Is a Tourism Grant in Your Union's Future?

Tourism business improvement districts are designed to help fill more hotel rooms, serve more restaurant meals, and sell more tickets to entertainment events. They can also be a funding source for a student union that hosts events and activities that, in the end, do the same thing—bring people to town. 

University of Montana BilliardsThat’s exactly what’s happening next month at the University of Montana University Center, where an ACUI 9-Ball tournament and collegiate championship qualifier will be held with the help of a tourism development district grant program funded by 19 Missoula hotels. The city’s tourism office, Destination Missoula, helps support and promote the program that offers event grants ranging from $1,500 to $15,000 per event. 

University Center has a billiards room with 14 9-foot Brunswick tables, optimal lighting, and a warm ambience, all in a locale with a well-established pool tournament community. With that, the center’s director of special projects and events, Karen Schlatter, figured why not go for a tourism improvement grant that could be used to broaden marketing and outreach for what will be its first-ever ACUI 9-ball championship qualifier. The result was an application that scored high enough to earn the event a $5,000 grant. 

“This is new to us, but we’ve hosted regional and college billiards tournaments,” Schlatter said. “We are hoping this is something that we can grow. We looked at what’s the minimum amount needed to do the event, and what would be best for our students, and we think this will be that kind of event.” 

Besides marketing the April 4–6 event campus- and city-wide, the University Center is reaching out to neighboring states and particularly to student unions with billiards tables that are located in cities with direct flights into Missoula, like Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Seattle. “I’ve been making personal calls to other campuses,” Schlatter said. 

The grant is split so half is received before the event and the other half afterward, if certain event criteria like number of new room nights and other particulars are met. Surveys will be conducted to estimate the number of meals sold, how many days participants stayed, and other economic information. If the center hits its goal, it will receive the second half of the grant. 

Montana has more tourism improvement districts, 17, than any other state but California, which has 95 and the claim to having the first one, founded in West Hollywood in the early 1990s. But the numbers are growing: Wichita and Topeka, Kansas, both have one; Memphis, Tennessee; Newark, New Jersey; and New Orleans, Louisiana as well. In total, there are just over 150 tourism improvement districts in 11 states. 

“Local tourism is a big deal and big money maker,” Schlatter said. “I don’t think people realize just how big the economic impact of the arts and special events is, and grant programs like this are good for marketing both the tourism improvement district and the event as well.” 

Schlatter encouraged all union events professionals to reach out to their area tourism and convention bureaus and agencies to inquire not only about tourism improvement districts, but also about other types of incentives and programs that could help create new opportunities for raising the profile of union operations.

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