Meetings & Conventions - Tax and Spend - March
Tax and Spend
Cities are banking on hotel tax dollars to fund civic
projects, but how much will the market bear?
By Maria Lenhart
n Portland, Ore., voters in a November 1998
election rejected a proposal to expand the Oregon Convention Center
by raising property taxes. Two months later, Portland's tourism and
civic leaders sought an alternative way to fund the project. The
result: Portland's hotel tax will increase from 9 percent to 11.5
percent on April 1.
In Denver, voters in a November 1999 election approved a
proposal to double the size of the Colorado Convention Center using
funds supplied by an increase in hotel tax. The result: Denver's
hotel tax went from 11.8 percent to 13.55 percent on Jan. 1.
In San Antonio, voters in a November 1999 election approved a
hotel tax increase to fund a $175 million arena to be used for
rodeos and the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. The result: San
Antonio's hotel tax rose from 15 percent to 16.75 percent on Jan.
In these and other cities across the nation, hotel taxes are
creeping upward in an effort to shift the tax burden from local
residents to out-of-towners. Convention centers are being expanded,
sports arenas are getting built, and a host of other civic
improvements are being made, all courtesy of tourists, meeting
attendees and business travelers.
With local residents often reluctant to foot the bill for such
projects, hotel tax increases are viewed by many cities as one of
the few options left. "It's too difficult these days to pass any
other kind of tax measure," says John Kaatz, director of convention
industry services for Conventions, Sports & Leisure
International, a consulting firm in Minneapolis. "If convention
center expansions are going to rely on property tax, they just
Not only are hotel taxes growing in popularity as a funding source,
but they increasingly are being used to finance projects other than
their traditional beneficiaries, convention centers and convention
and visitor bureaus. Rick Webster, director of legislative affairs
for the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association of
America, notes that hotel tax increases now are just as likely to
fund a new sports arena as a convention center.
"A lot of the increases are due to the desire of cities to build
new stadiums in order to prevent their teams from moving away," he
An argument could be made that sports stadiums benefit tourism
and meetings and therefore should be funded by hotel tax. Webster
says TIA does not agree. "Sure, these facilities can be used for
meetings, and some visitors do go to games, but that's minor," he
says. "It's primarily local residents who are in the stands."
Nowhere is this issue more controversial than in Texas, where a
recent state law enables communities to raise hotel taxes for new
sports facilities by popular vote. Partly as a result of voters'
support for new stadiums, Texas cities have some of the highest
hotel taxes in the nation, including Dallas at 15 percent, San
Antonio at 16.75 percent and Houston at 17 percent.
Among those alarmed about the situation is the Texas Hotel &
Motel Association. "The taxpayers and sports team owners like
what's happening, but the hotel industry does not," says Don
Hansen, executive vice president of Austin-based TH&MA. "Our
position is that these taxes should be used for convention centers
and CVBs but not sports stadiums."
Hansen believes excessively high hotel taxes can drive away
business. "Meeting planners are more concerned about hotel taxes
than they were 10 years ago because taxes have gotten so high," he
says. "We could lose major conventions because of this."
Does Hansen have grounds for his fears? He might, considering the
example of New York City, which cut its hotel tax from 19.25
percent to 13.25 percent in 1994 after a travel industry protest
and boycott that was supported by Meeting Professionals
International, the Professional Convention Management Association,
the American Society of Travel Agents and other major
organizations. According to the New York Convention & Visitors
Bureau, the city stood to lose 44 conventions worth an estimated
$54 million if the tax had not been reduced.
New York's hotel tax is now closer to the national average; an
October 1998 TIA report on 50 major U.S. cities put the average
hotel tax at 12.36 percent, up from 10.66 percent in 1995.
How high can a city's hotel tax go without hurting business?
John Kaatz says, "The bar has been raised to about 15 percent, and
it's difficult to go beyond that. It means cities that are at 11
percent or so still have room to grow."
Such is the prevailing view in Portland and Denver, where civic
and tourism leaders insist their cities will remain competitive
even with the higher hotel taxes. "We looked at cities of similar
size and found we still would compare well," says Eugene Dilbeck,
president of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"Our hotel rates are ranked only 27th in the nation, and our tax is
still lower than many of our competitors. If our hotel rates were
$300 a night, that would have been different."
Weighing all factors, Dilbeck believes the 1.75 percent increase
will improve meeting business, not hamper it. "It means we can
expand our convention center, and that makes it well worth the
increase," he says. "Groups that come to Denver are driven by
Agreeing is Joe D'Allesandro, president of the Portland Oregon
Visitors Association. "We have no sales tax in our state, and our
hotel tax is still lower than most other other cities, so we feel
we're still very competitive," he says.
D'Allesandro estimates Portland's hotel tax increase will bring
in an additional $5 million a year, all of which will go toward
expanding the convention center and other visitor-related projects.
Although the increase was supported both by city hall and the
D'Allesandro says the CVB has made it clear to city officials
that they should not regard hotel tax increases as a source for
financing nontourism-related projects. "There is a threshold for
visitor taxes, and we don't want to cross it," he says.
In San Antonio, whose hotel tax ranks just below Houston's as
the nation's highest, there is concern the breaking point has been
passed. The Greater San Antonio Hotel & Motel Association
vigorously opposed last November's 1.75 percent increase, with
several hotels resigning in protest from the San Antonio Chamber of
Commerce, which supported raising the tax.
Steven Moore, executive director of the San Antonio Convention
& Visitors Bureau, says "it is too soon to tell" whether
meetings business will be affected by the increase. As a city-run
agency, the CVB can take no official position on the tax hike, 100
percent of which will be used to build the rodeo/basketball arena.
Moore says, however, that the city remains a good value despite the
In the overall scheme of things, do hotel taxes matter much to
meeting planners? Independent planner Sue Walton, partner in Scott
W. Walton & Associates Ltd. in Evanston, Ill., says although
some of her association clients will not meet in cities where hotel
taxes are too high, taxes are not a major factor in site selection.
"Yes, I do look at taxes, but it's the overall compatibility of the
city that matters most," she says.
Independent planner Joan Eisenstodt, president of Eisenstodt
& Associates in Washington, D.C., says hotel tax should
influence site selection more than it usually does. "It is a major
factor because it can add considerably to the cost of a meeting,"
she says. "It's an issue that we point out frequently to clients
and one that many planners don't look at when they consider
One planner who does pay careful attention to hotel tax is Naomi
Romanchok, meetings and trade show coordinator for the Food Allergy
Network in Fairfax, Va. "When hotel rates are quoted in a contract,
I will play mystery shopper and call the front desk to find out
what taxes are added," she says. "Frequently salespeople can
'forget' to tell you the hard numbers on these taxes. Since many
meeting planners are offered comp rooms on site inspections, they
don't see a real hotel bill."The Top
U.S. cities with the highest hotel tax
Source: Travel Industry Association of America
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