Tourism group visits Vancouver, seeks support

Alliance looks to promote industry in Washington in absence of state funding

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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The leader of the new, privately funded Washington Tourism Alliance visited Vancouver on Thursday to promote the its effort to build a statewide tourism promotion program in the absence of a state-funded effort.

Suzanne Fletcher, the alliance’s director and its only employee, implored about 30 local business and tourism officials to support the effort, which she said would pay dividends in jobs and tax dollars to the state. “Tourism is not an expense. It’s an investment,” she said.

Fletcher is in the midst of a 20-stop statewide tour to build support for the new alliance. She began work in August and has a budget of just $300,000, about half from private donations and the remainder from the Port of Seattle. The tourism alliance’s 20-member board represents a diverse cross-section of industries and regions of the state, Fletcher said. Brett Wilkerson, hospitality division president for Portland-based North Pacific Management, corporate owner of Vancouver’s Heathman Lodge, is a local representative for Southwest Washington.

Washington has long been a low spender on tourism promotion compared with other states, Fletcher said in her presentation at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, but it hit bottom when the Legislature ended state funding for tourism promotion in July. She said the state is losing tourists and their dollars to British Columbia, which has a $55 million annual budget for tourism promotion, and to Oregon, which spends some $10 million to $11 million. Still, she said, tourism is Washington’s fourth-largest industry.

The alliance’s goal is to operate with a $10 million to $15 million annual budget, and it’s looking for ways to generate a steady income, she said. While future state funding is a possibility, Fletcher said she’s working on the assumption that the effort will be financed with private dollars. The alliance’s board is considering its options, For now, the alliance aims to attract members from corporations, small businesses and individuals willing to pay just $25 to join.

“We need to raise money fast,” said Fletcher, who said she works out of borrowed offices, as well as her Seattle home and her car. “I don’t want to sound desperate, but we’re desperate.”

The alliance will not attempt to supplant local tourism efforts like those of Visit Vancouver USA, Fletcher said, but will market the state broadly and work in partnership with local promotional offices. One of its aims, she said, is to get visitors who see only Seattle’s popular tourist draws of the Space Needle and Pike Street Market to branch out to other parts of the state. “People don’t know about this state except Seattle,” she said.

Kelly Sills, Clark County’s economic development manager, said the silver lining of losing state funding is that tourism promotion “is being taken over by people who know what they’re doing.”

“‘SayWa’ says it all,” Sills added, referring to a much-derided former state tourism promotion slogan.