In the two years since Washington state's tourism office shut down, the travel and tourism industry has managed to maintain a bare-bones marketing and promotion operation but is doing little else with a meager budget of $481,000 that puts Washington at the bottom of spending by the 50 states.
Now the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA), an industry-led, nonprofit organization formed as the tourism office was closing in 2011, is firming plans for more robust and long-term financing, boosted by $1 million in two-year "bridge funding" allocated by the state legislature to aid the industry as it puts a permanent fix in place.
"We've got huge opportunities going forward, and that's to the credit of our board and tourism industry," said Louise Stanton-Masten, the WTA's executive director.
Under legislation that provided the $1 million for 2013-2015, the industry must match the funds one-to-one. WTA members, including hotels and destination marketing organizations, are being asked to step up to pool resources for the match, said Stanton-Masten. In the last year, members contributed at different levels, ranging from $300 to close to $50,000 each, raising $481,000 to keep the website, visitors guide and call center in operation.
Washington, with a tourism promotion budget of $3 million in 2010 before funding was slashed to zero, always ranked low in such spending among states. It fell from 48th to 50th place in 2012 while neighboring states, such as Montana, boosted promotion spending by as much as 30%, according to a U.S. Travel Association report (See box below for more on the report and click here or on the image for a larger view of a chart comparing the travel promotion spending of Washington and Montana from 2008 to 2012.).
The Washington travel industry is moving toward developing an assessment program, based on models used in California, Alaska and other states with public-private partnerships for financing. The WTA will hold regional meetings this fall with the goal of introducing legislation in January for a program that would generate $7.5 million a year for tourism promotion, Stanton-Masten said.
"That would barely put us in competitive positions with other states in the west like Idaho, which has $8.5 million, Oregon with $12 million or Alaska with $17 million," Stanton-Masten said. However, $7.5 million in financing would be an important step forward for Washington's travel and tourism industry, which has been losing market share in the two years since the tourism office closed, she said.
If legislation is passed approving an assessment program during the January-March 2014 legislative session, the WTA could begin collecting funds in late 2014 and start developing a 2015 marketing and promotion effort, she said.
For Washington's tourism industry, a full-fledged marketing and promotion program can't come soon enough. While the state saw travel and tourism growth in 2012 with $16.9 billion in revenue, a growth of 2.1%, it lagged behind the overall national growth rate of 5.2%.
"We're losing market share because we have not been able to aggressively market our state, and while other state tourism budgets have gone up, we've lagged behind," Stanton-Masten said. "Yes, we grew at a moderate rate last year, but think where we could have been if we had had an aggressive marketing program."
For individual destinations, the lack of a tourism office created challenges and extra work.
"It has meant that because the state doesn't have the resources to compete adequately, it put the burden on all of us to market our individual destinations," said David Blandford, spokesman for Visit Seattle, which, like many other WTA members, has done double duty and represented the state at industry events such as IPW (formerly International Pow Wow).
"There's been a beneficial footnote to the situation, and that's that we've all come together as an industry across multiple business segments and worked through these challenges together," he said. "We all worked to make sure that the website continued, that press releases were being sent out, the visitors guide was produced. … We designated people to handle different segments, such as tour operators and travel trade."
Cheryl Kilday, a WTA board member and president and CEO of Visit Spokane, said the lack of a state office has made marketing destinations within Washington more difficult and more frustrating because of the inability to capitalize on the national campaign by Brand USA.
"There's been no one out there talking about the state of Washington," she said. "We're all out there promoting our areas and we're doing pretty well, but not having one voice as a state has made it challenging."
Seattle image courtesy of Shutterstock.