In 2019, Vancouver had a blossoming tourism economy. It hosted conventions and large events and was a port of call for cruises down the Columbia River. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Attracting visitors to the area during a pandemic is really not something we are supposed to be doing,” said Cliff Myers, president and chief executive officer of Visit Vancouver USA, during a recent presentation to the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners.
Visit Vancouver USA is a primarily publicly funded agency charged with bringing visitors into the area. Among other tasks, it creates marketing campaigns that generally appear in publications at least 50 miles away.
Before the pandemic took hold, Myers said, tourism in the area supported $554 million in spending and 4,723 jobs. There are 38 local hotels and nearly 700 restaurants, but Myers said tourism is an underappreciated sector of the local economy.
The newly developed Waterfront Vancouver has made the city more visible to leisure travelers who also seek a walkable downtown and the city’s historic area, he said.
“People really appreciate new,” Myers said.
In the early days of the pandemic, travel was difficult. Vancouver’s occupancy rate dropped by 25.1 percent. The total number of visitors fell to 3.43 million, down from 4.61 million. And visitor spending dropped from $554.8 million to $374.9 million.
About 66 percent of visitors in 2020 came for a day trip, while 15.6 percent came to visit friends and family and 18.4 percent stayed in commercial lodging.
Sales for large groups — including conventions, sporting events and the like — dipped in 2020 as 52 groups canceled their local reservations.
“That represents a loss of about $30 million of spending to the local economy,” Myers said.
As 2021 came along, there were 22 group cancellations. But the agency turned to marketing outdoor activities — including hiking and enjoying the outdoor areas around the city — and pivoted toward the local hospitality ecosystem.
The Visit Vancouver team was able to host events such as Dine the Couve and Savor the Couve to get locals to enjoy cuisine available in the city. The team hosted a Southwest Washington Hospitality Roundtable, out of which came the idea for outdoor dining in extra parking spaces.
Myers said the city was buffered from the difficulties that other tourist areas in the state and country have faced.
“Vancouver has emerged from the pandemic as a pretty desirable destination in the Portland, Ore., area,” Myers said.
“We feel really grateful — and honestly lucky — that throughout the pandemic, we’ve fared better than other counties in Washington state and many large cities across the nation that hit devastating lows,” said Erica Lindemann, director of marketing for Visit Vancouver USA. “For that reason, and with the trends that we are seeing in the travel industry, we are cautiously optimistic for the year ahead and confident that we will see group and leisure travel get back to pre-pandemic levels.”
Myers hopes that in the future, Vancouver will not be at the bottom of the list of Northwest cities that invest in destination marketing, however. The list he referenced shows Seattle, Spokane, Yakima, Tacoma, Tri-Cities and Portland, Salem, Beaverton, Bend, Eugene and Lincoln City in Oregon all having more funding to invest in destination marketing than Vancouver does.
“We are not Seattle, and we are not Portland, but it’s not fun to be at the bottom of this list,” Myers said.
The agency is funded through a lodging tax and tourism promotion area fee per room that are charged to visitors who stay in commercial lodging here. Visit Vancouver hopes to see these increase over time and is working with local stakeholders to create a community-wide funding model.
“Our efforts to try and raise our funding are going to be on the backs of visitors to the area,” Myers said. “We’re not asking local residents to help us with this effort. We’re trying to do this in a very sustainable way, which is by using the visitors coming to the area to help us with this.”
With new amenities and new hotels, there’s a lot locally that can be leveraged for tourism.
“Prospective visitors like those kind of opportunities,” he said.
In the new year, Myers expects his team to be focusing on group sales again — visitors from cruise ships and those coming for large participatory sporting events.