Despite a proposed tourism budget cut this year and dueling logos, Visit Mobile President and CEO Al Hutchinson said he only decided to resign after 28 months to “step up” to the same position in a “first-tier” city. Others feel frustration with the administration could have been a “contributing factor” in his departure.
Friday, Oct. 28, will be the last day in Mobile for the Richmond, Virginia, native, who said he was “going back to familiar territory” by taking the job as president and CEO of Visit Baltimore.
“Baltimore is a first-tier operation,” he said. “It’s a step up from an operational standpoint.”
Hutchinson is leaving for a city with a $14 million to $15 million annual tourism budget compared to Mobile’s $2.6 million.
The difference in budget between the two cities, as well as a proposed cut to the tourism budget from Mayor Sandy Stimpson, made it difficult for Visit Mobile to keep Hutchinson, immediate past Chairman Mike Lee said.
“Most of us believe Al is a big rock star in that industry. He’s well thought of by everyone, which is evidenced by the fact a Tier 1 city like Baltimore hires him away as head guy,” Lee said. “Al has been very kind and complimentary about his time here, but I’m sure that he felt a little discouraged we couldn’t get the budget up, because he had a lot of good ideas and he knew things that worked other places and we just didn’t have the tools for him.”
Stimpson’s proposed 2016 spending plan offered level funding of $2.2 million to what was then known as the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. During budget negotiations last year, the Mobile City Council and administration agreed upon a deal to cut funding from the WAVE transit system and add the majority of that funding to the CVB, which increased its budget to $2.6 million.
But Stimpson’s proposal this year cut tourism funding to $2 million, with a plan to replace it by creating a tourism improvement district downtown. The district, which wasn’t included in the final budget, would have added a tax on hotel rooms and the funding raised would have been used for marketing the area. The council instead made cuts to other areas of the budget in order to provide level funding to Visit Mobile.
“I think it did contribute to his departure,” Councilman John Williams said of the proposed budget cuts. “If I was cut $600,000 and offered a job at a place with a $14 million budget, I’d take it.”
Williams said he felt the administration would make decisions on tourism-related events “without the collaboration of Visit Mobile” and those actions further strained the relationship.
“It’s unfortunate [the administration] is not in concert with what we’ve asked Visit Mobile to do,” Williams said. “I feel we missed a great opportunity. We had all the stars in place.”
Lee said he’s not sure why the tourism budget was slated to be cut, or why it was so slow to begin with.
“I don’t know and the reason I say that is because there’s a revenue-producing vehicle,” Lee said. “If you look, I think they had a record July. I think they had like $1.2 million worth of lodgings tax — not even counting things like restaurants and sales tax, just lodging tax.”
Lee said he didn’t know whether the administration didn’t have confidence in Visit Mobile, or if it thought the money could be spent in other ways.
Hutchinson said the agency’s budget had no bearing on his decision to leave, although he did admit to failing to properly educate decision-makers on the organization’s importance to the city.
“I believe that we as a tourism organization need to do a better job educating the administration on the value we bring to the community,” he said. “If I had any disappointment, I didn’t do a good enough job at that.”
As leader of Visit Mobile, Hutchinson embarked on rebranding the city. A brand committee was formed and landed on the slogan “Born to Celebrate” with a logo featuring confetti.
While the Mobile City Council uses the confetti logo and brand on its official documents, the administration uses a logo, featuring an upside down fleur de lis, on its official documents and some vehicles.
An effort by the council to make the confetti design the city’s official logo was recently tabled, but hopes are the administration and council can come together on a compromise. In the meantime, the city appears to have two different logos, something Hutchinson is not enthusiastic about.
For instance, two different logos won’t help the marketing effort for the city, as more than one message can “confuse the consumer,” he said.
“I’m hopeful the administration and council can decide the best way to move forward,” Hutchinson said. “It’s a decision they’re going to have to make.”
In a statement, Stimpson said Hutchinson “brought a high level of energy, vision and professionalism” to the agency.
“He was a strong advocate for the hospitality industry and a valuable partner as we continue to build Mobile as a tourist destination,” the statement reads. “We appreciate his efforts to tell Mobile’s story to the world and we wish him well in Baltimore.”
A search for Hutchinson’s replacement will begin soon, Lee said, although it might be challenging.
“The only thing we have to overcome is, they look at our budget and some folks in the past have been very honest with us and said ‘I’m not sure I can get you where you want to be unless you commit to a bigger budget,’” he said.