Promotion of state now in tourism industry’s hands

Budget woes forced closure of official Washington office

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photoKim Bennett

OLYMPIA — Business and travel industry leaders have begun marketing Washington just weeks after the state shut down its official tourism agency.

In another grueling year of budget compromises, July 1 marked the date when Washington became the first state to shutter its tourism agency. The decision gave primary responsibility for tourism marketing to the fledgling nonprofit Washington Tourism Alliance.

The WTA encompasses of a broad cross section of businesses and associations within Washington’s tourism industry, ranging from the Washington Restaurant Association to Red Lion and Best Western hotels. Its leaders created the group in February, following the announcement that officials would close the doors to the state tourism office.

With more than $300,000 raised from the tourism industry so far, the WTA has taken off fast, but it still has some holes to fill. Chief among those is who will serve as its interim director. Kim Bennett, CEO of the Vancouver Regional Tourism Office, played a key role in interviews to narrow the field of candidates to lead the WTA.

“I believe they’ve made a selection,” Bennett said, “and that will be announced somewhere around July 22.”

The state put about $2 million into tourism marketing last year. The number represents a decline in funding over several years from a peak of $7 million. Bennett is optimistic that the complete shift to the private sector will bolster funding enough to surpass those amounts in the next few years.

“I’m hoping that in the first two or three years, the WTA can amass a budget of around $10 million,” she said.

Paying for it

Part of the WTA’s funding comes from membership fees, which range from $25 for individual members to $5,000 for the group’s founding partners. The other part will come from contracts with industry leaders such as the Port of Seattle, said WTA member Jane Kilburn.

Kilburn, the port’s director of tourism development, said at this point a larger portion of funding will come from the Port of Seattle, which she called a “catalyst” for the WTA. However, she anticipates the funding scheme will eventually change.

“We expect to raise money from more memberships,” Kilburn said, “but long term, we need to look at a more sustainable funding solution.”

Patti Brooke, the assistant director of the Business Services Division of the state Department of Commerce, oversaw the state’s tourism agency through its last day of operation. Brooke said she would like to see the WTA work with the state in a joint effort to put about $20 million a year toward tourism marketing.

“It would be nice if the industry and the state could kind of take the lead and come up with a proposal,” she said. “That’s our hope: that they can come up with a plan to have a public-private funding model and maybe go to the Legislature next year with a funding proposal.”

As of now, though, the WTA is focusing on devising its bylaws. After that, it will come up with a marketing plan.

Southwest Washington rep

Part of that plan is to ensure the WTA has a representative for each region of the state, Bennett said.

Brett Wilkerson, the general manager of the Heathman Lodge, has emerged as a favorite to represent Southwest Washington.

Wilkerson eagerly awaits the announcement of who will get the position, which he expects will happen next week.

“My life has been in this industry and I want to be a part of anything that can help tourism,” Wilkerson said. “It’s a tide lifter for the economy.”

As with many places in the state, tourism plays an integral role in Clark County’s economy. Visitors spend nearly $365 million a year at Clark County businesses, where thousands of jobs rely on tourists, Bennett said.

Visitor spending also brings millions of government dollars to Clark County each year from state and local taxes.

“Even if you don’t think you work in the tourism industry, you benefit from the tourism industry,” Bennett said, “because those taxes are used to benefit every citizen.”

The Department of Commerce will continue to run the state tourism website until the end of the year. At that point, the WTA will take it over. Despite the closure of Washington’s official tourism agency, WTA members and state officials anticipate tourism will hold up just fine over the summer.

“Visitors to Washington state have been up,” Brooke said, “and that’s been good.”