South Sound’s largest tourism agency reported a mostly flat visitor market through the third quarter of 2019, but coming against a record 2018 for visitor counts and hotel occupancy, tourism and hospitality officials aren’t complaining.

“We remain positive; there aren’t any flags or alarms going off, by any means,” Dean Burke, president and CEO of Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports, said in October. “Things are healthy across Tacoma and Pierce County right now.”

Pierce County reported 74.1 percent hotel occupancy through September, down 0.5 percent from the same period the previous year, but average daily room rate and revenue per available room were up 2.6 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively, according to STR, a worldwide firm that tracks data measuring the key hotel industry metrics.

“We were over 71 percent occupancy last year (for the full year), against a national average of (66.2 percent). That’s a great place to be,” Burke said. “Our (revenue per available room) and rates are still off the charts.”

Pierce County occupancy continued to beat the national average, which stood at 67.6 percent through September, flat with a year ago, according to STR.

Considering the new Pierce County hotels coming online next year, including the 304-room Marriott hotel at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center; new music venues opening; and new businesses already open like McMenamins Elks Temple downtown, with its refurbished Spanish Ballroom for entertainment, the options for visitors and locals continue to improve.

Burke’s organization — which assumed a new name in October to better reflect the January merger of Travel Tacoma + Pierce County and the Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission — isn’t taking its foot off the promotional gas. It recently unveiled a new logo reflecting its updated name, plus a new tagline, “MOUNTAIN CITY SEA,” focusing on the proximity of Tacoma to Commencement Bay and Mount Rainier through dramatic photography, images that will dominate the tourism agency’s website, catalogs, ads, and other customer interfaces designed to lure more meetings, conventions, trade shows, sports events, and tourists to the region. 

More visitation matters for spending, tax revenue, and jobs. Pierce County visitors funneled a record $1.19 billion of direct spending into the area’s economy last year, according to data from Dean Runyan Associates. 

Tom Pavlik, general manager of Hotel Murano in Tacoma, said business has been steady at the 319-room property, reflecting Pierce County more broadly.

“Even with the opening of new accommodation options within the market for incoming travelers, we are still holding strong, which is great to see,” said Pavlik, who’s upbeat about the market going forward.

“I think it’s a testament to the destination itself and all we have to offer to visitors,” he said, noting he’s always considered Tacoma “kind of a hidden gem from a destination standpoint, and our hidden gem has been discovered.”

He expects that discovery to continue with Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports’ work highlighting the region.

Meanwhile, in October, Thurston County reported seeing similar trends as did its neighbor to the north: generally flat, but coming on the heels of mostly growth in recent years.

The market sees about 1.2 million annual visitors who contribute about $318 million in direct visitor spending, according to Experience Olympia & Beyond.

“We’re seeing things kind of hold fairly flat overall,” said Shauna Stewart, CEO of Experience Olympia & Beyond. “If there’s been growth, it’s been fairly nominal,” consistent with national trends.

The county saw hotel occupancy rise to 69.9 percent for the nine months through September, versus 68.3 percent the same period last year, with ADR up 2.9 percent, according to STR.

The modest gain follows a decade of mostly steady growth, though, fueled in part by seven new hotels with 939 rooms in the county since 2008, most of them since 2015. The market enjoyed a 15.6 percent increase in tourism spending from 2016 to 2017 after the 2016 rebranding to Experience Olympia & Beyond and related marketing. The agency has had more money to market the region’s attractions since a $2-per-room fee on lodging was implemented in 2014 for tourism promotion.

Photo: Experience Olympia & Beyond, photo by Ingrid Barrentine

“Our community has seen tremendous growth in tourism products in the last decade,” Stewart said. “Attractions like the expanded Hands On Children’s Museum, Defy Olympia, numerous breweries, wineries, and distilleries have mindfully chosen Thurston County and are great experiences for visitors to enjoy. We’ve been lucky to work with great partners to help craft products like the Thurston Bountiful Byway, highlighting our farms and local makers; a new guide to biking the Yelm-Tenino Trail; and more that guide visitors on a journey through the region. Our community is invested in tourism.”

Food, plus the “Instagramability” of a destination, is increasingly influencing people’s decisions on where to visit, Stewart said, noting her organization’s work to help advance its partners’ social media presences.

The organization also recently launched a new visitor-services model offering assistance throughout the county, expanded online travel planning, and expanded hours for reaching someone by phone. The model also includes a planned certified program to train community and tourism ambassadors, from frontline hospitality workers and others in the community, to teach the value of tourism and better answer visitors’ questions about things to see and do in the region, improve their experience, and hopefully inspire return visits. 

Back in Pierce County, Burke likes what the future holds.

“Things are headed in a good direction; we’ve got an awful lot of development going on around here both in the form of hotels and amenities, so with our leisure narrative, we’re only getting better,” he said.

The agency counts seven hotels underway in Tacoma, Lakewood, and Sumner that will add a total of 1,072 to 1,122 rooms — depending on the final number added at Emerald Queen Casino — plus three Puyallup hotels in various stages of permitting.

Additionally, venues with music programming are planned or open at locations that include Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park, Chambers Bay, Alma Mater, the Spanish Ballroom at McMenamins in Tacoma, and Emerald Queen, Burke noted. They join the high-performing Tacoma Dome venue, adding more pieces to the attraction mix, for visitors and locals alike.

The rehabilitation or new-construction boom also has brought new residents.

“We’re coming into the end of about an eight- or 10-year development cycle where we’re putting 5,000 addresses on a shoreline that in 150 years since the city was settled never had an address,” he said, plus all the extras to entertain residents and guests. “We’re getting shops, we’re getting entertainment, we’re getting breweries.”

The agency also has landed events like the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships coming to Lakewood this December, and the 2020 U.S. Junior Olympic National Championships for gymnastics next May at the Tacoma Dome.

“We continue to develop a lot of different products,” Burke said. “It’s an extremely positive time here right now. It’s a very exciting market to be in because of that growth. We joke, but it’s a true statement, that every day is better than the day before.”