Business Columns & Blogs

State’s travel and tourism industry could benefit from show in Tacoma

How can you know where you want to go if you don’t have some idea of what you’ll find when you get there?

That’s the heart of the matter when it comes to tourism marketing, an issue that has vexed Washington for years.

A quick recap: Washington’s travel and tourism industry long complained about the meager amounts spent by the state to promote itself, especially when compared with neighboring states such as Oregon and Idaho, never mind the behemoths of California and British Columbia.

State government, faced with gaping holes in its budget, came up with a fix for the carping, if not the cause of the complaints: It wiped out tourism marketing entirely, threw it all back on the industry and said, “Here, you deal with it.”

The less than $2 million the state was spending annually barely amounts to spillage when compared with education, health care or highways, and slicing that appropriation wasn’t going to close a budget hole measured in the billions of dollars. But whatever the state spent on trying to get tourists to spend their money in Washington wasn’t going to go up, certainly not now, probably not in any meaningful way for the long term.

Thus the state really did the travel-and-tourism sector a favor, even if the industry itself didn’t quite see it that way. By taking over the responsibility for tourism marketing, the industry itself gets to make the decisions about how and where promotional dollars are spent.

Provided, of course, it can actually come up with those dollars. That’s been the mission of the Washington Tourism Alliance, the industry group that took over responsibility for travel promotion.

The approach the alliance is taking is to craft some sort of assessment on industry members, a system similar to one used in California. But designing a system that people can live with is no small task. Who is really a member of the industry? Does everyone pay the same rate? Why?

Why not? How do you balance the competing interests and goals of different regions, different types of activities, different sizes of business?

And most of all, do you make it voluntary or mandatory? If it’s voluntary, that poses the free-rider problem. If it’s mandatory, that sounds suspiciously like a tax, which requires legislative action.

The tourism alliance has been targeting this session of the Legislature to submit a proposal for a tourism-marketing assessment. No bill has been introduced yet, although it still hopes to. The alliance has scheduled its tourism summit and legislative advocacy day for March 12 in Olympia. The later it gets in the session, the dicier prospects of passage become, since more attention will be focused on the big issues such as the budget.

While all that is going on, the actual consumers of all that proposed tourism marketing are starting to make some plans for vacations.

Where will they go? Most would-be travelers have bucket lists of destinations they want to visit, some old favorites they want to revisit and mental inventories of the obvious places they draw upon when visitors come to town.

But they’re also open to new ideas, particularly for day trips and weekend excursions. Even longtime residents can find new places to explore – if they know of them.

That’s what tourism marketing does – tell people about destinations they didn’t know they wanted to visit. In the absence of a state-run campaign, it’s been left to the alliance, to regional councils and bureaus such as Tacoma’s and individual businesses to tell them.

One effective way to market to those interested in travel, and one not in use, is the travel show. Seattle used to have one, but it has morphed into a golf and travel show, heavy emphasis on the former. Golf is a hugely important travel-and tourism component, but it’s far from the only one.

So here is our Modest Proposal for the week that accomplishes multiple goals of promoting the industry and creating another local event to fill one of our venues. Tacoma should host an annual mid-winter general-interest travel and tourism show, featuring exhibits, displays and booths from regional attractions, hotels, museums, resorts, boat and train rides, national and state parks, nature and wildlife pursuits, outdoor activities ... the potential list is nearly endless. Yep, the golf people are welcome, too. If we get out-of-region, even international destinations to join in, so much the better. That it’s Tacoma doing this (thus providing a marketing outlet for its own attractions), better still.

The point of tourism marketing is to make the potential visitor say, “I wanna go there.”

Consumers are hugely willing to make that exclamation, especially after a cold, dark, wet and flu-bug-ridden winter. They’re not inclined to say it, however, without being provided some inspiration to do so.