CASPER, Wyo. — What is the status of the lodging tax picture in Natrona County? Natrona currently imposes a 4% lodging tax which raised $1.19 million in 2020, Visit Casper CEO Brook Kaufman said on Tuesday.
That is down from a typical year in which the lodging tax raises between $1.6-$1.8 million for Natrona, according to Kaufman.
The lodging tax picture will look different in the county following the 2022 general election. The Wyoming Legislature passed a 5% statewide lodging tax which Governor Mark Gordon signed into law on March 6, 2020.
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That bill has yet to impact Natrona’s lodging tax picture since voters approved a 4% local lodging tax in 2018. The statewide lodging tax bill allowed local lodging taxes to continue until the next election at which voters are asked to approve a local tax.
Voters have to approve local lodging taxes every four years. In 2022, Natrona voters could be asked to approve up to a 2% local lodging tax.
That would be in addition to the 5% statewide lodging tax. Of the 5% statewide tax, the state redistributes 2% to counties and municipalities on a proportional basis.
The lodging tax is imposed on people staying at hotels or other overnight accommodations. In Natrona County, the tax funds Visit Casper and the revenues are used to advertise and promote Natrona County.
Kaufman said on Tuesday that “tourism is a critical part of our economy here in Natrona County.” The industry took a hit in Natrona during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 following what Kaufman described as “probably the best year ever in 2019.”
Natrona saw 627,580 visitors in 2020 which was a decline of 333,420 visitors compared with 2019. Kaufman said that hotel occupancy was as low as 20% at times in 2020, though she said there was a “decent recovery” in summer 2020 and 2021 is starting to see tourism to the area rebound.
2019 saw lodging tax collections exceed $2 million for the first time ever in Natrona County, according to Kaufman: “We just had a really robust strong visitor economy that year.”
While visitors spent over $300 million on travel related expenses in Natrona County in 2019, that dropped to $225.9 million in 2020, lower than any year in the last decade.
Kaufman said that travel and tourism is also important in terms of employment opportunities in the area: “We’ve been a pretty consistent employer for a long time.”
But the number of jobs supported by Natrona tourism dropped from over 2,600 in 2019 to 2,379 in 2020. This was the lowest number of tourism-supported jobs in the last decade.
Tourism generates tax revenue for state and local government beyond just the lodging tax. Natrona tourism generated about $11.5 million in state and local tax revenue.
That’s lower than any year since 2012:
“Every $100 a visitor spends produces $6 in local and state tax revenues,” Visit Casper said in a press release. “If no taxes were generated by travel and tourism, the average Natrona County household would pay an additional $352 in taxes each year to keep the same level of existing government services.”
Kaufman said that while tourism shows signs of recovery, 2021 probably won’t reach levels seen in 2019 since the area is just coming out of the pandemic.
She said that one positive for Natrona County during the pandemic is that other areas competing for travelers did not have the same amount of funding to spend to market their area to tourists.
While Natrona lodging tax collections were down from a normal year, Kaufman said the Wyoming Legislature provided about $5 million across the state in CARES Act funding which helped make up the different.
Visit Casper received just over $500,000 in such funding, according to Kaufman, which allowed the organization to continue efforts to market and promote the area.
Visit Casper was able to make over 2,000 placements in various publications and other advertising spots such as the Washington Post, MSN and Lonely Planet. Kaufman said Visit Casper was able to reach over 1.1 billion consumers through their marketing efforts.
“We really were in a great position because we had cash to deploy,” she said.
Visit Casper also provided $139,550 in grant funding to help drive tourism events in the area.
Kaufman said that the Casper was able to secure a five year extension of their contract to host the College National Finals Rodeo during the pandemic. She noted that the CNFR is just a few weeks away and generates about $1.9 million for the local economy.
She said another event Visit Casper works to support is the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo which tends to bring in more international visitors and generates about $4.45 million for Natrona’s economy.
The return of rodeo to the Casper area this summer should help with the rebound: “Rodeo is off the ground running in Casper,” Kaufman said.
She added that another important visitor attractor to the area is state high school sports and activity tournaments. Kaufman said that hosting such events in Casper generated about $13.9 million in 2019. She noted that the Casper City Council recently agreed to provide $50,000 to support the Proud to Host the Best Committee’s work to keep those activities in Casper.
Kaufman said that Proud to Host the Best was able to secure a bid from the Wyoming High School Activities Association to keep hosting various high school tournaments in Casper for four more years. While this effort was successful, Kaufman said that other locations in Wyoming are increasingly striving to secure those bids.
Outside of special events, Kaufman said some of the main reasons people visit Casper are because they are headed to Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park. She said that 28% of people traveling through Casper are heading to one or both of the parks.
Casper’s location along Interstate 25 is another reason people wind up in Casper, according to Kaufman.
She said that Visit Casper is working to help provide visitors with information about their Yellowstone visits with services limited in the park right now.
Other areas of focus for Visit Casper moving forward are:
- highlighting Casper as the “youth sports capital of Wyoming”
- work with Natrona County to improve infrastructure on Casper Mountain such as trails and wayfinding signage
- turn residents into tourism “ambassadors”
- continue to grow 5150′ Local
- support ChooseCPR.com, a website aiming to recruit more workers to the area
Kaufman said that Visit Casper has worked to get over 800 Casper area residents certified as travel ambassadors to help promote the area. They have a goal of certifying 200 people this year.
“We want residents to help us in our quest to make this the best place it can be,” she said.
Kaufman’s comments came during a video conference organized by Visit Casper on Tuesday in conjunction with National Travel and Tourism Week, which runs from May 2-8.