Middletown’s visitors bureau gets major overhaul

8:00 a.m. Sunday, March 19, 2017 Middletown

The Middletown Convention and Visitors Bureau is rebooting after concerns raised about its operations led to 11 of its 12 board members being replaced this month.

The refocusing of the official marketing and sales organization for Middletown comes on the heels of a year that saw the city welcome dozens of new businesses and host sold-out events that stimulated the local economy.

“The biggest takeaway is that it’s amazing we have 12 people who are very excited and engaged,” said local entrepreneur Ami Vitori, who was selected president when the new interim board met last week. “They are super-excited and super-engaged.”

The new board will now get to work restructuring the visitors bureau, including re-evaluating how to best go about its mission to support projects that promote Middletown’s growth, stimulate its economy, and encourage businesses to locate here.

“Everything is on the table so we can get the best use of our resources,” Vitori said. “The biggest challenge is how to get the best use our funds to the get the best bang for the buck.”

The MCVB is financially supported through the city’s 3 percent lodging tax, commonly referred to as a bed tax, that’s collected at the city’s 12 hotels and motels.

The amount of money received varies each year, depending on the occupancy rate at the hotels. 

In 2016, Middletown received $330,793 from its bed tax, which went into the general fund, according to Jacob Burton, Middletown’s finance director.

According to an April 2016 letter from Adkins to the MCVB board, about $120,000 was budgeted for MCVB use.

Staff Writer
Middletown City Council has appointed 11 new members to its 12-member Convention and Visitors Bureau board of trustees, including Ami Vitori, far left, local entrepreneur and owner of Torchlight Pass, who was selected president. The MCVB is the official marketing and sales organization for the city of Middletown. STAFF FILE PHOTOS

A complete overhaul of leadership

The request for the resignations of the previous board stemmed from concerns raised by Adkins in April 2016 about various operational issues and strategic plans.

Among the concerns, according to Adkins, were the tensions between MCVB and Downtown Middletown Inc.; that the MCVB was dedicated to funding, but not implementing or completing projects; the need to add a new capacity to assist the city in its marketing and economic development efforts; non-receipt of a grant application for a digital highway sign; non-receipt of a board roster or list of talent needs on the board to recruit new members; and ensuring city staff was aware of when board meetings were being held.

When he received no response from the board, Adkins sent them a letter last month asking for their resignations by Feb. 28 so a new board could be put in place.

Under the MCVB bylaws, the board was required to have 12 members with seven members required for quorum to conduct business. In 2016, the board decided to reduce the number of board members to seven. Of that past board, there were five members who were active. Four of them — Linda Moorman, Frank Wolz, Candace Hunter and Frances Sack — submitted their resignations.

The fifth member, board treasurer Megan Repper, has agreed to stay on through March 31 to help with the transition.

At its March 7 meeting, city council accepted the resignations of the past board and appointed the new board members.

During that meeting, Adkins acknowledged the city did not give proper guidance to the MCVB board.

“We have not given appropriate oversight, guidance and expectations to the convention and visitors bureau and the result is that the board members, while great community volunteers, simply lacked the knowledge of city expectations and broad marketing expertise and the strategic planning needed to market the city in a digital world,” Adkins told council. “That is a reflection on city staff.”

“I genuinely appreciate their time and effort in trying to execute a poorly defined plan with almost no guidelines,” he said.

Wolz said he felt the MCVB had addressed the concerns raised by Adkins.

“We were disappointed that the change came so abruptly,” he said. “The former board members were very dedicated and intent on helping the city. We would have liked to have continued. We hope they’re (the city) on the right track for the CVB and Middletown.”

Up until 2016, the MCVB board subcontracted with the Butler County Visitors Bureau to assist in the marketing of the city to visitors.

Mark Hecquet, executive director of the Butler County Visitors Bureau, said both organizations had a good working relationship over those eight years and was unaware of any issues.

“Middletown (CVB) decided that they wanted to explore and try some things on their own,” Hecquet said of the decision to part ways in early 2016.

He said the BCVB had a $60,000 contract to help the MCVB leverage its dollars to help promote the city.

While a small portion of Middletown is in Warren County, Phil Smith, president and CEO of the Warren County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his organization had never had a relationship with the Middletown CVB.

“We’ll talk to anyone,” Smith said. “My door is always open.”

The MCVB “is morphing in a new direction,” said Middletown Mayor Larry Mulligan, who has served as council’s liaison to the MCVB for the past year. 

“This is another phase and being strategic with money to help attract new events, new residents, new visitors and new businesses,” he said.

Renee Selby of Miss Selby’s Soaps on Central Avenue said she hopes the MCVB works to promote downtown, where she opened her business four years ago.

“I think they need to let all of Middletown and outside of Middletown know what downtown has to offer such as entertainment, shopping and restaurants and that it’s a safe, fun place to enjoy,” she said.

Vitori said the new board is going to step back and look at the best practices of cities Middletown’s size and re-evaluate relationships with the Butler and Warren county visitors boards.

“We have an open canvas and there’s lots we can do,” she said. “I don’t see barriers, but we just need to get the work done.”

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Middletown City Council has appointed 11 new members to its 12-member Convention and Visitors Bureau board of trustees:

  1. Molly Adams, background in journalism and public relations
  2. Craig Baldwin, director of digital strategy for Rockfish
  3. Mica Glaser, owner of The Windamere event center
  4. Betsy Hanavan, has 17 years of marketing and communications experience working for Pfizer.
  5. Dustin Hurley, local attorney with a knowledge of non-profit boards
  6. John Langhorne, an entrepreneur who sold his business to a private equity company and has moved back to Middletown.
  7. Chelsey Levingston, site manager of public and community relations for Atrium Medical Center
  8. Joe Mulligan, attorney, former member of Middletown City Council and the MCVB board
  9. Rick Pearce, president/CEO of The Chamber of Commerce Serving Middletown, Monroe and Trenton
  10. Deanna Shores, former Middletown Board of Education member
  11. Ami Vitori, local entrepreneur, owner of Torchlight Pass and led a branding and strategic communications firm for 10 years

The 12th member of the board currently is Megan Repper, the previous board’s treasurer. She has agreed to stay on through March 31 to provide continuity to any bills, grants or contracts that need to be executed at the board’s request. Upon her resignation, the MCVB board will fill her seat.

Executive Director Mark Schutte is only other person associated with the past board remaining.