Tourism is monitoring consumer data to determine when to start marketing again. 

“What we’re trying to understand is the feeling of the consumer as it relates to travel,” Shober explained.

Gov. Mark Gordon, during a news conference Wednesday, said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is estimating a 20% to 30% drop in tourism.

“Our economy is going to be different from this day forward for a while,” he said. “People aren’t traveling, they aren’t flying the way they used to.”

Polls have shown the pandemic took a significant toll on the public’s desire to travel this summer, but a month or more of staying at home could change that, she said. To keep the Cowboy State on the minds of potential travelers, the Office of Tourism is focusing its social media messaging on positive messages to remind people the West still exists on the horizon.

“All of our efforts right now are very organic, focusing on virtual, armchair travel,” Shober said. “We’re using inspirational photographs and feel-good stories to remind people you can still dream about your travels.” 

Plans to reopen Yellowstone National Park, one of Wyoming’s leading tourist destinations, are still up in the air, but Shober said many roads and services wouldn’t be open yet anyway because of park road conditions.

“Like us, park staff are playing it by ear,” she added. “There’s been no communication with us about if or when, but honestly, we haven’t pushed it. We know the timing is just not right.” 

To help industry partners get through the slump, Shober said the Office of Tourism is coordinating resources with commercial lenders, relief organizations and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services as well as hosting webinars about how businesses can get the most out of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“We’re making sure we’re hearing what our industry needs and identifying what we’ll need to do next in a post-COVID-19 world,” she explained. “As people start to travel again, it’s not going to be like a light switch flipping back on. It will be more gradual, like a sunrise. That’s what we’re focusing on now.”

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Bill Sniffin: Tourism Sells State, Not Just To Visitors, But To Future Residents, Too

in Column/Tourism/Bill Sniffin
Tourism Conference

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily Publisher

During the course of my Wyoming business career, our companies have published and distributed over four million magazines promoting tourism in the Cowboy State.

My first magazine was started in 1970 called Big Mountain Country that sang the praises for Fremont County, home of the biggest mountains in the state.

Flash ahead 50 years, and I am attending the annual Wyoming Governor’s Tourism Conference in Cheyenne. Hundreds of members of the 30,000-plus people who work in the hospitality industry were there.

Over the years the tourism industry has faced many threats, the Yellowstone fires of 1988, come to mind. This year the Coronavirus will cut into Asian tourism. Up to now the threats to the state’s second largest industry have come from outside sources.

In a crazy twist, the biggest danger to the industry this year is coming from within – from some members of the Legislature. Because of tight money concerns, some outspoken elected folks think we are spending too much money promoting the state.

Actually we are lagging behind our neighbors. And we have a lot to lose by such crazy thinking.

A small amount of money spent with the state tourism department generates much more money – it is as simple as that. The more people we get here the more money they spend. That outside money circulates around our communities. It is a win-win.

One legislator even suggested getting rid of the state’s WOT (Wyoming Office of Tourism) and actually heard a few shouts of encouragement in the State Senate. You can’t make this stuff up.

A few decades ago Colorado got rid of its tourism department, which was a disaster. It took years for them to get it restored and then even more years for their hospitality industry to recover. They never tried it again.

In the past six months, the energy economy in Wyoming has taken some serious hits leaving folks from Gillette to Rock Springs and Cheyenne to Lovell nervous and pessimistic.

Gov. Mark Gordon has responded by saying he anticipates implementing budget restraints.

But all is not so dim when it comes to the state economy.

In fact the one aspect of Wyoming’s economy that is bright is so bright, it is positively blinding.

Tourism, the state’s number-two industry, has never seen years like 2015-2019.

More than 10 million people annually visited the Cowboy State. Yellowstone National Park now hits 4 million, which is a staggering number.

All these visitors spent a staggering $3 billion with motels, gas stations, gift shops and restaurants. In 2005, the total was $2 billion. This industry is really growing at a steady pace.

Tourists spend money in all parts of Wyoming. There truly is no place that does not benefit from the visitor.

Grand Teton Park and Jackson Hole are increasing. Even places like Fossil Butte near Kemmerer are up 10 percent, which shows the growth of cultural tourism.

All these tourists paid over $160 million in local and state taxes during 2019, which is an amazing number. Sales taxes, alone, are up over 10 percent.

The state’s investment in new welcome centers is paying off with increases in visitation.

During the recent tourism conference, members of the industry were warned the 2020 Legislature might try to cut the marketing budget of the tourism department because of the afore-mentioned dip in state revenues,

My advice to them would be to do just the opposite. If this is the one area of state government that is making money, why not spend even more and make even more money?

Wyoming’s tourism industry is supported on a three-legged stool of state spending, local county lodging board spending and industry spending. Our state is the envy of the country and it is obviously why – it is working!

It is mind-boggling that every so often we hear some shrill opponents who decry spending state money on tourism promotion. They are simply wrong. This is a program that works very well. We all need to get behind it and try to grow it even more.

Tourism as the state’s number-two industry boasts 31,000 jobs. As an industry, it creates new jobs in the rapidly disappearing middle class sector.

Tourism is great for Wyoming. Spending money to promote it is good for everyone. That’s WY!

Sponsoring rodeo teams requires big bucks, but reaches bigger audiences

in Government spending/News/Tourism
Sponsoring rodeo teams requires big bucks, but reaches bigger audiences

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

When it comes to rounding up tourists, one of the best ways to nab their attention is through engaging narratives, according to Wyoming Office of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober.

“Anytime you’re looking for a pitch into a larger audience, you want to have a compelling story with it,” Shober said. “Team Wyoming is a program built around pro rodeo cowboys and cowgirls. It is a way to take the image of the American cowboy and put a face and story with it.”

Created by the Office of Tourism in 2005, Team Wyoming brings together some of Wyoming’s top rodeo competitors in a marketing campaign focusing on the state’s strong ties to Western culture.“It’s a way to highlight Wyoming in the national conversation,” Shober explained. “We’re really leveraging the world’s love affair with the American cowboy.”

Comprised of seven members, the team competes in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events around the state throughout the year before heading to the National Finals Rodeo to compete and host autograph signings, press events, a trade show and a special breakfast with Wyoming legislators, fans and livestock contractors. 

“(The breakfast) is a salute to Team Wyoming in Las Vegas where the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) is held,” Shober explained. “We celebrate the team, the Wyoming contractors that provide livestock for rodeo events and any folks in Wyoming that are hired to work (at NFR).”

The price of publicity is not cheap, however, and in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the Office of Tourism wrote checks to the Gold Coast Casino in Las Vegas for more than $20,000 each, according to information released in Wyoming’s checkbook by Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines.

“Twenty thousand dollars would be a lot for a breakfast, but those line items also include hotel rooms and rodeo tickets,” Shober said. “Back then, it was cheaper to buy bulk packages and provide them to people who wanted to attend the breakfast and rodeo, so there is a revenue component that is not reflected by those expenditures.”

From 2013 to 2015, the Office of Tourism provided interested parties with package deals purchased from the casino, she said. Sold at cost, the money was used to refund the Office of Tourism’s overall costs, which were paid for through its general fund.

During the 2013 NFR, the Office of Tourism reported it received about $8,700 in revenue to offset costs of about $23,500. In 2014, the office received approximately $13,200 in revenue during the NFR to offset its cost of about $22,600. And in 2015, the office received about $21,400 in revenue during the NFR, offsetting its cost of about $28,900.

“We have several sponsors for the event,” Shober said. “Over the years, they’ve covered a large portion of the costs. I have a sponsor that is going to cover the entire 2019 NFR event. So even though we pick up the bill, it doesn’t always mean that’s the cost to the Office of Tourism.”

On average, the office sent four to six employees between 2013 and 2015 for about four days of the NFR to promote Wyoming at various events and organize “meet and greets” with Team Wyoming, Shober said. While the employees’ accommodations were expensed to the state, she said additional hotel rooms were purchased from the Office of Tourism by Team Wyoming sponsors and other rodeo affiliates.

“We still do the breakfast annually,” Shober explained. “But we don’t do it at the Gold Coast Casino anymore. And we don’t do packages these days, because now the hotels are getting even stingier with their hotel rooms, and we’re not in the business of doing travel packages that way.”

For the last three years, she said the Team Wyoming breakfast was hosted at The D Hotel in Las Vegas, but the office is looking for a new venue in 2019.

As a whole, Team Wyoming has been a successful investment for the Office of Tourism, Shober said.

“When we started this, social media wasn’t really a thing yet,” she said. “But now, it’s part of the team members’ contracts, and we’ve seen that grow our brand.”

The office reported Team Wyoming’s social media accounts combined have about 100,000 followers. The Team Wyoming Facebook page has about 19,000 followers and posts videos promoting the team, some of which have been viewed more than 100,000 times.

But the big numbers come from the national coverage of the NFR. The Office of Tourism reported the NFR was attended by more than 177,000 people in 2017 and CBS Sports Network estimated each broadcast reached about 633,000 viewers.

“It’s not the rodeo crowd we’re marketing to necessarily — we’re marketing to potential visitors who want to come to the West,” Shober said. “This is about promoting Western culture and really elevating the Wyoming assets. It’s about that whole Western experience.”

Lodging tax bill moves forward in Senate

in News/Taxes

By Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would impose a statewide 5 percent tax on hotel and motel stays was approved in its first Senate review on Thursday.

HB 66 is set to receive a second reading Friday after senators voted 16-11 to approve it during the Senate’s “Committee of the Whole,” the full body’s first chance to review the bill.

If approved, the bill would require that money from 3 percent of the tax — about $19 million a year — go to the state Tourism Division. The division would no longer receive money from the state’s “General Fund,” its main bank account

Money from the other 2 percent would go to counties to replace income from their own lodging taxes when they expire.

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, tried with an amendment to eliminate the extra 2 percent tax, saying that would make hotel stays too expensive for in-state travelers.

“It’s just making it more expensive to stay around Wyoming,” he said.

But Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, successfully urged the Senate to kill Case’s amendment, arguing local communities should be provided with a steady source of income to promote themselves.

“That allows for local communities to have a little bit of leverage,” he said. “Let’s give it to them.”

Updated: Lodging tax bill narrowly clears committee

in News/Taxes/Tourism

By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would impose a statewide tax on all hotel and motel stays is headed for the Senate floor after clearing a committee on Tuesday.

HB 66, which would impose a statewide 5 percent lodging tax, won approval on a 3-1 vote from the Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee. The bill now heads to the Senate floor for review by the full body.

Money from 3 percent of the tax — estimated at $19 million per year — would go to the state Tourism Division to finance its operations. The division would no longer receive funds from the state’s main banking account, the General Fund.

Revenue from the other 2 percent would be sent to communities to replace local lodging taxes when they expire.

The bill’s committee approval was welcomed by members of the tourism industry, who said Wyoming needs all the financial help it can get to lure visitors to the state.

“Montana, Colorado, Utah, they outspend us by almost double in some instances and tourism is a competitive business,” said Chris Brown, director of the Wyoming Restaurant and Lodging Association. “We’re just looking to grow our slice of the pie for Wyoming’s visitor economy.”

Committee member Sen. Lisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs, declared a conflict and did not vote on the bill because she owns a hotel in Rock Springs.

Anselmi-Dalton also said she is not a supporter of the tax because of the burden it puts on business owners.

“It’s a pretty heavy lift for some people,” she said. “When I put things out to bid at my hotel, (clients) say ‘This is my budget’ and I end up eating the tax.”

The vote came as legislators approached a deadline to address the bills in front of their committees. All committee work must be completed by Wednesday.

Riverton brothers set their sights on Tinseltown: Central Wyoming College offers transferable film production degree

in News/Education
Man with video camera recording video, ALT=video production, Central Wyoming College

By Ike Fredregill
Cowboy State Daily

Inspired by their father’s acting career and passion for the film industry, two Riverton brothers — Boone and Copeland Williams — have their eyes set on the silver screen, but only if it means they can work together.

“We’re kind of a package deal, I guess,” Boone, 21, explained. “It works well, because I can push his buttons and he can push mine, but we’re family, so we can’t give up on each other.”

The film industry can be a difficult trade to break into, especially for two brothers living in the middle of Wyoming — a state known for its vast landscapes, western culture and lack of representation in film.

But as fortune would have it, the middle of the state is the perfect, and possibly only, place for someone pursuing an education in cinematography.
Central Wyoming College is the only post-secondary school in the state to offer a degree in film production, according to Jeremy Nielsen, CWC’s associate professor of film.

“There’s not a large film industry here in Wyoming,” Nielsen said. “As far as I know, I’m the only film professor in the state.”

The Williams brothers are slated to graduate from the program in spring, and with degrees in hand, Copeland said they will either transfer to a university with a film production program or join the military, but they won’t go their separate ways.

“I’m not sure we’d find better success if one of us were to go one place and the other to another, because the best ideas we’ve put forward, we worked on together,” Copeland, 25, said. “We’re probably far more likely to be successful together than apart.”

Wyoming doesn’t have a strong presence in the film production industry because, in part, residents don’t place high value on arts careers, Nielsen theorized. 

“The things that Wyomingites tend to value are not always artistic endeavors,” he said. “Convincing people to sign up for a course that isn’t seen as productive as engineering or business can be a challenge.”

In his seventh year at CWC, the 42-year-old film professor said he is working to change that. When Nielsen first started at the community college, he said the film production program averaged about six students a semester. Nowadays, around 24 students could be enrolled in the program at any given time, Nielsen said.

Shortly after he moved to Riverton from Utah, the Wyoming Office of Tourism recognized the potential of the film program’s ability to build film industry infrastructure within the state, increasing the likelihood of attracting large movie producers, and it invited Nielsen to join the Wyoming Film Finance Committee. 

“The Wyoming Office of Tourism wanted to boost the number of films shot in Wyoming,” he said. “They came up with a multi-prong approach — we need infrastructure, a film school and to incentivize film production.”

One of the largest challenges to shooting movies within the state is a lack of experienced camera crews, lighting specialists and stage hands, but the film production program could remedy that. 

“If you bring people in (from outside the state), you have to start paying them on a different structure and housing them and it gets a bit complicated,” Nielsen explained. “In some cases, film companies will bring their own crews, but it’s often just for a day or two.”

A large production set could employ more than 100 people at a time, and even independent film companies often hire about 20 to 30 production specialists, he said. 

“It’s an incredibly public art form — it is consumed by the public, but it is also created by the public in that it is not a single piece of art created by single person for a specific audience,” Nielsen said. “The jobs are very specialized. There’s a crew on a set that’s responsible for the lights, but there’s also a whole other crew responsible for the shadows.”

Being able to provide people experienced enough to fill these rosters is an important factor in attracting film producers.

Enter stage right: Nielsen’s students.

“On the first day of class, I put a camera in their hands and tell them we’re making a movie today, and we’re watching it today,” Nielsen said. “The film industry is more about experience than anything else, and I want my students to feel competent around all the equipment they may encounter when they leave here.”

One of the ways he’s recently helped CWC film production graduates further their career is by changing the nature of the program.

“The degree has changed from a technical studies certificate — offered in the same vein as automotive or welding courses,” Nielsen said. “I’ve worked to develop the program into a transfer degree.”

Unfortunately, the University of Wyoming doesn’t offer a film production degree, so Boone and Copeland will need to transfer elsewhere to continue their education.

Leaving the state isn’t what Boone had in mind when he started the CWC program last semester.

“I’ve lived in about 20 different places,” he said. “But this is where I was born, and this is the place I like the most, so this is where I’m from.”

After moving to Riverton, Boone and Copeland’s father decided to dabble in some college courses, Copeland said.

“I had just moved back in, and I was kind of directionless,” he recalled. “My dad used his GI Bill to take some of the film classes and told me to give a shot, even if for just one semester. And that kind of started all this.”

The family has talked about starting a film production company, but Boone and Copeland need to finish their education first, which means leaving home. 

“I see Wyoming as having great potential,” Boone said. “I don’t know how exactly to go about it, but I’d like to put my experience to use here and open some of that potential.”

Boone said the brothers have their eyes set on the University of Utah’s film production courses, but if the school doesn’t take both of them, they’ll join the U.S. Air Force and use their service benefits to further their careers.
“Either we both go to Utah, or we both join the military,” he said.

Copeland said the two developed a strong bond early in life when their parents divorced, but while other siblings often grow independent through the years, he and Boone’s relationship brought them closer together.

“Since we were kids — I was like 11 and Boone might’ve been 4 — we spent a lot of time together,” he explained. “We share a lot of the same interests. Working together, we know how to bounce ideas off each other and move toward something we both like.”

While the brothers bump heads on occasion, they fervently agreed the CWC film production program was one the best choices they made.

“I’m taking these classes because I want to learn the stuff, not because I need it for a degree,” Copeland said. “One of the things I like most — I hate homework most of the time — but the assignments in the film program are things I actually care about.”

Boone added, “I love this program. Most other college classes don’t really engage me, but more than that, they don’t offer the hands-on learning opportunities I get in film production.”

Film incentive program approved for final reading

in News/Tourism

A program designed to lure film production companies to Wyoming with incentives was sent on Wednesday for a final reading in Wyoming’s House.

HB 164, which would allow the state to reimburse production companies for some of their expenses, was approved in its second reading in the House.

The bill would specify that the Wyoming Office of Tourism could reimburse companies for 15 percent of their expenses while working in Wyoming. The production companies would have to spend a minimum of $200,000 in the state to be eligible for the program.

During testimony before a House committee, Diane Shober, director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, said the lack of an incentive program and a shortage of trained film production crew members puts Wyoming at a disadvantage to other states when film companies are looking for production sites.

Yellowstone Lodges official wins top tourism award

in News/Recreation/Tourism
Grand Prismatic Hot Springs, a steaming blue natural pool, ALT= Yellowstone, Geothermal, Hot spring

By Cowboy State Daily

The sales and marketing director for Yellowstone National Park Lodges has been named the winner of Wyoming’s top tourism award.

Rick Hoeninghausen, who has been associated with Yellowstone for 30 years, was awarded the “Big Wyo” award Tuesday during the Governor’s Hospitality and Tourism Conference held in Cheyenne this week.

Hoeninghausen has been one of the leading promoters of Wyoming tourism inside the world’s first national park.

“If you know me, you know that as a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy,” he told members of Wyoming’s hospitality industry gathered for the conference. “And I got a little older and I wanted to be … a park ranger. And I’ve never been any of them, but I live in the Cowboy state and I work in the world’s first national park. How do dreams come true?”

The Governor’s Hospitality and Tourism Conference is held by the Wyoming Tourism Division and the Wyoming Restaurant and Lodging Association.

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