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Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism May Soon Profit From Local Business's Sales

By Jeaneane Payne

Over the last two years the City of Pigeon Forge has discussed the possible creation of a booking engine on its Department of Tourism website, mypigeonforge.com. After many closed door meetings had been held and the city's Tourism Advisory Board met with select business partners, it was decided that a booking engine would be the perfect way to build the city-run website and give customers what they want.

It isn't clear that this is what the website visitors specifically asked for, and there seems to be differences of opinion from local businesses about this booking engine. A recently discovered website, MyPigeonForgeBookingEngine.com indicates there is a lot more to the story. Content on the MyPigeonForgeBookingEngine website suggests several businesses are disconcerted with the proposed MyPigeonForge booking engine.

Upon contacting Charles Rhodes, publisher of MyPigeonForgeBookingEngine.com, to ask why he created the web site when he could talk with the City Commission, City Manager, Department of Tourism, or the Pigeon Forge Tourism Advisory Board and work directly with them, the Knoxville Daily Sun was told: "The department head for the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, Leon Downey, is also a leader on the Tourism Advisory Board (also known as TAB). Under the City Commission's decision to appoint TAB members as Booking Engine Steering Committee members, Downey will reside on the steering committee as well."

"Downey recommended the booking engine to the Pigeon Forge City Commission on February 2, 2010," said Rhodes. "As a member of TAB he voted in favor of the project, and now, as a Steering Committee member, he can help influence and ensure the project to completion. His city official hands will have been on this proposal from the moment of concept and with this he carries the appearance of city influence to all aspects. Relate this to how businesses are supposed to operate, and you can begin to see the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Rhodes stated "After having attended several City Commission meetings with unanswered booking engine questions, I requested a public hearing. Instead, the city decided on a workshop to publicly discuss the issue. The workshop was postponed due to their private contractor's inability to appear as scheduled weeks earlier. The workshop was rescheduled to occur on November 1st, at the same time as the Vacation Rental Manager's national conference. I requested the workshop be postponed. The request was denied but with the assurance by ALL city commissioners that several workshops would follow."

The November 1st workshop has been the only workshop conducted. The meeting ended with Pigeon Forge's Mayor, Keith Whaley, indicating that little good was said. The majority of the room was filled with negative comments toward the booking engine. When asked who would assign the proposed Booking Engine Steering Committee, the Mayor stated that the project needed many more workshops and was far from considering any steering committee. Two City Commission meetings later Leon Downey requested a Booking Engine Steering Committee be formed to comprise of all TAB board members and four additional seats filled by selection of the TAB board members.

"I and several area businesses have been unnerved by the pace and demeanor in which this project has and still is being handled," said Rhodes. "A booking engine on the city-run website stands to make the city of Pigeon Forge lots of money by hurting city taxed businesses' website traffic and charging them for the services. It is the city's virtual store with a far greater reach than any store on the Parkway. The Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism is the city's replacement for what is actually the city's Chamber of Commerce. Its purpose is to support businesses and bring new business to the area. Instead they will take business from the individualized websites of local businesses and charge them fees above the cost of doing so. The city will also farm this work to businesses outside of Pigeon Forge and the state of Tennessee at a time when skilled job opportunities are sorely needed and the skill sets to execute a project such as this exists here in Tennessee."

"The City Commission's promises for multiple public workshops have not culminated. "Support of decisions based on small private meetings behind closed office doors and failure to properly research legal aspects of the city running services for profit are but a few great reasons for such a website as MyPigeonForgeBookingEngine.com," said Rhodes.

Rhodes indicated that local Pigeon Forge businesses hope to bring the importance of cooperation on this project to the attention of City Commission members and city staff through his web efforts. "Before appointing committees and spending more money on this project, they want to ensure what the city is doing and the way in which it is planned to operate are legal at local, state, trade, and federal levels of the law. If the project is legal, the businesses want them to publicly work with all businesses that plan to utilize the engine and allow a means of policy from which businesses (not just a specific group) can effect/enforce self governing policies. Unless the city can divulge publicly the need for profit over costs, the project, if legal, should be revenue neutral and publicly provide accounting to show that it operated in this fashion," said Rhodes.

According to Downey, "The reason we got into the idea of developing a booking engine is because of a survey we had done 2 years ago. Moms between the ages of 25 and 54 were surveyed. A focus group asked these consumers what they wanted the mypigeonforge.com site to look like. When it came to the lodging panel, they wanted to know the availability and cost of a cabin, for example, without having to navigate through a large number of web panels to find what they needed." "Our primary focus is on the guests' needs," said Downey.

When asked how such a booking engine would benefit the City of Pigeon Forge, Downey replied, "Our goal is to try keep business in Pigeon Forge. We're funded 100% by taxes from businesses in Pigeon Forge."

Downey says that the city is appointing a steering committee the first of the year to work through various planning phases then they will have sessions with businesses to see if those plans will work for them.

Pigeon Forge City Manager, Earlene Teaster, was not available for comment.

Some of the major issues at hand concerning the proposed booking engine are:

1. Is it legal for Pigeon Forge's Department of Tourism (PFDOT, which is the city's actual Chamber of Commerce, a city entity) to operate a fee based booking service in competition with the local businesses paying taxes for said entity?

2. Pigeon Forge's website contractor, USDM (United States Destination Marketing), works with several destinations throughout the U.S. Research has revealed instances where USDM has formed contracts with booking engine service providers and 3rd party OTA's. There are no examples where USDM developed or managed the development of a booking engine. USDM stated, in the workshop PPT, that they require 35% of the budget for which they will manage the booking engine development project. Dozens of companies, in the U.S.and several in Tennessee have background experience in developing booking engines from start to completion yet none of these companies have been considered for this project.

3. If the city were to sever services from the booking engine, for any reason, what would the impact be?

4. How will the booking engine seamlessly interface with over 100 various in-house and custom built reservations software systems utilized by the various businesses? What additional costs must businesses bear to tie their software into the booking engine for seamless real-time transactions?

5. Is the percentage to be paid deductible before taxes are taken out? If fees are collected by the city or its contracted staff, are taxes paid on such collections and by whom?

6. Who is responsible for credit card fees?

A city-owned booking engine poses several problems to cabin management businesses. What on-hand staff would be in place to answer consumer questions and complaints generated by the booking engine's presence on the web site? For example, city employees are not trained or qualified to provide the customer service that a booking engine would require. They would also not be qualified to offer vacation packages to guests.

In a lodging association meeting in Pigeon Forge, it was pointed out by the owner of a cabin management company who had recently attended a national conference at which booking engines were discussed that a booking engine is something that has not been effective for other cities.

The most recent development has been the nomination by the Pigeon Forge Hospitality Association of 4 individuals to the Steering Committee. These 4 individuals are hotel owners/managers, attraction managers, and restaurant owners/managers none of which have experience in not only web development but no education in IT issues. Other Pigeon Forge business owners and managers who are experienced with the technicalities of web design and IT issues have tossed their hat into the ring to be included on the Steering Committee which will ultimately be appointed by TAB.

The cost of developing and implementing a booking engine for the City of Pigeon Forge is estimated to be between $250,000-$275,000. It will cost the city an additional $225,000 per year for the booking engine to be maintained.

Published December 13, 2010

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