Boston has plenty of history, culture, hotels - but not enough tourists

The Freedom Trail is 25 years old. That unpretentious red line coursing through the streets of old Boston, linking its historical treasures, has delighted millions of visitors.

Tourists flock to see the Old North Church and the Bunker Hill Monument and to climb aboard ''Old Ironsides,'' the USS Constitution. The Freedom Trail, some say, has been especially successful attracting visitors to the ''birthplace of liberty.''

Currently, new hotels are sprouting all over town. Reconstruction of Hynes Auditorium is a not-too-distant prospect. Facilities are expanding, but the number of tourists is not.

There are some who say the city could and should be doing a lot more to bring visitors to Boston. Now the race is on to attract convention and tourist business to Boston - business that could just as easily be picked up by some other city.

William G. Grimmer, vice-president of administration for the Greater Boston Convention and Tourist Bureau, says there's one myth that should be put to rest: that Boston is a natural tourist and convention magnet. ''It's beautiful,'' he says, but just like anything else, it needs to be marketed.

Since the nation's Bicentennial, there has been no real growth in the number of visitors coming to Boston. That number hovers at just fewer than 5 million per year. Convention business has grown marginally during recent years, but this year it will see a 28 percent decline.

But Mr. Grimmer says the ''visitor industry'' holds great promise for Boston. Currently it employs about 40,000 people, accounts for more than $1 billion in total economic activity, and provides the state and city with $100 million in tax revenues. Estimates are that with the right kind of promotion, the visitor business could double.

What Boston needs to reach that goal, Grimmer says, is a unified marketing campaign. He cites the enormously successful ''I love New York'' campaign which is bringing that state an 8-to-1 return on the $10 million it invests each year to attract visitors.

In response to this need, Boston's Tourist and Convention Bureau, together with the Advertising Club of Boston and the Freedom Trail Foundation, sponsored a contest to find a slogan for Boston. The result? ''Boston: bright from the start.''

Whether or not you like the slogan isn't important, Grimmer says. What counts is how the slogan is packaged. He says a good deal of thought will go in to the promotion - from the newspaper advertisements right down to the background music in television commercials. Its success will depend on the aggressive marketing behind it, he says.

The problem with launching such a campaign is the cost. Grimmer says Boston's visitors bureau is terribly underfunded. Of similar bureaus in 26 cities with which the Hub competes, Boston's budget ranks a lowly 22.

Seventy-five percent of the bureau's funding comes from private sources. In other cities, government contributions average 70 percent. Grimmer says Boston is ''being out-gunned 3-to-1'' by the marketing efforts of other cities.

A ''full blown'' promotional campaign, Grimmer says, would cost a ''few million dollars.'' The bureau's budget this year is only $1.2 million. Grimmer is counting on the city and state to see how this work can help Boston and to contribute more money.

Richard A. Berenson, vice-president of the Freedom Trail Foundation, says the trail is ''vibrant and living,'' but the foundation could also do more to attract visitors.

He suggests putting up a sentry box on the site of the Boston Massacre, manned by a park ranger in a colonial uniform. Or how about letting a few cows graze on the Boston Common, tended by farmers in colonial garb? (Mr. Berenson says Boston citizens still can legally graze their cows on the Common.)

He would also like to see a sound-and-light show spotlighting Boston history and a small theater for a preview of the sites at the beginning of the Freedom Trail on the Common.

In the middle of all this thinking and planning, there are some things that people should be looking out for.

First is Boston's hotel building boom. With hotels springing up almost faster than you can say ''Westin-Marriott-Four-Seasons-Merid-ien,'' the number of rooms will grow from 7,700 in 1981 to 12,700 by the end of 1984.

Second, the Hynes Auditorium will be closed while it is being remodeled and won't reopen until 1987. Although some other meeting facilities are available, there are likely to be a lot of empty hotel rooms in the interim.

The Convention and Tourist Bureau saysthat the occupancy rate, which peaked at 77 percent in 1979, could fall below 50 percent by 1985. An occupancy rate that low would be disastrous for some Boston hotels.

It is unfortunate that so many new facilities were built in advance of the need. Grimmer says the only hope for survival is to launch a major marketing drive and get more people to come to Boston.

Because of the low budget and its limited manpower, the bureau has to be selective in what it tries to do, he says. First on its list is attracting conventions. Convention business is stable, bookings come years in advance, and delegates on expense accounts usually are liberal with their money. Beyond that, Grimmer says, promotion is aimed more to the upscale crowd.

But I have some problems with that. According to some travel advertisements, it's cheaper to visit Europe for a week than Boston. A trip to Boston should not be beyond the means of average citizens.

If public money is to be poured into promotion, a fair amount of it should be used to promote an affordable Boston for all to enjoy.

Boston does have a rich heritage - beautifully symbolized by the Freedom Trail. Promoting it seems reasonable. But to do it just to fill high-priced hotel rooms with free-spending conventioneers hardly sounds representative of the ''birthplace of liberty.''

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