Business Columns & Blogs

State’s new approach to tourism

You are a state with an actual tourism industry (i.e., you’ve got stuff that people will pay good money and time to see). But the resources you have to promote yourself to those with the money, time and inclination to see what wonderful stuff you’ve got are, to your mind anyway, perpetually scant when compared to other states.

So what do you do? You and the industry each print your own travel guide – same attractions, same dazzling photos of Mount Rainier and the Space Needle, many of the same advertisers.

Smart? Of course not. Reality? In Washington’s tourism industry for the last decade or so, sad to say, yes it was.

The would-be traveler to Washington had a choice of The Official Washington State Travel Planner, put out by the state’s tourism marketing and promotion office (most recently a part of the Department of Commerce), and the Washington State Visitors’ Guide, issued by what is now the Washington Lodging Association.

The solution? Get rid of one of the guides by getting rid of the entity that issued it.

That probably wasn’t the rationale for eliminating the state’s tourism promotion office as of the end of June, but that was the net effect of getting state government out of the tourism marketing business.

Last week the Washington Tourism Alliance, an industry-organized group that is taking over travel marketing and promotion, announced a partnership with the lodging association to produce a state travel guide for 2012; about 375,000 copies will be printed.

The alliance also appointed an executive director (Suzanne Fletcher, most recently with Redmond-based travel-expense-software developer Concur Technologies; before that she was director of travel/meeting management, transportation and food services at Weyerhaeuser). In addition it named a charter board of directors, which includes Tammy Blount of the Tacoma Regional Convention + Visitor Bureau.

The termination of the state tourism office might raise the question of why having the state spend no money on tourism promotion is better than spending some money, however meager. Some states farm out the marketing efforts to industry groups, although they kick in the dollars.

Here’s why: Now promotion of Washington tourism (regions and individual attractions, hotels, restaurants and the like will still do their own marketing) is under one roof and it’s directly under the industry’s control. Yes, it’s up to the industry to come up with the money to promote itself, but it now has a much more direct say, and stake, in how that money is spent.

Dollars can be spent more efficiently reaching a traveling public that doesn’t care much who the sponsor is, so long as it’s getting the information it needs.

There’s a larger lesson here, one applicable to the recent farcical exercise in the other Washington involving raising the debt ceiling and discussions about maybe, perhaps, someday, possibly cutting federal spending.

Government doesn’t have to do everything. It shouldn’t do everything, even when some of those things don’t amount to a rounding error, even at the state level ($1.8 million a year for the travel office).

The decision to get Washington out of the tourism promotion business drew criticism when it was proposed, with complaints that other states are increasing spending and that the industry would suffer without state-government’s presence.

It is certainly true that the industry-run effort could devolve into massive, debilitating internal squabbling, or that the private sector could prove as adept at generating clunky, bewildering campaigns like Say WA as state government.

But the industry as a whole appears to be concentrating its efforts on what it can make of this experiment.

Done right, Washington’s new approach to tourism marketing is an opportunity to prove it’s everybody else that’s doing it wrong.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at