6 Tips for State Tourism Matching Fund Grants
Many states offer a variety of grants to help local organizations develop tourism within the state. Most common among these are the tourism matching funds grants. Nationwide, these grants account for tens of millions of marketing dollars that are available to organizations willing to put in the time, preparation and follow up necessary to complete the application process, manage the grant requirements and administer the grant funded activities.
IT MAY SOUND DAUNTING AT FIRST, BUT THERE ARE SOME BIG REWARDS.
This past year in Colorado, the Colorado Distillers Guild landed a $25,000 grant to expand the Colorado Spirits Trail marketing plan and encourage travelers to visit distilleries, farms, historic sites and recreational areas across the state. One county got $25,000 to develop new marketing assets, including video, photography, and graphics they planned to use to launch an aggressive, regional marketing campaign. Attractions in the state used their monies to create new visitors guides, conduct valuable strategic planning and build their new websites. Even the state’s Parks & Wildlife made use of these grants to expand its photographic asset library to include images of local wildlife, scenic views and people having fun while making use of parks.
In New York State, last year’s approved budget included nearly $4.5 million in funding for the Tourism Matching Funds Grant program. Partners in New York State have used these funds to conduct sales missions, promote their destinations at industry trade shows, increase their advertising reach, conduct market research, build their own databases and produce cooperative marketing campaigns that incorporated attractions, restaurants, hotels and destination marketing organizations.
After looking at a number of successfully funded grants and a few that didn’t make the cut, we identified a few tips that can help you put together a better grant application and increase the impact of your marketing dollars. Each grant has its own requirements and specifics; there’s no guaranteed right way to do this but these tips will help you no matter what grant you’re pursuing.
#1 DO YOUR RESEARCH
There’s a lot of information available online. So much so that it can be a bit overwhelming. Start by taking a look at your state economic development authority’s website where you can usually find grant instructions, deadlines, requirements and information on how to apply. In many states, you’ll even find a list of grants that had been previously funded which can give you some good ideas when considering what your project will be. New York lists these under two place - the New York State Council on the Arts and Empire State Development, Market NY. Also online is that of the Colorado Tourism Office. Take a look to see which grant programs may be the best match to your project and organization. Several states have made it easier to find grants using their online search & filter tools.
#2 KNOW THE CRITERIA AND HOW APPLICATIONS ARE SCORED
You’ve got to know how tourism grants are going to be scored if you’re going to write a successful application. You want to be sure that you know what the judges are looking for and what categories they’ll be scoring. If the state issues these grants within certain regions, make sure your objectives are aligned with the priorities of your region. Take a moment to find your region’s progress report and strategic plan. New Yorkers can find the REDC resources here.
If your state or region does not mention tourism as a strategic objective, there are a number of other ways to match your application with their plans. Here are a couple indicators that might help:
Export goals. Tourism is an export industry. It generates spending within the local economy by consumers who live outside of the area.
Industry references. Food & drink are important parts of any travel experience. Look for references to local agriculture or food industries and regional beverages that you can tie in with your project. Think about Kentucky bourbon and seafood from Louisiana as two great examples.
Job growth. Connect your project with the tourism industry jobs in your area. More tourists = more people working.
Finding these connections will make a huge impact on your overall score.
#3 PLAN AHEAD TO INCORPORATE VENDORS THAT ARE MINORITY AND/OR WOMEN OWNED
Several states, including New York, require that a certain percentage of projects be spent with certified minority or women-owned businesses. This is one of those seemingly minor details that can get your application rejected pretty quickly.
In many cases, even when the project is based on a single purchase like media buy or a turn-key program, they may still be required to spend as much as 35% with a minority or women owned business. Look for ways to work with local consultants and certified agencies to add value to your projects. Consider adding a design component, new print, digital or photo assets or even a social media campaign that supports the broader ambitions of your project.
#4 PICK YOUR PARTNERS UP FRONT
You might not have much time to start work on your program once it has been funded. Getting support from local and regional partners while you’re in the planning stage can make a big difference, lending credibility and weight to your application. Having these folks onboard ahead of time means that you can get to work right away. Working with partners can also increase the value of your grant with their in-kind or financial contributions and intellectual contributions.
#5 MEET THE DECISION MAKERS
The people who review and score your application are the decision makers for each grant. These may include the regional influencers who can account for as much as 20-30% of your overall score. Aligning your project with regional goals can lead to that higher regional score. This gets you more attention at the state level. Those who give scores are people too and they want to put their support behind projects that are already generating local buzz. Use local networking events, trade shows, education programs and the good old-fashioned telephone to put yourself in front of the decision makers. Keep your eyes open for (or create for yourself) some of these activities:
Meet with the regional & state development staff. Request a meeting to introduce yourself and, while you’re there, get some feedback on your project. The same goes for members of the scoring committee.
Open forums. Many states and their respective regions have monthly or quarterly meetings that are open to all interested parties. You might have a chance to say a few words about your project or you can make great use of the networking opportunities before & after the meeting to talk with decision makers & influencers.
State workshops. Some states (NY is one of them) offer workshops for those interested in working with the state and applying for grants. Go! You’ll both learn about the process and get a chance to meet the people who are involved in the process.
Affiliate groups. Search for entities within your area that are specific to your industry and, specifically, those connected with tourism and the arts. Attend a couple of their meetings to learn more about the projects that are already on the table, those they’re considering and you might even have a chance to talk about your own project.
#6 THE MONEY GAME
No, I’m not suggesting you bribe anyone. Matching fund grants are just that - the state will match the funds you’re spending on the approved project. In nearly every state, payments from the grant fund are reimbursements for monies you’ve already spent. You’ve got to be prepared to lay out the cash needed to find your project and hit your milestones before you get the money back from the grant. You don’t want to get stuck without the money you need to do the work today even if there’s a promise that you’ll get reimbursed later on.
Here are a few points to consider:
Local Partners. There may be local partners who will join you for the project and can commit, in advance, to their share of the cash match.
Loans & Lines of Credit. Talk with your banker about a line of credit which would give you enough cash to cross the first milestone and get reimbursement. In many cases, the cost of these lines of credit and interest expense may be considered part of the grant.
Fully Funded Equities. Consider working with your partners to fully fund the grant with a cash investment. Once the project is completed, you’ve been reimbursed by the state, you and your partners have money to reinvest in another project or second grant. If you set this up properly at the beginning, you and your partners can continue turning over your initial investment for countless future programs.
Let’s wrap this up… . there are lots of grants and programs available to help fund your tourism related projects. Do your research, finish the homework and plan to succeed. These three factors will help you build a a stronger grant application that’s more likely to get funded.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR…
Stephen Ekstrom is a well-recognized tourism marketing expert whose influence reaches millions of travelers every year. He's been profiled by the New York Times and appeared on CBS, NBC and NY1. He is a fixture in the travel trade and has served as a board member, expert panelist, committee chair, mentor and program facilitator. Relate Strategy Group, founded by Ekstrom in 2010, manages a network of over 22,000 opted-in global travel trade buyers and professional travel planners, advising, teaching and assisting smart travel industry suppliers and destination marketers. Stephen currently lives in South Florida with his two dogs, Match & Rudy.