A strong December could offset a poor September for area lodging businesses

The economic heyday of the mid-2000s is only a fond memory for most businesses and sales tax-driven entities. It was a time of expansion, a time of a healthy real estate market and a time of robust sales.

There has been some recovery, but Jim Divincen, Tri-County Lodging Association executive director, says lodging facility owners feel the lake area is still in a soft economy. Sales tax revenue and lodging numbers are key indicators of economic health for communities at the lake, and those numbers are better than recent years, but fall short of the mid-2000s.

It's too early for the TCLA and the cities of Osage Beach and Lake Ozark to know how their years will end up since a good month or a bad month could make the difference.

Divincen will report to his board of directors this week that year-to-date through September, lodging tax collections were down 5.11 percent.

"The lodging community had a less-than-expected September," he acknowledged, "but for the two previous months ending Aug. 31, lodging tax collections were up 5.54 percent."

Osage Beach City Administrator Nancy Viselli sees it pretty much the same way. Good December numbers could help put the city over its projected 2013 budget, but poor numbers could mean it falls slightly short.

"While sales are obviously not what they were in 2004 through 2006, I think Osage Beach is doing quite well compared to the overall economy of the state," she said.

Divincen believes the lower September numbers were an anomaly.

"I've heard reports (among lodging facilities) of fairly healthy October revenues, but those figures aren't available yet," he said. He said according to the Missouri Hotel and Motel Lodging Association for the month of September, the Branson, Joplin and Columbia markets were down in number of rooms sold as well. St. Louis was up 1.2 percent and the state overall was up 2 percent in rooms sold.

The TCLA and its sister organization Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitor Bureau are taking a proactive approach to increasing not only lodging numbers but also visits to the lake.

The TCLA and CVB recently partnered to do two new things with funlake.com, the website used to drive interest in the lake, Divincen said.

•The TCLA board has invested funds for a complete website rebuild with Steady Rain, the company used by the Missouri Division of Tourism.

•The board approved the purchase of software called "Jack Rabbit" that will allow users to search for lodging options based on rate, location, amenities, special offers and other search options.

The TCLA also continues to financially and promotionally assist new special events and festivals in the off-season business cycles.

Divincen says research indicates that more than 90 percent of all travel is being planned online. As a result, the TCLA has decreased the amount of print advertising over the past several years and increased its online search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns.

Osage Beach

The city is hoping that December numbers reach at least $352,000. If so, the city will meet its year-end budget.

"I'm hopeful that the October sales (received in December) will put us at our original projections for the year," Viselli said.

The city projected general fund revenue of $4.5 million by year's end, and as of Nov. 30 was at $4,027,566. City officials forecast sales of $416,700 for the final month of the year, and would start the 2014 budget year at $64,266 if that estimate holds true.

Viselli said there are other sources of revenue for the city besides sales tax that have made a difference this year.

"Our other sources of revenue have exceeded out budget for the year with building permits being one of the main increases," she explained. So even if our sales come in at $4.38 million we are still estimating to end the year more than $25,000 over budget."

With the uncertainty in revenues from month to month, Viselli said the city is doing what is always does: Watch expenditures closely and come in under budget. One of the expenses eliminated for 2014 is out-of-state employee training, which can be quite expensive, she noted.

Lake Ozark

And in Lake Ozark, where numbers virtually parallel that of Osage Beach, there's a watchful eye on revenues and expenditures.

We are striving to maintain our reserves and continue to provide service to the public with the resources that we expect to have available in terms of revenues while continuing to monitor and control our expenditures," City Administrator Dave Van Dee said.