State tourism branding efforts complicated by pandemic

State tourism branding efforts complicated by pandemic

The state economic shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only complicated efforts by the Washington Tourism Marketing Authority (WTMA) to promote the travel industry – particularly when it comes to struggling rural counties. Work continues within the destination marketing organization (DMO) through the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA) to rebrand Washington as a tourist destination, though COVID-19 may ultimately change where and how tourists travel.

WTMA is now investing $250,000 under a contract with WTA to create a new brand for Washington tourism for the first time in a decade, and its success in this effort may help alleviate what some say will be numerous long-term economic consequences of COVID-19. In addition to this year’s cruise season being cancelled, non-essential travel across the U.S.-Canada border remains prohibited.

As the state’s fourth largest industry, tourism generates $21.4 billion in annual spending. Since March, visitor spending in Washington has fallen by $3.8 billion, a 77 percent decrease from last year. Leisure and hospitality job loss composed 42 percent of all unemployment through April.

The job loss has been enormous. Prior to COVID-19, there were total of 182,700 workers employed by tourism-related businesses, which made up 3.8 percent of total jobs in the state. As of May, 152,000 jobs were lost in the travel, leisure, and hospitality industries. Between March and April, those tourism-related job losses composed 42 percent of all new unemployment in the state.

Washington Hospitality Association Pierce County Executive Director Anthony Anton told WTMA at its July 23 meeting “we’re the industry that is taking the hammer to the knee right now, and it’s been tough.”

Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Shiloh Burgess said that tourism activity isn’t expected to return to 2019 levels for several years. “I’m not here telling you really great news, but this is the reality of the tourism environment that we live in.”

She added that in addition to rebranding efforts, WTMA “now has the added opportunity and responsibility of recovery campaigns programs and other mechanisms and resources to try to assist the industry.”

The hit to the tourism industry has also affected local DMOs, which have been forced to lay off between 50-75 percent of their staffs. Enterprise Holdings Director of Business Rental Sales Donna Sbarra told colleagues that these organizations are “concerned about what everything looks like in 2021” and efforts to help them recover should start now rather than later.

WTA Interim Executive Director David Blandford told colleagues that “we feel that the time has come, the competitive landscape has changed enough, that we really do need to readdress the destinations and what we offer to travelers.”

He added that the organization is preparing to market Washington tourist locations while accounting for COVID-19 policies such as masks, social distancing, and site closures. “Guidelines and restrictions have reshaped travel. What travelers can literally do or not do is key, and I think real-time information and public information is a big part of that.”

WTA is also working to develop a tourism “passport program” that identifies when visitors go to listed locations. WTA Strategic Partnership and Tourism Development Director Mike Moe said that the program would offer rewards if enough sites within a county are visited. “We can encourage people to only explore their own region or, when things open up, to explore different regions.”

WTA plans to finish its rebranding efforts by next year.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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