Alliance tries to fill gap left by closure of state tourism office
Local visitors bureaus are banding together with tourism organizations to fill the gap left by a cut to the state's tourism budget — a loss industry members say will fall hardest on rural Washington.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Local travel bureaus from Seattle to Spokane are evaluating how they do business and a fragmented travel industry is attempting to unite after the Washington State Tourism Office closed Thursday, leaving a hole in the "Experience Washington" message.
The office was the umbrella agency overseeing tourism, an industry that generated almost $1 billion in state and local tax revenue last year — $385 per household, according to a state tourism report.
Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature cut tourism funding to help close the budget shortfall, making Washington the only state in the nation that now spends nothing on promotion.
Tourism officials expect the cut will mean less money coming in to the state's hotels, restaurants, stores and other businesses.
In response, they formed the Washington Tourism Alliance, a group of local visitor bureaus and industry organizations. The alliance hopes to prevent major losses by looking at new funding models and ways to spur travel. It also plans to lobby in Olympia to have tourism funding restored in future budgets.
The alliance is taking over the state tourism website, writing bylaws, seeking donations and electing a leader with the goal of uniting the tourism industry.
"There's hotels and there's restaurants, and everybody's been siloed in their own industries," said Jane Kilburn, who directs public affairs at the Port of Seattle and represents the transportation industry in the alliance.
As the organization forms a marketing plan to draw U.S. and international attention to Washington, it will be operating on what Marsha Massey, former executive director of the state tourism office, called a "shoestring budget."
And Massey knows shoestring. Washington dedicated only $1.8 million to tourism in 2011, down from $7 million the year before.
By comparison, Oregon has a $10 million tourism budget; California has $50 million. The states have different models to generate funding — Oregon charges a lodging tax and California collects on a variety of business assessments.
The Washington alliance now has raised $300,000, half of which came from a contract with the Port.
"I get concerned when I see how aggressive the other states have become; it's hard to walk down the street and not see something from Montana" promoting its state, said Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau, an alliance member. "I worry that if we're not doing something in a year, we can easily lose market shares. We can lose visitors."
But interest in the group is evident — 500 people showed up for a summit sponsored by the alliance at the end of April, Kilburn said. Organizers had expected 150.
Seattle is one of many cities whose travel bureau joined the alliance. Norwalk said the city will obviously miss the promotional opportunities it had through the state office, but as a destination city expects to fare better than small towns with fewer resources.
But rural areas often are the ones that depend more on tourism jobs. In 2009, there were six counties in Washington in which more than 10 percent of all jobs were travel-generated, and none was urban, according to a Washington State Tourism report.
In the San Juan Islands, some advertising campaigns and tourism partnerships will disappear with the state office, San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau Director Deborah Hopkins said.
"I'm assuming Seattle [Convention and Visitors Bureau] and the Port of Seattle will have to step up to the plate more so, because they're the large partners here," Hopkins said.
Seattle's role as a "gateway" for the state is now critical, Norwalk said, to help promote other destinations, from nearby Tacoma and Woodinville to areas like Eastern Washington's wine country.
In Spokane, the Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau — a founding partner in the alliance — is evaluating new ways to promote the city and state, such as regional travel packages with Idaho and Montana, president and CEO of Spokane tourism Cheryl Kilday said.
The alliance needs to look at different ways to fund tourism, possibly through taxes on businesses such as California does and take a funding proposal to the Legislature, Kilday said.
Part of the reason Spokane joined the Alliance was to make sure members "have their eye on the advocacy ball, so when we go to Olympia they have a plan in place," she said.
"Those dollars coming in from tourists — they've educated our kids, they've built our roads," Kilday said. "We have a window here where we have to turn it around, or we're going to suffer as a state."
Jessie Van Berkel: 206-464-3192 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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