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Tom Lynch, the president and CEO of the local tourism bureau Visit Oak Park, is proud to say he leads an organization that "trades on history," something Oak Park and the surrounding communities have in abundance with their connections to famous individuals like Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway.
Lynch and three other staff members make up the entirety of the tourism bureau's organizational team, which oversees marketing efforts designed to draw tourists to 21 local communities with a specific emphasis on Oak Park. The organization, which is in the process of celebrating its 20th year, has overcome multiple hurdles in its years of operation, most recently with the economic downturn five years ago and a new branding logo that some in the community deemed as obviously phallic.
Visit Oak Park has largely rebounded, along with the economy, from the past financial troubles and has worked to redesign its controversial "Step Out of Line" logo to better suit the initiative's goal of advertising Oak Park as a place home to unique and independent thinkers like Wright and Hemingway who were not afraid to "step out of line" with their work.
The non-profit tourism organization, which was formerly known as the Oak Park Visitor's Bureau, first fell into financial trouble because of its dependence on state and locally funded grant dollars. The grant funding decreased significantly because of a dramatic drop in tourism spending as people tried to cut costs and save money, according to Lynch. The funding is mainly drawn from pooling statewide and local hotel and motel taxes, including a 4 percent hotel tax in Oak Park that the village government forwards directly to the organization.
Lynch said Visit Oak Park dealt with the lack of funding by cutting costs in non-marketing areas to maintain suitable levels for the organization's marketing initiatives, which include advertisements in print, online and radio.
Direct marketing is usually about 44 percent of Visit Oak Park's budget, and only dropped to approximately 36 percent after funding decreased, according to Lynch. The organization traded the relatively stable marketing percentages for a cut in staff, which originally included six people.
"The most important time to advertise is when you can't afford it," Lynch said. "We kept [advertising] at a level where we could keep doing the job and we are proud of that."
In addition to advertisements in major forms of local and nationwide media, the organization also has a widely distributed information pamphlet along with interactive stations at local airports and train stations that allow visitors to access information through a touch screen.
Lynch said he and Visit Oak Park have altered marketing efforts to appeal to a growing number of young, single people who have well-paying jobs and like to travel as well as visitors seeking destinations that embrace LGBT lifestyles.
When a high volume of tourists come to Oak Park and spend money, Lynch said local citizens benefit as the local economy grows and businesses throw off tax dollars. Tourists who visited Oak Park in 2011 together generated $18.4 million in state and local taxes during their stays, saving the average Oak Park family approximately $1,110 in taxes, according to Visit Oak Park.
The marketing efforts have also created positive results for local businesses, many of which choose to advertise directly through the organization.
Gary Nebiolo, general manager of Winberie's Restaurant & Bar and a member of Visit Oak Park's board, said Winberie's involvement with the organization, which requires a $385 to $500 membership fee, is a "win-win" as it brings in extra business for the restaurant through extensive advertising while also keeping the restaurant involved within the community.
"[Visit Oak Park] really is focused on marketing Oak Park and I think that is where the benefit really comes to the village itself," Nebiolo said. "Oak Park is a really natural formation of tourism."
Rob Biegler, the general manager at the Carleton Hotel of Oak Park, also said he sees benefits to having an association with Visit Oak Park as people who plan corporate events often see the area's attractions and history as a major benefit.
"I think [the organization] does a fine job in promoting Oak Park," Biegler said. "Tourism has improved since the organization started."
As Visit Oak Park plans to welcome a record three million visitors to the wider area it serves in the upcoming year, the organization would like to add to its resources, including a six-minute informational video, a potential lounge area in the current visitor's center on Lake Street and a manned kiosk at the Oak Park Avenue Green Line stop.
However, Lynch was quick to point out the success of the initiatives, as always, was tied to funding.
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