Remarks to 2009 Tourism Conference

September 30, 2009

Local and state officials;

Tourism and economic development professionals; and

Fellow Missourians ...

It's great to be back here in Branson, the live music show capital of the world. 

Fifty years ago, the Mabee family raised the curtain on Branson's first live music show ... at the world-class Baldknobbers' Theater.  With their light-hearted blend of music and comedy, it soon became clear that the Baldknobbers were here to stay.

Over the past five decades, Branson has grown quickly.  Actors, musicians and comedians have entertained millions of visitors from across the globe - right here in the heart of our beautiful Ozarks.  Today, more than 100 theaters up and down the strip delight audiences every single day during the height of tourist season.

And so, as I begin my remarks this afternoon, I'd like to express my congratulations to the "Maybe" family and to all of those who are a part of Branson's amazing story. 

And here's to many more years of success to come.

I would also like to thank Katie Steele Danner and the team at the Missouri Department of Economic Development for organizing this event.  And thanks to you all for taking part in this important conference.

Here in Missouri, we're blessed with the right location, natural beauty and attractions that make us a destination for visitors from across our country and around the world.  From the arts and entertainment ... to our state parks and waterways ... to our athletic teams ... and fine restaurants and hotels ... Missouri truly offers something for everyone.

As tourism professionals and state leaders, it's our job to find the best way to spread the news about Missouri with potential visitors in neighboring states and distant countries.  It's a job that demands constant innovation and the careful and strategic use of Missouri taxpayers' hard-earned dollars.

Earlier this year, we saw a clear example of the efficient and effective use of these resources when the eyes of the world were on Missouri for the 2009 All-Star Game.  This was the first time the Show-Me State had hosted Major League Baseball's mid-summer classic since 1973 ... and what a tremendous success it was.

I was delighted to participate in the festivities in a number of ways ... including leading the charity fun-run to support cancer research; and throwing out the first pitch at the championship Challenger baseball game for hundreds of youth with disabilities from all across Missouri and Illinois. ...

Being on the field with those kids and volunteers was an honor.  And let me tell you, each of them was a real All-Star.

Now that we're a few months past the game, we're starting to crunch the numbers on the total economic impact the All-Star events had on Missouri.  And the early reports are exciting. 

Sixty million dollars.  That's how much the game and other All-Star events were projected to pump directly into our economy, according to the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Bureau. 
Seventy million dollars.  That's the value of all the positive publicity St. Louis and Missouri got - just during the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby.  That represents more than 100 hours of broadcast coverage of those two events to more than 75 million viewers around the world ... viewers who saw a prime-time showcase of Missouri's exciting attractions and hometown hospitality.

I'm proud that the state was an active partner in making the game a success ... by providing support for planning and law enforcement, and by investing state advertising dollars in promoting the game and surrounding activities.  Together, we saw to it that Missouri shined brightly on the world's stage. 

We'll be reaping the benefits of this investment for years to come.

To make sure that our tourism industry continues to have this kind of success, we must look ahead and focus on our next steps ... We need to develop an action plan to make Missouri a preeminent destination for business and vacation travel.  So today, I'm going to outline three initial steps we must take together:

First, we need to manage our limited state resources effectively and strategically;
Second, we need to intensify our use of the Internet as the fast lane for getting our message out and bringing tourism dollars in;
And third, we need to revitalize and promote tourism at Missouri State Parks

These three steps will point us in the right direction as we continue to grow our tourism industry.  Let me discuss each of them in some detail.

We all know that times are tough.  Unemployment is at the highest level in decades, and small businesses across the state are struggling to keep their doors open.

During these difficult economic times, we've had to make tough decisions about funding for a number of state programs and departments.  But, unlike California or Illinois and a number of other states, we began to plan and make these decisions early ... and we've avoided the dire economic crises many other states are facing.

As chief executive, it is my responsibility to ensure that our state government lives within its means, just like your businesses and your families must do.  Each and every day, real Missourians are making real choices about where they can trim their budgets.  And make no mistake: Those decisions have real consequences.

In state government, we face similar decisions.  And as hard as they might be sometimes, I have not and will not shy away from making those hard calls.  That is the job I was elected to do.

Keeping our budget in line requires making difficult decisions about where to invest limited state resources ... and it also requires us to look for creative, innovative solutions to make state government more efficient and effective.

Nowhere do the challenges of today better align with the opportunities of tomorrow than on the World Wide Web.  

That brings me to my second key point: marketing Missouri in cyberspace.  We're nearly a decade into the 21st century ... a century focused on e-mails, not postcards.  On text messages, not phone calls.  On Web sites, not bricks-and-mortar facilities. 

As we look for opportunities to streamline government operations; to enhance services for our citizens; and to promote tourism in Missouri, we must be aggressive in building and enhancing our online presence.

Imagine a family from Illinois planning a road trip to Missouri. 

That family could be headed to Presley's Country Jubilee here in Branson, a ball game in Kansas City, or to a float trip down on the Current River.  More likely than not, they mapped their destinations and made their reservations online.

According to researchers from Silver Dollar City - folks who know a thing or two about tourism - more than half of visitors to our state are now planning their trips on the Internet.  That means that in 2009, our Illinois family is going to know their destination; map their route; book their hotels; and buy their tickets long before they close the trunk and start the car.

And if my family is any indication, it probably won't be just the parents surfing the Web to plan that trip ... Their kids ... maybe 18 or 19, and even younger ... could very well be the ones finding the information and making the decisions about where to go and what to do.

The world has gone digital.  That's a fundamental reality that is changing the way we have to promote Missouri and invest the limited resources we have to do so.  Potential visitors want information before they ever leave home.  That information must be easily accessible and understandable.  And it must be available online.

The Internet has unlimited potential to transform tourism here in Missouri.  Our challenge is to determine the most effective strategy make that happen.

The third important step I want to share with you today concerns what I believe to be a truly priceless state treasure.  A treasure that represents who Missourians are as a people; embodies what our values are as a state; and offers a tremendous opportunity to grow our tourism industry. 

That treasure is our system of Missouri State Parks.

Today, Missouri boasts 83 state parks and historic sites.  Our parks represent Missouri's rich diversity of landscapes, ecosystems and cultural landmarks - from canyons to caves, waterways to woodlands, and Civil War battlefields to artists' homes.  These parks include more than 40 separate campgrounds and 960 miles of trails. 

Since 1984, our parks have been supported by a dedicated one-tenth-of-one-percent sales tax.  Missouri voters have overwhelmingly re-approved this sales tax multiple times, and it will return to the ballot in 2016.

While Missourians' support for our state parks remains strong, we have seen a startling trend in attendance at the parks over the past 10 years.  My staff will be distributing a chart with this information after my remarks, but let me share a few highlights with you now. 

In 1999, Missouri State Parks reported more than 18.2 million visits.  Since then, the trend is unmistakable ... down, down, down.

In the last two years alone, there were ...

28,000 fewer visits to Rock Bridge State Park near Columbia;
3,700 fewer visits to the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis;
4,900 fewer visits to Grand Gulf State Park in southern Missouri;
52,200 fewer visits to Watkins Mill near Kansas City.

Unfortunately, these are just a few examples.  Overall, statewide park attendance bottomed out last year at 14.8 million visits.

The implications, quite frankly, are troubling. 

As Ken Burns is reminding us this week in his new documentary on our national parks, connecting with the natural beauty of our land is a distinctively American tradition.  Camping, hiking, biking and fishing are important parts of the American experience - and our Missouri way of life. 

We relish feeling of earth under our feet; the beauty of our trees and flowers; the fresh taste of our air. Here in Missouri, we truly understand the meaning of the Psalm, "O Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom, you have made them all."

It's worth remembering that what first led folks here to Branson was its natural beauty.  In the early 1900's - long before the lights or the shows, or even the town called Branson - a young man named Harold Bell Wright headed for the clear waters of this area in search of a cure for his consumption - as tuberculosis was called then.  While he was visiting, Wright collected stories about the beautiful scenery, the peaceful lifestyle and the friendly people he found here.  His novel, published in 1907, was called "The Shepherd of the Hills."

In 1912, when Branson was incorporated, the community numbered only 1,200.  But Wright's book began to lure more visitors to the sleepy town - folks who were looking for an inexpensive get-away, especially those who loved the challenge of bass or trout fishing on the crystal-clear waters of Lake Taneycomo. 

One of those fishermen was country music superstar Roy Clark, who in 1983 became the first big celebrity to brand his own theater here in Branson.

Boosting attendance at our state parks will help preserve that vital part of our Missouri heritage.  And it will also help grow our tourism industry, even in light of our current economic challenges.

Gas prices are hovering well above $2 a gallon.  The cost of food and lodging continues to rise. 

When times are tight, families are looking for value.  But they also want a quality experience.

Quality and value. 

That's where our state parks come in.

Families constitute a major percentage of visitors to Missouri every year.  According to the Missouri Tourism Division, about 24 percent of those traveling to Missouri do so with their families.  When you look at a place like Branson, that number jumps even higher - up to about 41 percent.

For single visitors, or retired couples, or families with mini-vans full of kids, our state parks offer visitors the value they need with the unparalleled quality they want. 

Think about the parks in your part of the state ...

Where I grew up, in De Soto, we were just a two-hour drive from some of the best trout fishing in the world ... at Montauk State Park; 
Up in Kansas City, a relaxing afternoon at Weston Bend is only a short drive away;
And over in St. Louis, the walking trails of Babler State Park are just a half hour from downtown.

We've got excellent destinations in every region of our state.  We just need to market our parks as part of the complete package families are looking for.

Consider a family of four from Kansas heading to Branson for a weekend of shows and fun at Silver Dollar City.  They'll spend about $320 a day on their trip, according to the Tourism Division.  That amount includes food, lodging, entertainment, transportation and more ... the complete package.

Now, imagine we convinced that family to spend an extra day to enjoy Table Rock State Park ... our most-visited state park, right here in Branson's back yard.

The Division of Tourism has figured out that every visitor spends about 81 bucks a day in Missouri. Last year, more than 39 million people visited the Show-Me State. 

Get that Jayhawk family, and each of our visitors, to stick around for just one more day to visit a Missouri State Park ... and it won't take long until we've added billions to our economy.  Billions.

We're not talking about taking a sliver of the tourism pie for parks.  We're talking using our state parks to grow the size of the whole pie so that all of our destinations and attractions benefit.

That's a win for all of us - more of our hotel rooms filled; more meals served; and more tickets sold.

This is about moving our entire tourism industry forward.

So.  How do we get there?

Well, as with any major initiative, it's going to take all of us pulling in the same direction. 

My administration has hit the ground running in several areas.

We have already started construction on the Rock Island Connector on the Katy Trail, which will link the Kansas City region with one of our signature State Parks. 

As we're adding this section of trail, we're working from West to East - so folks in Kansas City can enjoy this cross-state trail as quickly as possible.

We've also appointed a dynamic and experienced deputy director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to focus specifically on State Parks.  Bill Bryan, who has worked in state government for years both in the Attorney General's Office and as the state's chief information officer, will bring a diverse set of skills and great passion to this position. 

Bill's been a fly-fisherman for most of his life, and he's hiked and paddled his way through every corner of our state.  I'm confident Bill will do a terrific job, especially in forging the link between the World Wide Web and promoting of our State Parks.

In the months ahead, we'll be laying out a bold plan to boost attendance at Missouri State Parks, with an ambitious goal of 20-million visitors a year.  That's going to take creativity, dedication and hard work.  But I'm confident we can do it.

And that's where we need your support. 

Many of the sharpest minds in our tourism industry are in this room today.  You know the strategy.  You know marketing.  And you know Missouri. 

As we begin to look carefully at our resources and decide the best path forward, Bill Bryan and his team will be calling on you for ideas and suggestions.  Together, we'll find the most effective ways to harness the potential of our State Parks for the benefit of our tourism industry and the entire state.

One-hundred years ago, another Missouri Governor was looking for ways to spark economic development and growth. 

Governor Herbert Hadley appreciated the great beauty of the Missouri Ozarks.  And as the first Republican Governor since Reconstruction, he had a taste for adventure.  So Governor Hadley planned a canoe expedition on the Current River to promote travel to the region.

The night before the trip, the Governor entertained guests with a banquet in Salem, featuring baked 'possum for a buck-fifty a head.  The next morning, Governor Hadley and his party - including about 40 business leaders, a Congressman, local officials and a small pack of journalists - set out in 10 flat-bottomed boats for a voyage from Welch's Spring to Round Spring. 

Despite the moans of a few unhappy reporters, the float was a great success.  Publicity in national newspapers helped spark a new wave of visitors to Missouri, developing a thriving industry of restaurants, lodges and outfitters.

In the years to come, tourism grew across the region - and it led to increased investment in other industries in southern Missouri as well.

Just as Governor Hadley saw an opportunity to grow Missouri's economy through tourism in 1909, we face a similar turning point today.  A lot's changed - our modes of communication and travel; our industries and the foundation of our economy.

But the natural wealth and beauty of Missouri remains as strong as ever.  I am committed to promoting our State Parks as a means to increase tourism, and to turn our economy around.

Effectively investing our limited state resources. 

Unlocking the power of the Web. 

Getting the word out about Missouri's State Parks.

As your Governor, I see those as three critical challenges - and exciting opportunities - that lie ahead for our tourism industry.  I thank you for your continued leadership for Missouri.  And I look forward to working with you to accomplish this shared mission.

Thank you.