ATLANTIC CITY - Those attending the annual New Jersey Governor's Conference on Tourism received mixed news Thursday about the Christie administration's plans to promote the $38 billion Garden State vacation industry, which employs 443,000 people a year and generates more than $4 billion in state taxes.
Normally at the conference, the state introduces a radio, TV, Internet, and print ad campaign designed to sell the Jersey Shore to potential visitors throughout the United States and Canada.
The $2 million marketing budget for the spring-summer season was eliminated this year, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno told the group. "It was a tough decision, but it was one that had to be made," she said.
"It's no secret that we're in a tough economic time," Guadagno said in a luncheon address to more than 350 tourism officials and promoters at Trump Marina Hotel Casino for the three-day conference.
On the positive side, Guadagno said, New Jersey will continue to support a $10 million Shore Protection Fund for beach replenishment and will honor a commitment to arts and cultural groups for $9 million to be raised through New Jersey's 5 percent hotel-motel occupancy tax.
Guadagno, who is also the secretary of state and has been appointed to look into ways to assist the business community in New Jersey, said it was a "rookie error" that she and Christie failed to realize that the governor traditionally attends the conference named in his honor. She promised that he would attend next year.
It was the first time in the history of the two-decade-old event that anyone could remember a governor not showing up.
Guadagno has proposed that all state departments - including Environmental Protection, Agriculture, and Treasury - pool their advertising resources and market a "more unified" image for New Jersey.
"I think we should take a step back and do something really wild for the people of New Jersey . . . come up with a way to market New Jersey in a more unified way in a common marketing campaign," Guadagno said.
In a state as diversified as New Jersey, that could be a tall order, said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, a nonprofit trade association. Besides, he said, there's not much left to pool. Promotional funding has been slashed for many programs, such as the Jersey Fresh produce initiative.
The Jersey Fresh budget was cut last year from about $1 million, which included marketing, to about $150,000, which only pays for farm certifications, Furey said.
"I'd like to see all the money for Jersey Fresh promotion restored. I'd worry that pooling money for advertising could mean that we lose the individual identity of various programs and locales," he said.
"A program like Jersey Fresh, for example, is unique. . . . I don't know how you effectively merge such a diversified message," Furey said.
Some involved in Shore tourism said they were concerned the summer would be over by the time the state came up with its "unified" theme.
"Potential tourists are making their plans now for where they are going on vacation," said Marian Griffin, whose family has owned tourist-related businesses in Wildwood for more than 50 years.
"I'm worried that if we lose these people this summer because we're not doing our usual advertising, . . . we could lose them for a long time to come because they'll go somewhere else and then they'll just keep going there," Griffin said.
Others, however, contended that the governor was simply making necessary decisions.
"I'm confident that if anyone can figure out how we can move forward and ultimately help the economy of New Jersey, it's this administration," said Marilou Halverson, chairwoman of the state Travel Industry Association and a spokeswoman for Jenkinson's Boardwalk and Aquarium in Point Pleasant.
"Businesses are just going to have to be the ones this year to step forward and get creative about their own promotions," she said.
Whether that will prove enough is hard to predict.
"I'm certainly worried about the fact that the state doesn't have a big [summer] ad campaign," said Barbara Steele, director of the Ocean County Department of Public Affairs, which oversees tourism promotion in the county.
"Tourism is an important economic development tool. All we can do is wait and see what effect the cuts will ultimately have."