Changes Underway for City’s Cheerleader

Judith Bijlani

Judith Bijlani

The nine-year president and chief executive of the organization that embraces the task of wooing year-round visitors to Laguna Beach will leave the post effective Friday, Jan. 24.

The departure of Judith Bijlani, who intends to pursue other opportunities, including travel writing and consulting, isn’t the only change underway at the recently renamed Visit Laguna Beach, its chairman, Karyn Philippsen, and other board members said in an interview Tuesday.

The visitor-promoting entity, whose dues-paying members included 26 hotels and scores of restaurants, recently re-organized and now welcomes affiliations with other visitor-serving merchants in town, said Philippsen, a trend embraced by visitor’s bureaus industry wide.

The shift to a broader-based partnership affiliation will most visibly be reflected in the organization’s annual visitor’s guide. The booklet that is available at the Visit Laguna Beach website is mailed to visitors and callers who request them and are distributed by “concierges” at the organization’s Forest Avenue office, within the downtown retailer Laguna Wine, Coffee and Specialty Foods.

As a result, the guides will become a more comprehensive index of the town’s services, like a “phone directory,” said board member Mark Orgill, who co-owns the Seven Degrees event center in Laguna Canyon. Shopping is an important component of the visitor experience, added newly elected board member Chris Keller, who controls three restaurants and two local hotels in town.

“We’re doing the best thing for the visitors,” said Philippsen, a local resident and hotel consultant. Previously, the guide distributed by the organization listed only its own members and advertisers.

And while Visit Laguna Beach describes itself as the official destination marketing organization for the city of Laguna Beach, the organization lacks a formal government contract to serve as economic whip for the town’s hospitality industry. It does possess a tourism promotion agreement with the city, formalized in 2001. The organization’s performance and its marketing mission, which has changed with the emergence of digital technology since the pact was struck, undergoes an annual review, City Manager John Pietig said.

“We have a robust discussion and I’m impressed with what they’re doing and staying on top of evolving technology,” said Pietig, who admitted to fascination with the detailed feedback Visit Laguna Beach collects from its social media efforts and alliances with foreign partners.

The 2001 pact established a Business Improvement District that included every hotel in town and imposed an additional 2 percent bed tax on their guests to better fund Visit Laguna Beach and arts organizations. The extra tax that is collected by the city treasurer should tally $1.7 million in the current fiscal year, according to a staff report last May. Half of the BID funds — $860,000 — underwrites 81 percent of Visit Laguna Beach’s budget while the remainder is divvied up among myriad arts organizations to generate off-season, tourist-drawing programming.

“The city depends on everyone else to promote it,” said local resident and developer Sam Goldstein, who with Philippsen and others pushed for approval of the self-imposed BID tax. Previously, city officials reimbursed hotels for self-promotion a smaller amount, shaved from the 10 percent bed tax revenue collected, and the former visitor’s bureau was starved for funding, Goldstein said. “It’s been a boon for tourism in promoting Laguna Beach to the outside world,” he said of the organization’s more robust budget.

Tourism, of course, buoys employment and drives the town’s private commerce, from sales of mojitos to board shorts to plein aire landscapes. Within the city’s budget, guest bed taxes alone accounted for 10 percent of the general fund, and 19 percent of its special funds.

With BID funds, member dues and revenue from advertising sales and bookings, Visit Laguna Beach’s four fulltime employees and three part-time concierges greeted 17,000 visitors, booked 250 room nights through its website and generated media coverage valued at $3.4 million in 2012, according to the organization’s annual report, the most recent available.

During Bijlani’s tenure, Visit Laguna Beach also earned praise for its marketing campaigns with tidepool educators, its smartphone application and for scoring appearances on national television, said Philippsen, efforts not necessarily visible to residents but beneficial to the town’s hospitality industry nonetheless. As vice chairman of the Orange County Visitors Association, Bijlani also was instrumental in showcasing Laguna Beach and some of its artists in displays at John Wayne Airport.

The board has yet to decide on how it will seek a successor, Philippsen said.

A reception in Bijlani’s honor will be held on Friday, Jan. 24 from 4:30- 6 p.m. at the Surf & Sand Resort and Spa.

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