The Investigators: Louisiana spends millions in contracts to promote state tourism

The Investigators: Louisiana spends millions in contracts to promote state tourism
Source: WVUE
Source: WVUE

(WAFB) - Nearly six years after the launch of the "Pick Your Passion" tourism campaign, Louisiana is spending millions to promote itself on the world stage.
"The state is a commodity in the tourism world. We're competing with Las Vegas, Charlotte, Orlando, and New York, where people are going to want to go to vacation, where people want to host events. So it's a very competitive marketplace," said Jay Dardenne, the current commissioner of administration, who formerly oversaw the Office of Tourism when he served as lieutenant governor.

The Office of Tourism alone has a budget of approximately $24 million this year. Millions of those dollars go to the agency's advertising efforts, which are often contracted out. One of those contracts is with the New Orleans-based Trumpet Group, which is in charge of more traditional ad-buys, like those on TV and in magazines.

Documents obtained by the 9News Investigators show that contract had a budget of $5.7 million for fiscal year 2014-2015. When the contract was extended by a year, the yearly budget was bumped up to nearly $8 million, which amounts to a 39 percent boost. One invoice from October of 2014 shows ad buys on the Travel Channel, Pandora, National Geographic, as well as in Garden and Gun Magazine. All of those ads cost less than $30,000.

One of the top-priced ad-buys was a two-page spread in the July 2014 edition of Rolling Stone Magazine. It cost nearly $130,000.

"An interesting magazine that reaches a different audience, but a very culture-driven audience. Very interested obviously in music and we were promoting Louisiana music," Dardenne said.

Under Dardenne's leadership, the Office of Tourism also put an increased focus on the Internet and social media.
"When I was elected lieutenant governor, I told our staff that I wanted to be top ten in the nation for most visited websites for tourism. We were way down in the 30s, 40s, and this is how people making travel decisions nowadays," Dardenne said.

The state began to contract with Florida and Colorado-based Miles Media to run their social accounts and website. Miles' also does work for tourism offices in Florida, Maryland, Ohio, and several other states.

From 2014 to 2015, the contract allowed for a $1.3 million budget. When the contract was extended the following year, the annual cost increased to more than $1.8 million, which is approximately a 40 percent boost year to year. Invoices reveal that the state spent tens of thousands of dollars to promote
tweets. One invoice from January of 2015 topped $70,000 on tweets. In addition, the state also spent thousands more on promoting Facebook posts.

"It looks about average, looking at the click-thru rates, which are actually pretty good," said Lance Porter, a professor at LSU and social media expert with experience working for Disney. "It's more than 2 percent, which is about right for a Facebook campaign."

Documents also show that Miles Media employees were paid anywhere from $100 to $125 per hour to schedule posts on Twitter and Facebook, create social media ads, and monitor social media.

"That falls in line with what I see us pay for lawyers, so the question is, is that on par with legal work? Not everybody likes a lawyer either though," said Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, who has served on the Senate Finance Committee.

Claitor refused to comment on whether he thought it was a good investment for the state to be making without seeing more data. Dardenne defended the hourly wages.

"We don't have people who work for us that do this. It would be a lot more if we had staff that was doing this on a regular basis," Dardenne said.

9News checked in with other states about how they handle their social media accounts. A spokesperson for Georgia's tourism office said they do not contract out running social media. Instead, they have two salaried people in-house. One is paid the equivalent of about $20 per hour. The other is paid around $30 per hour.

Defending the contracts, Dardenne points to the numbers. After fluctuating in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the number of visitors has steadily been on the rise since 2009, though it has slowed in the last two years. An estimated 24 million visitors came to Louisiana in 2009. By 2011, the launch of the ad campaign, that number increased to 25.5 million. By 2015, the number of visitors was up to 28.9 million.

With that growth in visitors also came increased state revenue from tourism-related taxes. In 2011, the state generated $736 million. By 2015, that increased to $843 million.

Overall, Dardenne said that for every dollar spent by the state on tourism, the state brings in more than $30 dollars. He said these contracts have a lot to do with that success.

"We put emphasis on it, we spent some money on it, and we paid huge dividends. Four record breaking years of tourism speaks for itself. With the return on investment we get from people spending money in Louisiana, it's had a huge impact," Dardenne said.

As the new lieutenant governor, Billy Nungesser now oversees tourism for the state. He declined an on-camera interview, but did send the following statement regarding the contracts:

While I'm not going to comment on the firms that currently hold the contracts with the Louisiana Office of Tourism, I want the public to know that we are conducting a thorough request for proposals process to ensure that Louisiana is using both the best firms and getting the most value on behalf of the taxpayers. The return on investment tourism provides is too important to get anything less.

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