AVALON — Santa Catalina Island's "undiscovered season" has been exactly that--tourists have stayed away during the fall and winter in growing numbers since 1979.
But that may end if the Chamber of Commerce is successful with a promotional campaign designed to make the island a year-round attraction.
To complement its "So close, so far away" radio and print ads, the chamber plans to cover freeway billboards during the off-season with a new slogan that would have tourists "Discover" the island as the early Spanish conquistadores did in the 1500s.
A Spanish galleon will replace a sailboat and the Casino building on the chamber's logo.
"We want to give the idea that there is a lot to discover and explore on the island all year long," said chamber executive director Ken Weiss.
Chamber officials said they decided last year that a new promotional campaign was needed after noticing that most Southern California tourist attractions had increased their marketing budgets by 300% over the last five years, while Catalina's increased only 46% over the same period.
During that time, Catalina visitors dropped from about 1 million to fewer than 700,000, chamber officials said, with only about 10% of those visiting in the off-season. Chamber officials said other Southland attractions have had increases, or at least remained stable.
"Catalina was viewed as a 'good buy' in 1979, but because of substantial increases in prices, particularly in accommodations, the discretionary income dollars have been spent elsewhere, in other markets or destinations," said Paxson (Packy) Offield, a vice president with Santa Catalina Island Co., the major landowner in Avalon. It was Offield who masterminded the campaign last year as president of the chamber.
Avalon hotels have increased their prices 300% since 1979, according to the chamber, while the consumer price index has increased only 55%.
The five-year promotional campaign, for now, is not completely funded. The City Council last week unanimously approved the concept of the campaign, but put off until April 1 a decision on the chamber's request to increase wharfage fees and transient taxes to raise $160,000 annually to help pay for the campaign. Any monies raised above $160,000, would go into city coffers.
The $160,000 would be in addition to $60,000 a year that the city already contributes to the chamber.
City Manager John Longley cautioned the council that any increase in the transient tax may be limited by the Gann initiative passed in 1980, which limits general fund expenditures for California cities to 1978 levels, adjusted only according to a city's population growth and the consumer price index.
The wharfage fee, a 60-cent levy on passengers arriving and departing the island on commercial boats, is not affected by the 1980 law because it does not go into the general fund. The transient tax, a 7% bed tax, does go into the general fund.
Before Longley's warning about Gann restrictions, Councilman Hugh (Bud) Smith said he was prepared to suggest a 1% increase in transient taxes and a 10-cent increase in the wharfage fee to raise about $177,000. Mayor Gilbert Saldana said he was thinking about increases of 2% in transient taxes and 5 cents in wharfage ($184,000). Councilman George Scott said he was toying with 1% transient and 5-cent wharfage increases ($120,000).
Even if the city does not contribute, the campaign will be launched, Offield said.
"I'm delighted," he said of the council's support. "It's a positive step forward."
Offield said preliminary talks have been made for a "corporate cooperative," in which a sponsor's logo would accompany the Catalina ads. The companies would split costs with the chamber.
Offield said the chamber has already allocated $50,000 for the design of the new logo, the printing of posters and the preparation of media kits.
The chamber has hired Buddy Doyle and Friends of Long Beach to handle its advertising, and BBDO/Catalina Island for public relations.
A preliminary budget has set aside $80,000 for billboard advertising for four months. Newspaper and magazine advertising is budgeted for $78,000.
The chamber has also purchased a new "one call does it all" phone system that allows callers to make hotel and tour reservations. The new system, expected to be in operation May 1, is designed to reduce the number of people being placed on hold for long periods, reduce receptionist involvement and provide better reporting on the number of calls. Problems in those areas plague the current system.
"A new phone system is essential to the marketing program because the program should effectively increase calls to the chamber, and if those calls cannot be answered, the money expended on advertising has been wasted," Offield said.
Councilman Smith said he was impressed that the campaign was targeted for the off-season, and that the chamber has attempted to solve its own financial problems by increasing its dues.
Chamber officials said income from its membership dues has increased 86%, from $23,000 to $43,000 since 1979-80, and phone system dues 107%, from $15,600 to $32,400.
In comparison, the city's contribution to the chamber over the same period has risen from $56,700 to $60,000, or only 5%.