The fact that the MEDC is in charge of assessing the effectiveness of Pure Michigan is problematic because the MEDC is also the government agency that funds tourism promotion programs. It is clearly in its best interest to show a positive return on investment of their funding decisions. If this assessment did not show a positive return on investment, the MEDC’s funding stream for tourism promotion would be questioned, reduced or eliminated, which would threaten the size of the MEDC’s budget. While this arrangement by itself does not preclude the state from effectively analyzing the impact of its tourism promotion spending, it does require that any analysis under this arrangement be done in an open and transparent way and that any results be treated with an extra level of scrutiny.
The MEDC has for years hired Canada-headquartered consultant Longwoods International to perform return on investment calculations for its Pure Michigan program. Longwoods has been hired at least six times according to reports listed on the MEDC’s website. The total amount spent on these Longwoods reports is about $1 million.
There is evidence to suggest that this incentive problem did have an impact on the MEDC’s decision to award a no-bid contract to Longwoods International. In explaining why it awarded a no-bid contract to Longwoods, the MEDC wrote: “The objective of this contract is to prove that the benefits for conducting a paid advertising program for tourism out weight [sic] the costs.”
Additionally, the MEDC also stated in justifying its no-bid contract with Longwoods that the study they would be paying for “can demonstrate not only the success of the program, but prove that the investment of state funds provides a higher rate of return on tax dollars than the investment costs.” In other words, MEDC officials sought out a consultant who would produce the findings they wanted — specifically, that their tourism promotion spending had a positive return on investment and was, therefore, a justified use of taxpayer resources.
Since the MEDC’s aim was to secure a positive result from a study of Pure Michigan’s effectiveness, selecting Longwoods appears to have been the correct choice. This firm has been hired by many different states over the last decade or more and have produced similar results — all positive or neutral returns on investment — no matter what tourism promotion program they study. Below is a table of some of the findings from other Longwoods studies.[*]
The incentive problem also runs the other way: As it has become the go-to source for governments to provide evidence for their spending on tourism promotion, Longwoods has an incentive to ensure that their results please the agencies paying the bill. A negative return on investment might undermine the ability of state agencies to receive funding for tourism promotion, which would mean Longwoods would have fewer potential clients. It would be harder for Travel Michigan or other tourism offices to engage in “budget justification” if their own consultants demonstrate a failure to produce positive returns, and consultants know that.
One observer, cited in an academic paper on this subject, noted that economic impact experts hired to provide analyses “are in truth the exact equivalent of an expert witness in a lawsuit who comes to testify in support of the side that is paying the expert’s bill. An expert whose testimony harms his employer’s case doesn’t get much repeat business.”