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Tourism chief Kimberlin retiring after 35 years at Springfield CVB

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As the sun sets on 2022, certain people cast a particularly long shadow.

Tracy Kimberlin, director of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. since 1987, is retiring from his post at year’s end, to be succeeded by Mark Hecquet, a tourism marketing specialist from Ohio, on Jan. 17.

Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe said Kimberlin will be hard to replace.

“I work with a lot of convention and visitors bureau directors across the state, and they’re all very talented, but Tracy’s at the top of the list,” Kehoe said. “What he has done for this community is unbelievable.”

Kimberlin’s contributions extend beyond the Springfield region, however. Stephen Foutes, director of the state’s Division of Tourism, said Kimberlin has been an invaluable voice in the industry.

“Tracy Kimberlin has been a good friend and a mentor to many people in the tourism industry, myself included,” Foutes said. “From my earliest meetings with Tracy, it was clear he was a respected leader, and someone who cares about the people he collaborates with and the people who work to make our industry successful.”

Kimberlin was in a reflective mood when Springfield Business Journal caught up with him in mid-December. He said he counted his biggest wins as happening during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

While most of the nation’s CVBs were laying off staff, reducing salaries and, in Kimberlin’s words, “whacking budgets like crazy” in anticipation of a travel stoppage, the Springfield CVB took a more measured approach.

“We had a healthy cash reserve at that point, but we knew it wasn’t going to last long the way business was headed,” Kimberlin said. “I told the board we wanted to keep all staff on – we didn’t want to reduce anyone’s salary, so we cut all advertising and as many other expenses as we possibly could.”

The staff started working on programming, Kimberlin said – as much as they could implement quickly post-pandemic.

“The room tax went to hell in a handbasket,” he said.

Revenue collected with the 5% hotel/motel lodging tax hit an all-time low in May 2020 at $38,637 for the month. That number is seen as a key indicator for the health of the region’s tourism and is the primary funding source for the CVB.

“The prior May was $326,006.32,” Kimberlin said, his finger under a line in a binder he’s consulting. “We lost almost $300,000 in revenue in one month.”

But Kimberlin kept his collaborators at work at a time when many agencies were pulling back.

This, plus an aggressive marketing strategy put into place at the onset of the pandemic, would pay dividends for the Springfield CVB.

Pandemic strategy
Kimberlin said he caught a lucky break near the start of the pandemic. First, he got a cash offer on property the CVB owned at the corner of U.S. Highway 65 and Chestnut Expressway – a site once eyeballed for a possible visitor information center, though smartphones eliminated the need.

The cash offer of $674,000 from Gordon Elliott of Elliott Lodging Ltd., owner of the adjacent Greenstay Inn, brought a tidy profit on land the CVB had paid just $250,000 for in summer 2020.

The bureau also received tax credits and grants totaling $3.1 million, and he said that allowed the staff to pursue the extensive advertising and promotion campaign they had been working on so assiduously.

“We started advertising in September 2020,” he said. “I thought it was too early – it probably was. But it set the stage for what happened later.”

Kimberlin said advertising efforts continued heavily through June 2021, with the CVB spending some $2.5 million during that period. One campaign, titled “Give Yourself a Weekend,” shows masked visitors enjoying outdoor and socially distanced fun in the Queen City and notes it is “just the break you need when you just need a break.”

“We were in the marketplace, advertising – us and Branson – when most destinations couldn’t afford it,” he said. “There was a huge, pent-up demand for travel. In October 2020, our business started really climbing, and by January 2021, we had recovered to pre-pandemic levels.”

In short, it took the Springfield CVB about nine months to recover from the pandemic.

“It took the average destination 24 months,” Kimberlin said. “We started setting records. 2021 was a record year, and this year will beat 2021.”

Not bad, after the CVB suffered the worst year in its history in 2020.

In 2021, the CVB reported nearly 1.5 million hotel rooms occupied over the course of the year. The 2022 total is on track to top 1.44 million rooms booked, Kimberlin said.

CVB data show the occupancy rate in 2020 was only 45.5%, versus 64.7% in 2021, and the average daily rate for hotel rooms grew 19% to $88.40 year to year. Revenue per available room was up nearly 70% to $57.21 in 2021, per past SBJ reporting.

The marketing plan was the difference-maker, according to Kimberlin.

“I’ve always been told if you’re in the marketplace advertising when your competition isn’t, you’re likely going to pick up market share,” he said. “That was very clearly shown.”

He called the pandemic “a unique case study,” modeling a trait Kehoe praised him for: an analytical mindset, coupled with the ability to spot trends early.

“You know, you really can tell what leadership is all about when you have something thrown at you like COVID, right?” Kehoe said. “All of a sudden, it affects your market, and you never planned for it. You never knew it existed, and Tracy just kept a steady hand through that whole thing.”

Other contributions
The Missouri Division of Tourism has an annual award to honor those who have gone above and beyond to support the tourism industry, and as of this year, it is known as the Tracy Kimberlin Hospitality Award.

The division also created the Tracy Kimberlin Travel & Tourism Scholarship to support students pursuing a degree in the tourism industry, with the first scholarship to be awarded in spring 2023.

Kimberlin’s state and national influence stems from a tourism funding mechanism he designed called the Missouri Model. Legislation passed at the state level in 1993 resulted in tourism funding being provided by growth in sales tax revenue generated by specific parts of the travel industry, rather than through new taxes. The model nearly quadrupled the Missouri Division of Tourism’s budget from 1993-2015, the division reported, and it earned the state the Travel Industry Association of America’s Odyssey Award for Tourism Awareness in 1993.

Kimberlin said he traveled quite a bit to other states to talk about how the Missouri Model worked. It’s an innovation that earned him the distinction of being named to the state’s Travel and Tourism Hall of Fame in 1994.

Other signal achievements for Kimberlin included early promotion of sports tourism with the hiring of a sports sales manager in 1991 and continued support of sports tourism efforts by providing matching funds for American Rescue Plan improvements to sports facilities that are now underway.

While he acknowledged he has a knack for seeing the big picture and anticipating trends, he also credited the CVB’s success to a staff that does the same.

“I’m leaving, but I’m not concerned at all about the future of the CVB,” he said. “We’re in a good place because of all the people that work here and will still be working here when I’m gone. I’m just one of them.”

Kimberlin earned the CVB’s own Pinnacle Award for contributions to the Springfield area’s travel industry in 2013. In his 2016 SBJ Men of the Year profile, he said that was an award that meant a lot to him.

“These are the people who know me better professionally than anyone else, and to have them select me for this award was very special,” he said.

Hubert Heck, marketing director for Springfield’s drive-thru show cave, Fantastic Caverns, said Kimberlin would be missed.

“Tracy has left a truly positive and long-lasting impact on the tourism industry,” he said via email. “Springfield and the entire state of Missouri have benefited from the work Tracy has done. Missouri is known as the Cave State, and Tracy has helped promote caves within our state throughout his life.”

Mayor Ken McClure said Kimberlin’s contributions are monumental and go well beyond the city.

“Tracy Kimberlin, in my opinion, has been the most significant player in the growth of the tourism industry, not only in Springfield, but, indeed, the entire state of Missouri,” McClure said. “He is the architect of the tourism funding formula used to fund the Division of Tourism, which, in turn, translates into assistance for communities throughout the state.”

McClure said Kimberlin has been instrumental in the growth of tourism in Springfield throughout his career, but never more than the post-pandemic period.

“Under Tracy’s superb leadership, Springfield was prepared and has recovered more quickly than other communities,” McClure said. “That is all due to him.”

Kimberlin said in retirement, he might do some consulting and possibly some lobbying for the travel industry. He also looks forward to hitting the links.


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