PROVINCETOWN — At the annual town meeting on April 4, a hearty debate broke out on the merits of spending to promote tourism and housing. The proximate cause was a rooms tax reallocation measure, by which the tax revenues from visitors’ stays in hotel rooms, campgrounds, and short-term rentals was being divided among five municipal priorities, including the town’s tourism fund and its housing funds.
Splitting a single pot of money between two highly visible priorities had approximately the same effect on the town meeting body that catnip has on a cat. Opinions multiplied, and nearly two dozen people spoke over the course of an hour. More than one person said that if the town’s two business associations were already working to market Provincetown to tourists, then perhaps the town itself could spend less.
The Provincetown Business Guild (PBG) was formed in 1978 to market the town to gay and lesbian tourists, and the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce says it has been “serving Provincetown’s business and community since 1897.” (See related article on this page.)
While those two entities are private nonprofits, Provincetown’s Municipal Advertising Committee was established in 1987, and in 1996 it became the town’s tourism dept. and visitor services board (VSB). These have been entirely funded by a share of the rooms tax since 1996.
A look at the financials of the PBG, the Chamber, and the Tourism Fund shows that the three entities spend money differently.
The tourism dept. and VSB will oversee a $540,000 marketing campaign in the fiscal year that begins in July. There is also $67,000 in matching marketing grants to eight town organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce and PBG, and $134,000 in event marketing grants to 25 organizations, such as the Provincetown Film Festival. Another $180,000 pays to staff the tourism dept.
The PBG, meanwhile, had a total budget of $478,000 in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to the IRS 990 form that nonprofit organizations file yearly. Of that, $137,000 came from member dues and $268,000 was revenue from the many events that the PBG is chartered to create and support, including Carnival, Holly Folly, and Provincetown Pride.
The PBG’s 990 shows that the organization spent about $106,000 to throw those events, and $119,000 on salaries and benefits. The organization spent $122,000 on advertising.
The Chamber of Commerce reported advertising expenditures of $9,512 in 2019 and $10,177 in 2018.
The Chamber had topline revenue of $368,000 in 2019, according to its IRS 990. It spent $182,000 on salaries and benefits, received $87,000 in dues, and had $172,000 in rental income. (Town records show the Board of Trade received the property at 307 Commercial St. for free in 1916, although the two current structures date from 1945 and 1950.)
Chamber president Patrick Patrick said the organization is more focused on advocacy for businesses and for tourists than it is on direct advertising.
“We meet with state officials on a regular basis on issues like transportation, infrastructure, labor issues, any kind of state funding that even catches on tourism,” said Patrick.
“I would also say that we consider all the expenses of running the visitor center at Lopes Square as advertising,” said Patrick. “If I were the Guild producing Carnival, I would call that advertising, too,” he added. “It is surely part of marketing Provincetown.”
The Chamber’s view is that “advertising is great, but if people come here and the bathrooms aren’t open, that’s going to set you back,” said Patrick. “The negative repercussions of not having services exceeds the value of the advertising.”
The town’s tourism budget is often contested, Patrick added. “There’s always competing pressures of what to spend that money on, and it’s been fought over ferociously since its inception,” he said.
The Chamber and the PBG each have dedicated seats on the VSB. The town has much more money to spend than either organization, so the VSB’s supervisory role is powerful.
Because it is public money, though, all of the discussions are carried out in public. VSB meetings are broadcast on PTV, and their decisions are ratified by the select board. When things get contentious, as they did a few years ago when a new logo for the town’s marketing efforts was commissioned and then rejected, the public has multiple opportunities to weigh in.