The main focus of Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports is booking meetings, conventions, and events to drive business into the South Sound economy, but the coronavirus pandemic brought those large gatherings to a halt.
Exacerbating the problem, Travel Tacoma can’t actively promote leisure travel while Pierce County is in Phase 2 of the governor’s Safe Start plan (its status as of mid-September) — a phase that allows limited nonessential travel and outdoor recreation involving five or fewer people outside one’s household, among other criteria. The governor on July 28 indefinitely paused counties advancing in phases, further clouding Travel Tacoma’s plans for booking business into the region, Dean Burke, president and CEO of Travel Tacoma, the region’s Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) said in August when asked how the agency is pivoting during the pandemic.
“When you pivot to do something, you pivot toward a direction you want to go, but if the word ‘indefinitely’ is hung in there, you can’t actually go there yet,” said Burke.
Fortunately for Burke, Pierce County has weathered the pandemic travel crunch better than most other regional markets, judging by lodging statistics from STR, which provides global hospitality benchmarking. Pierce’s average occupancy through July was 54.7 percent, down 24.5 percent from the same seven months in 2019. That compares to 39 percent occupancy in King County, which is off 47.8 percent from a year ago, with the submarkets of Seattle’s central business district and Bellevue/Eastside posting occupancy in the low-30 percent range and declines exceeding 50 percent, STR data show.
Pierce County’s South Sound neighbor, Thurston County, also posted better occupancy than those King County markets, at 48.8 percent through July, down 28.8 percent, according to STR. A tourism official there said the reopening of construction helped boost business. Pierce County and its markets like Tacoma, Fife, Du- Pont/Lakewood, and Puyallup/Sumner have long enjoyed a steady flow of business from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Port of Tacoma, and medical facilities, Burke said.
Layer in the local and regional summer travel that was occurring in July and August as people took day or overnight trips to enjoy the outdoors and seek a fresh-air escape from the pandemic, and the effect was definitely felt at local hotels and restaurants, Burke said. Anecdotally, he was hearing in late August that hotels’ walk-in bookings were hitting all-time highs.
Nonetheless, a lot of damage already was done.
Travel Tacoma is among the DMOs around Puget Sound and the country that have had to do the pandemic pivot, the delicate dance of trying to cater to visitors within the confines of important public health rules for keeping people safe. They’re working with less money, too, since they’re almost entirely funded by lodging taxes. When rooms are barely filled, DMO revenue barely registers. Travel Tacoma laid off half its staff and was projecting that lodging revenues could fall 35 to 42 percent next year.
Because people are taking day trips and some overnighters, Travel Tacoma, like other DMOs, is essentially providing localized messaging on its website and social media telling people about the area, what’s open, and what’s available for those venturing out.
On its website, Travel Tacoma notes that many events have been canceled, postponed, rescheduled, or gone virtual. “However, several other events have evolved to drive-in, drive-thru, walk-thru, or some other innovative new format,” it says, adding that it’s doing its best to keep the event list current.
The uptick in summer travel was evident at Mount Rainier National Park in August. While visitation to the park was down 41.1 percent in the first seven months of 2020, August visitation appeared on track to meet or exceed August 2019, Tracy Swartout, deputy superintendent at the park, said midmonth.
“What we saw was a pretty distinct shift about halfway through July, to extreme visitation and really extreme on our east side, Sunrise,” where parking lots have filled before 9 a.m., she said.
She’s also noticed more visitors bringing dogs, which are prohibited; parking on vegetation; and people picking wildflowers, riding bikes on hiking trails, and leaving human waste behind. Some trails are very crowded, with some people wearing masks; others are not.
“We really are seeing an impact in terms of the kinds of users and the ways that they’re interacting with the park,” Swartout said. “I feel that the impact of the pandemic is a different user group who is less familiar with how those actions can damage the resources. We have meadows that are being significantly damaged on the Paradise side and on the Sunrise side of the park, and I have to believe it’s out of a lack of awareness or understanding.”
Full-year park visitation will be down this year due to the pandemic, but that’s a small piece of the story, she said, pointing to physical impacts.
The park also has seen a surge of search and rescues, and fatalities, she said, noting that not all visitors may be aware of safety precautions — awareness she’s trying to help provide.
“It’s challenging, but I’ll say this: It’s incredibly rewarding work to serve and provide public access to these public lands that Americans own through their national parks, their national forest. People need their parks right now; they really do. They need a place to go. So as crazy as it can be with lots of visitors, we still very much appreciate the fact that we’re playing a role in connecting people to the place. And that’s really important.”
For Burke and other DMO leaders, not knowing when counties can advance to Phase 3 is challenging, making it hard to plan pivot steps.
“How do we roll into the rainy season in Phase 2? That’s difficult,” he said.
In the interim, Travel Tacoma is adopting new technology that will help it better target its leisure marketing and more accurately measure leisure travel, which is harder to measure than group business reserving rooms and venues in advance. Travel Tacoma will continue the “Mountain City Sea” brand it launched last year as it rebuilds business moving forward. But with a reduced budget next year, it will have to spend wisely, Burke said. Group business will be a focus.
Travel Tacoma also has added new one-, two- and three-day itineraries to its website to give people ideas for things to do during a stay, something more people seem to be looking for, according to Matt Wakefield, senior communications manager.
Thurston County Adapts to the New Norm
Thurston County is in Phase 3, which allows resumption of nonessential travel, but the DMO there, Experience Olympia & Beyond, has kept its focus narrow, too. For an organization normally charged with inspiring, informing, and influencing visitors, COVID has necessitated an emphasis on informing, said CEO Shauna Stewart.
That has included safe-travel tips and other information for consumers to make informed decisions, ensuring the community is well-equipped to welcome visitors safely, she said. With its funding slashed by reduced lodging fees — it cut its staff by a third and its budget similarly — the DMO has focused on social media and digital content like videos, plus media relations efforts to share what’s available and fun, even in a mask.
Experience Olympia changed its website’s home page and saw a good uptick in web traffic and engagement over the past couple months, Stewart said at the end of July, “So we’re promoting activities that help folks enjoy the great outdoors, inspiring daycations (and) micro road trips to the area, promoting outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery.”
Video on its website and social media early in the pandemic, when people were urged to stay home, included a campaign, Savor the Slow, with scenes of beautiful footage in Thurston County to provide a sense of peace and calm, she said, fitting the county’s brand as a place to relax and rejuvenate.
Experience Olympia over the summer was working on taking Savor the Slow to the next level with drone footage in a campaign called Going the Distance. Footage was planned that would follow a car through beautiful scenery to promote road trips, short driving adventures, and connections with nature, she said.
“What’s nice about digital advertising is we can geo-target other destinations that are in Phase 3 where nonessential travel is permitted and then be much less aggressive in those areas where folks are supposed to be staying in their own communities,” Stewart said. “Our marketing has certainly gotten a little tighter on those who are within a short driving distance to our destination,” even addressing locals who can support local businesses and share their experiences to amplify the DMO’s message.
Stewart anticipates this could be the marketing norm for a while. Much has to change before people are fully allowed or comfortable to travel, she said.
“We want to make sure that the travel industry is being a part of the solution and helping to promote safety and health, and well-being … so we can get on the other end of this faster,” she said. The climate requires her agency and others to be flexible as public health conditions and orders change. “As much as we can plan for things right now, it’s also important that we are staying on our toes, remaining nimble to changing circumstances and situations, and just be ready to plan and plan again, and then scrap the plan and make a different plan.”
Stewart is excited for what the end of the pandemic looks like.
“It’s a bit cliché to say we’ll all be stronger for it,” she said. “But I think we’re going to be a lot more imaginative, a lot more flexible, and hopefully continue to be graceful with each other as well.”
State Group Stresses Information
At the Washington Hospitality Association (WHA) — which has more than 6,000 members representing restaurants, hotels, bars, golf courses, and other hospitality businesses — a key focus during the pandemic has been education.
“We’re putting up brand-new news on regulations or relief efforts, probably five or six times a day,” Anthony Anton, WHA’s president and CEO, said of efforts to keep members updated.
People are looking for the latest information on best practices, what’s allowed or not allowed, which face mask is best, and more, he said, noting most members are small businesses that don’t have a CFO or lawyer on staff to interpret rules and regulations. Therefore, WHA is trying to make it easy for them to stay informed.
WHA also is working to bridge the industry to government, informing public leaders of the “unprecedented crisis” facing the sector. Restaurants and hotels are typically the No. 1 tax provider in most communities, and the largest private employer, Anton said.
“If we’re going to come back out of this thing economically, we need to support the bridge to get them through this,” he said, noting about half the hospitality industry jobs had been lost through May.
Restaurants are low-margin businesses that aren’t meant to operate at 25 percent or 50 percent capacity, he said.
Opening fully, but doing so safely to prevent going backward, are two keys to survival, Anton said in late July. Another is relief from fixed costs out of operators’ control, like rent, property taxes, and set fees and taxes that aren’t based on a percentage of sales, he added.
“That’s a conversation we continually have with government officials is, ‘We can’t pay what doesn’t come in the door,’ ” Anton said.
Anton complimented state DMOs for spreading the word in their communities about local hospitality and safety protocols.
He lauded the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) and others for featuring in-state travel because there won’t be large groups coming to Washington from out of state for a while.
The showWAlove website gives Washingtonians a way to support their favorite tourism-related businesses by purchasing gift cards to give small businesses much-needed income, and play later, the site says, noting more than 1,000 businesses registered.
Explore Washington’s Backyard is a “new website that highlights safe and fun adventures throughout Washington,” WTA said. The site notes which phase counties are in and what’s allowable in each phase.
“If we really want our communities to continue to be vibrant, now’s a great time to explore Washington,” Anton said midsummer. “I think we’re hoping everyone will see eight things in Washington that they haven’t seen before, and that will help our economy keep rolling.”