Taking Tourism Temperature

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Expert Panel Analyses Industry’s Impact on Central Oregon Economy

A high-powered panel of experts aired their thoughts on the current tourism climate in Central Oregon recently as part of a Bend Chamber-sponsored Town Hall-style forum touching on the industry’s impact on the regional economy, and offering predictions for the future.

Lead-off speaker at the event, held at Bend Golf & Country Club, was Central Oregon Visitors Association President/CEO Alana Audette, who gave a regional perspective on the single largest local economic sector, which brings in 2.6 million overnight visitors annually.

Audette identified a strong recent trend of economically battle-hardened consumers feeling “in the driving seat” regarding bargain hunting when making vacation plans, especially through utilizing comparison shopping offered by data aggregating internet “meta” sites like kayak.com.

Research also indicated that travelers were taking shorter duration trips, like weekend getaways, and staying closer to home, within a four-six hour drive time, which affected marketing efforts.

While the closer drive markets were critical for tourism retention, she stressed that fly markets were also vital for future expansion. In that area, COVA has worked closely with the local task force and carriers to nurture relationships regarding route systems and the type of aircraft employed.

She highlighted one of the group’s success stories in working for almost nine years to get non-stop jet service to San Francisco, though she lamented the recent loss of direct service to Los Angeles, which seems unlikely to be revisited until at least 2013. On a brighter note, Alaskan Airlines was offering expanded options to Hawaii.

Audette said COVA was taking a multi-tiered approach to marketing efforts for the 2011-12 cycle, including a revamped media campaign in conjunction with the DVA advertising agency focusing efforts locally and particularly on the relatively affluent and high density Northern California and Bay area markets.

She added, “We have a phenomenal campaign, including TV commercials, print execution and online marketing in a multi-pronged approach.
“We are cautiously optimistic for the future. There was a definite uptick in the first half of this year which was encouraging, with record numbers for July, but we felt a slowdown entering into the second half especially following the stock market declines.”

Visit Bend President/CEO Doug LaPlaca stressed the importance of major experiential events, pointing out that his organization has been working diligently to bring more national sporting events to the area during the summer months, as well as during the shoulder season.

He told members that VisitBend which recently opened new flagship offices which locals could be ‘proud of’ in downtown Bend, was shifting its focus to city-wide events to further help tourism in the area.

“September will be one of our most active months,” he added, “with major flagship attractions like the USA senior road racing cycling championships being staged right here bringing in an attractive demographic from all over the country.
“We are also looking at promoting the area ‘brand’ to other regional markets throughout Oregon, Washington and California.”

Riverhouse Hotel & Convention Center General Manager Wayne Purcell said the numbers are starting to turn positive for the lodging industry compared to a devastating last couple of years.

While there is still room to grow for some of the shoulder months, he stated business over the past several months has been good and the hotel is booked with group meetings for September, including the League of Oregon Cities conference bringing in a huge influx of over 900 attendees.

He said group meeting business is on the rise in Central Oregon which positively impacts all businesses.
Bend hosts the second largest conference facility in the state, but faced stiff competition from markets like Seaside and Salem which both have large conference centers that are owned by the cities themselves which gives them something of an advantage in terms of marketing and advertising.

“April, May, September, and October are the highest demand months for group businesses across the state,” said Purcell. “The Riverhouse has two salesmen in Portland, and one locally to draw in group business, but we don’t have a cohesive effort like other communities.”

Mt. Bachelor is looking to attract new visitors from locals to destination skiers, with work continuing on branding the mountain with its product and services and leveraging its existing assets including the Deschutes National Forest, the quality of snow, and the mountain’s tremendous facilities.

Mt. Bachelor President/General Manager Dave Rathbun told members Bend is one of the best skiing destinations in the country and rivals that of his native Colorado.

“I didn’t even know about the caliber of this resort until I moved here and I have been in the industry for years,” he said.

To meet this challenge, Rathbun says Mt. Bachelor is working to build its brand through word of mouth advertising locally, as well as focusing on non-local day users, families  and regional users (spanning from Seattle to Boise, to San Francisco) through a variety of means including print, online/social media and web portals. The company is also leveraging its partnerships with lodging partner packages, COVA, Deschutes Brewery, Pepsi, and Chevrolet.

He added that while there is a large marketing push from every segment and every tourism office in the area, “the overall key is everyone needs to continue to work together to get across a unified message to grow tourism in Central Oregon”.

Central Oregon Visitors Association, 800-800-8334, www.visitcentraloregon.com. Visit Bend, 877-245-8484, www.visitbend.com. Riverhouse Hotel & Convention Center, 866-453-4480, www.riverhouse.com. Mt. Bachelor 800-829-2443, www.mtbachelor.com.

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