Washington tourism agencies prepare for the winter decline

Lighthouse at the San Juan Islands
Washington tourism agencies are planning a variety of events and campaigns to continue attracting visitors to state attractions throughout the fall and winter months. Photo: U.S. Bureau of Land Management

As the winter months approach, Washington tourism agencies are implementing different campaigns and marketing strategies to keep travelers coming to visit state attractions. Strategies include special package bundles and themes for different festivals and events to encourage spending.

Tom Norwalk, President and CEO of Visit Seattle (VS) said Seattle’s activity and attractions have allowed it to remain relatively stable throughout all seasons.

“We are fortunate for a lot of different reasons that the demand has been so strong almost throughout the year. We are at some historic levels of hotel occupancy and the number of visitors coming into the area,” he told Lens.

According to data provided by VS, Seattle received 18.3 million daily visitors and 38.1 million day and overnight visitors in 2015. Last year, those figures increased to 18.9 million and 38.9 million, respectively.

In the summer and early fall months, city hotel occupancy reaches up to 94 percent, according to Norwalk. He added that the marketing organization puts extra resources into the fall and winter months to combat the off season.

Five years ago, the agency created the Seattle Tourism Improvement Area (STIA) to boost tourism marketing spending. STIA includes 59 hotels in the downtown area that asses their guests $2 per night to be invested in tourism promotions – specifically outside of the summer months. Norwalk estimates the charge brings in $7 million dollars each year.

During the fall and winter months, Norwalk said the city sees more regional visitors from British Columbia, Oregon and California. These travelers tend to come for food and wine events or holiday shopping.

February is Museum Month, when VS partners with cultural institutions to offer hotel guests 50-percent discounts to the city’s 40 museums.

“It’s a really great way to showcase some of the things we are most excited about in the city,” said Norwalk. “Each of our hotels can help promotion as well through direct marketing or social media.”

In March, VS partners with the Washington State Wine Commission for Washington Wine Month to put on “Taste Washington” which includes wine tastings, farm-to-table food opportunities and seminars.

Seattle home games also attract visitors, where a Sunday or Monday night game might result in 94 to 96 percent hotel occupancy. The same is true for large concerts such as U2 coming to Century Link Field or the Eagles at Safeco Field.

“We think our role is to continue to look for those assets to give people reasons to come and pump in additional revenue,” said Norwalk.

Some 100 miles north of the city, the San Juan Islands offer hiking and outdoor activities for travelers. Although not as bustling as Seattle, the islands also attract visitors from across North America.

The Islands feature several popular year-round attractions such as the Whale Museum, Friday Harbor and various art and historical museums on each island, according to San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau Communications Manager Barbara Marrett.

Some more seasonal options include Lime Kiln Point State Park where travelers can go whale watching and the Pelindaba Lavender Farm which stays open year-round, with the exception of the the farm store closing in the winter. The farm’s store in Friday Harbor remains open, however.

“We have what we call ‘campaigns for quiet season visitors’,” said Marrett. “For the fall, our slow season used to be in October, but since then we’ve had the ‘Savor the San Juans’ campaign. It has film festivals, special dinners, farm tours and other related harvest and food events.”

October visits have gone up over the years as the weather remains nice, and many whale watch tour companies still run on the weekends. The Bureau also offers special packages in the winter for lodging and restaurants.

This year, San Juan County collected $348,834 in lodging taxes from June 2017 through August 2017, according to Visitors Bureau data. Both July and August months brought in just over $127,000 per month. Although the fall numbers for this year have not been released, the County collected $95,327 in September, falling to $33,330 in October last year.

Friday Harbor tracks its “Special Hotel/Motel Tax” separately from the County. This summer into the fall, the town collected just over $150,000 from June through October. Both September and October months brought in over $42,500 each, and August’s tax came up just above $31,000.

One noteworthy lodging facility is Rosario Resort and Spa on Orcas Island. Holly Southern, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the resort, told Lens the resort downsizes as the season changes into fall and winter.

“I look at the offseason as a time for the locals to kind of reclaim the Rosario a bit too,” she continued. “The marketing we do and special events we do such as the wine series is a nice chance for a lot of the locals to come back and get one-on-one time with the chef or a more intimate dinner.”

Southern added that visitors come from greater distances in the summertime, such as from California or Texas, and they typical engage in island hopping such as going to Friday Harbor and then going to Orcas Island for a couple of days.

During the summer months, the resort recommends a two-day stay for booking. Typically, all 100 available rooms fill up during that time, added Southern.

“A lot of the time we will get families that will stay four or five days,” she said. “Summer is when revenues will hopefully collect what you need to carry you through the winter months.”

For the fall and winter months, the average visitor might come up for a weekend with the exception of Thanksgiving where guests might stay three days. Last weekend was the Hops on the Rocks beer festival which completely sold out the resort, according to Southern.

“This time of year, we have little spikes,” said Southern. “For Thanksgiving, we will be busy again for the holidays and have a big uptick.”

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