There was a series of ill-tempered and confrontational exchanges last night as councillors and council officers faced questions from tourism professionals around Ballarat.
In the normally convivial atmosphere of Housey Housey on Armstrong Street, tensions rose rapidly as hotel owners and tour operators queried the council's recent decision to cut ties with Visit Ballarat, its arm's length tourism marketing and research body.
The meeting was introduced by Paul Armstrong, the chair of Visit Ballarat's board.
We just couldn't let that slide any further. Our detailed analysis shows the right time is nowCr Samantha McIntosh
Addressing up to 100 tourism industry professionals, numerous councillors and officers including City of Ballarat CEO Justine Linley and the Mayor Samantha McIntosh, he set the scene with how the organisation was set up and evolved from 2012 when tourism was outsourced by council.
Mr Armstrong said there was "no indication that [Visit Ballarat] had not met measures over the course of the agreement" and noted that a recent fall in overnight visitors had coincided with the management of events being taken back in house with council.
THE INITIAL STORY:Visit Ballarat/ Made of Ballarat to be taken over by council
Cr Samantha McIntosh spoke next, saying the council's decision to cut ties with Visit Ballarat "was not taken lightly".
She cited a key reason for taking the decision with a year left on the service agreement, was due to Ballarat losing market share in the tourism industry.
"We just couldn't let that slide any further," she said. "Our detailed analysis shows the right time is now."
After a break to formulate queries, Simon Coghlan, the owner of the Provincial Hotel, was first to stand up.
He set the tone for the questioning, saying that he was "vehemently opposed" to the decision to scrap Visit Ballarat. He asked deputy mayor Jim Rinaldi if the council was aware of the state's regional tourism review.
Responding, Cr Rinaldi became visibly angry, citing his previous business experience and that he resented the accusation he wasn't supporting industry. "You still haven't answered the question," Mr Coghlan replied.
Several Visit Ballarat members queried why council had made their decision prior to the results of the state review.
The city's event manager Jeff Johnson later told The Courier that council was aware of the state review but that it was centred around regional tourism - and the case of Ballarat was more localised as it came under the auspices of the wider Goldfields tourism board.
Ms Linley also said that council had a long-standing relationship with Visit Victoria and Regional Development Victoria.
Visit Ballarat has helped me a lot. What happens in the interim? Is someone going to help us as they do now?Fiona McMillan, Ballarat Shop
Several speakers criticised the council for not engaging with tour operators. "Why wasn't industry spoken to [about the decision]? You're not listening to us," one said.
Mr Johnson said part of the intention of the split was to give the tour operators a more direct relationship with council. "We are opening ourselves out. We are giving you what you want."
Fiona McMillan, who runs the Ballarat Shop, said: "Visit Ballarat has helped me a lot. What happens in the interim? Is someone going to help us as they do now?" It would be service as usual, Mr Johnson replied.
Kate Davis, the director of Plate Up Ballarat, raised concerns about the Visit Ballarat staff and said that she would hate to see the wealth of knowledge lost. Four new roles would be advertised by next week, Cr McIntosh said, with more to follow.
After seeking permission from Ms Linley to address the audience, Tara Poole, who is both a Visit Ballarat member and a council employee as the coordinator of its Creative City strategy, said she believed council had made a good decision.
She said she had a "ton more confidence" since she began working with the council.
Gorgi Coghlan of the Provincial Hotel praised the councillors and officers for coming to answer questions but criticised the surprise decision.
In any good leadership role, you bring people with you, you don't tell them what to doGorgi Coghlan, Provincial Hotel
What would happen with the "highly sophisticated" Made of Ballarat branding and website, she also wondered.
Ms Linley responded saying that she agreed it was a "brilliant" campaign and would not stop.
There were several queries about the formulation of the "Ballarat is Open" strategy, which Cr McIntosh said would evolve with wide input including from tourism professionals.
Ms Linley said it was a working title for a strategy that would be about marketing the city very broadly.
Wrapping things up, Mr Armstrong said no outcomes were expected from the meeting. "We just want Ballarat to be bigger and better. I think we can find some common ground somewhere if we communicate a bit better."
Speaking to The Courier afterwards, he said while the future of Visit Ballarat evolved his main concern was the welfare of the organisation's staff.
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