Craven County TDA marketing hire raises new questions

Questions remain surrounding the Craven County Tourism Development Authority’s signing of a multi-year contract worth more than $1 million of tax payer funds with an inexperienced Raleigh-based marketing firm, particularly its decision to not seek out multiple applicants for the job. 

The Sun Journal was told an Request for Propsoals, or RFP, was performed and requsted the documention. Emails show there was no RFP performed, which is not required by the TDA but a common and genernally sound business practice. 

Several other TDA’s throughout the state current have, or have recently had RFP’s out for work for signage and design work, let alone large marekting contracts. 

The Sun Journal has requested the contract for the marekting contract in July and was not recieved unti September causes additional requests for public records. Emails between board members and the marketing company that won the business were requested on Sept. 2 and the TDA has still not provided those records.

In June the agency’s board of directors voted 5-3 to hire BluePrint Business Communications, which was founded in 2017, rather than move forward with a one-year contract for the Bridgeton-based marketing agency High Tide Creative, which had performed services for the TDA for the last 15 years. On September 9 the board approved a two-year contract with BluePrint that contains an auto-renewal clause which pushes the contract through June 30, 2023. 

The purpose of the TDA is to allocate the net proceeds of the Craven County Room Occupancy and Tourism Development Tax. The TDA also serves as the lead entity to market and promote Craven County as a tourist destination.

Beyond expressing a desire for “new energy” the TDA Board has offered little in the way of explanation for why they chose to cut ties with an experienced, local marketing company and contract with BluePrint. They have also offered few explanations for why a RFP, or request for proposal, was not issued to allow other, qualified marketing firms to bid on the job. 

According to Judy Avery,a member of the TDA Marketing Committee, in the fall of 2019 both BluePrint and another marketing agency, Clean, Inc. contacted the Visitor Center to request a meeting and that information was passed on to TDA Board member Sabrina Bengel. According to Avery, on April 21, Clean, High Tide and BluePrint all made presentations via Zoom to the TDA Marketing Committee. The committee requested to have a second presentation from High Tide and BluePrint. Clean was notified that they did not make it to the second round. 

Brice Connors, the President of BluePrint previously told the Sun Journal before the vote that, “I’ve had a relationship with some of those officials that were in charge of marketing decisions.”

Averey said that on May 20, High Tide and BluePrint were invited to make a second presentation to the full marketing committee. On Wednesday, June 10, an overview of the agency presentations was given to the full TDA Board, which voted to hire BluePrint.  The marketing committee consisted of Cindy King, Sabrina Bengel, Dan Roberts, Mark Stephens, Gary Curry, Paresh Pankhavala and Avery. 

Gary Curry, the lone TDA Board member to vote against approval of the BluePrint contract, said he found out last February that discussions had begun about hiring a new marketing firm. Though he wasn’t on the TDA Board at the time, Curry said he immediately went to board member Sabrina Bengel with his concerns.

Curry was appointed to the TDA board by Tryon Palace. The state statute that formed the authority, a political subdvisioin of the state, and dicates board makeup calls for the Palace to appoint one member. 

“I said you have to do a RFP process and we had a very lengthy conversation where she disagreed with me,” recalled Curry.

When he came on the TDA Board in May, Curry said he pushed for a delay in the contract process and for the issuance of a RFP, both of which were unsuccessful, he said. Curry noted that to his knowledge there was never any discussion among board members about problems with High Tide’s performance.

“The Visit New Bern website has been using High Tide for years and all the numbers are great, they’re fantastic. Until the day COVID hit everything was wonderful. We’ve weathered through Florence with no problems, we lost a main hotel and a marina in the area and we still did well,” he commented.

Curry said the lack of a RFP process is his biggest concern surrounding the contract.

“We’re not following proper procedure. We’re talking $350,000 of taxpayer funds, so as a board member that’s the utmost concern. We need to be able to properly handle those funds and when this opportunity comes we need to be able to do it right,” he said.

Curry stressed that he isn’t opposed to seeking out other companies for marketing work. He said, in his opinion, the TDA should do a RFP process every three years to make sure they are paying a competitive industry price for marketing services and taking advantage of the latest technology. 

“I’m fine with that and High Tide’s fine with that, that’s what they encourage. But before you even have the RFP you have to figure out how you’re going to grade the RFP. When they come in some get eliminated if they don’t come in correctly and then you take the remainder and make your decisions based on the interviews. We did none of those things,” he commented.

Curry said he believed BluePrint’s inexperience had already shown itself in the company’s response to an article on the contract issue printed by the Sun Journal. BluePrint CEO Brice Connors posted a video response to a September 11 Sun Journal Facebook post in which he touted his personal connection to New Bern while repeating the phrase “What they won’t tell you….” 

“That just showed me we made the wrong decision. I don’t see why they would have responded at all to any of these articles,” said Curry. “Why they weighed in on that and did it publicly, I don’t know. I’ve sent an email to them expressing my concerns because they now represent us.”

Curry said BluePrint’s promise to open an office in New Bern by the end of the year, as well as the addition of artificial intelligence software called Ellie on the Visit New Bern website, hasn’t changed his opinion of the contract process.

“Part of the issue why I was hesitant about this is the inexperience. High Tide had amongst them a lot of experience. A lot of the things BluePrint was proposing High Tide was already doing, except for Elli which we could have done. We talked about that, I said ‘We can do that right now.’ So just them coming to town doesn’t change anything for me,” said Curry.

During a September 4 interview, TDA Board member Sabrina Bengel explained her understanding of why the board chose to hire an inexperienced, non-local marketing firm.

“I think it was just an energy and a new way of thinking,” said Bengel. “Marketing has really changed and has gone really digital, it’s not your same old type of marketing, I think. Mostly, from what I heard from other board members it was a lot of energy, that word kept coming up, we saw a lot of energy and out of the box thinking.”

On Sept. 2 the Sun Journal requested all email communication between TDA board members and BluePrint  Business Communications. As of press time on September 16, the TDA had not provided those emails.