Tourism is suffering in Colorado, and as governor, Bill Owens is certainly in a position to help.
In late September, the Colorado Tourism Office -- the relatively new agency in charge of promoting the state as a travel destination and run by a board of governor-appointed representatives of the tourism industry -- voted to study travel trends in the wake of September 11. In October, Owens asked the CTO to present some of those results at the previously scheduled Governor's Tourism Conference.
The findings were disturbing, according to Bill Jensen, CTO chairman and chief operating officer of Vail Mountain. "Tourism is a $7 billion industry in this state, and it employs 150,000 to 200,000 people," he points out, "and one of the things that we found in our study is that if tourism is off by even 10 percent, then $55 million in sales tax to the state and local governments is lost. Many smaller businesses said they were facing liquidity issues because of this.
"While we don't usually feel it is our role to market tourism within the state of Colorado, because of this emergency, we felt that we wanted these businesses to stay viable while we wait for consumer confidence to come back," Jensen adds. So the CTO recommended that Owens ask the legislature to approve an emergency appropriation of $500,000 to fund an unusual advertising campaign targeting Colorado residents. Since many vacationers from other states had said they'd be staying put after the terrorist attacks, the CTO figured locals could make up some of the difference. After all, those locals would probably be staying closer to home themselves.
While the legislature's Joint Budget Committee declined to make the emergency appropriation, the JBC recommended that a division of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, which oversees the CTO, supply the money out of its current budget. And that's what was done.
Then the CTO -- at the suggestion of its advertising firm, Praco -- again asked the governor to help, this time by starring in one of the commercials that would be part of the new ad campaign. (Eventually there will be three or four ads, which will appear intermittently through June.) "We saw that President Bush did an ad for the Travel Industry Association of America. We saw Rudy Giuliani and New York governor George Pataki doing national ads," Jensen says. "So in thinking who would be the best personality for us, we approached the governor and asked if he would make himself available."
Owens agreed, and he now pops up on TV screens in the Coors-like commercial with regularity, wearing a barn coat against a snowy mountain backdrop near Silverthorne and touting the glories of Colorado -- whose governor's office he hopes to retain after a vote ten months from now.
Did the governor consider whether his commercial appearance might present an ethical problem in an election year? "He hasn't gotten any calls from any group raising the concern," says spokesman Dan Hopkins. "If it was a month or two before the election, it might be a much bigger issue. But frankly, the election is a long ways away.... The governor is concerned about the state's economy and keeping part of the economic engine running.
"He wasn't involved in any decision about when his spots would run," Hopkins continues. "I think it was understood that the spots with the governor in them wouldn't run after he announces." Owens plans to officially announce his re-election campaign in February; the election will be held November 5.
And the commercial starring Owens will be retired after January, Jensen says, "to avoid any perception of a conflict in an election campaign."
But it may be too late to avoid that perception, according to state senator Joan Fitz-Gerald, a Democrat from Golden who serves on the CTO board but missed the December meeting at which the television spots were discussed. "Colorado needs to stimulate the desire to travel within Colorado and to make sure our tourism business stays healthy," she says. "But it would have given me pause as an elected official to [appear in the ad]. Even most talk shows, I think, in an election year, won't have someone who is running for office on without also having their opponent.
"The tourism industry needs the message, but when one uses an elected official, there are always pluses and minuses," she adds. "You may attract some people and turn others off. I don't know if Praco took that into consideration. Having the governor in the commercial may not make some people jump up and want to travel throughout the state. Politics is a fluid business. One day you are a hero, and the next day you are not. Not just Bill Owens, but anybody. You don't want your commercial affected by politics that you can't control."
Eugene Dilbeck, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau and another member of the CTO board, understands the potential for concern over Owens's starring role. "There were some private conversations around that," he says. "But the ratings for elected leaders are higher right now than they've ever been in history, and it was the feeling that the head of state would be the most effective spokesperson. The consensus was that this was an emergency crisis situation and a plan for the short term, and that it wouldn't be a political issue."
Although this is the first time a sitting governor has appeared in an advertisement like this, Dilbeck says current events called for it. "You have to weigh the benefits to the business community," he adds. "What elected officials should or shouldn't do is a debate that goes on in a lot of places. But Governor Owens was asked to do this. He didn't come forward and request or demand it."
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The production of the spot, which cost $25,000, was covered by private donations. The money to buy airtime on local TV stations came from the $500,000 given to the CTO by the economic development office.
A second, winter-themed ad features assorted actors, none the governor; Gayle Brody, staff director of the CTO, says that Owens won't be in the summer-themed spots scheduled to run later this year, either.
By then, of course, he'll have his own starring role in the Owens re-election campaign.