Thanks in large part to square dancers, singers, and lovers of old buildings, Spokane outpaced the U.S. and Washington state as whole in visitor spending growth last year, according to a report released earlier this month.
After those healthy gains, however, some in the Spokane-area hospitality industry say they expect spending to be flat this year.
"Coming off a good year, to be flat isn't a bad thing," says Matt Jensen, director of marketing at the Davenport Hotel Collection.
Portland, Ore.-based travel research firm Dean Runyan Associates prepared the report for the Washington State Destination Marketing organizations and presented it to them earlier this month.
Visitors spent $870 million in Spokane County last year, up 7 percent from $813 million in direct visitor spending in 2011, the Runyan report says.
For the state as a whole, direct visitor spending increased 4.3 percent, to $14.4 billion from $13.8 billion in 2011, the report says. It says state spending lagged behind that of the U.S., for which visitor spending was estimated to have increased 5.2 percent in 2012, compared with a year earlier.
Cheryl Kilday, president and CEO of Visit Spokane, says a few large events helped to boost visitor spending in Spokane last year, including the 61st National Square Dance Convention last June and the National Preservation Conference last fall. Even the regional Sweet Adelines singing competition, which typically comes to Spokane, was larger than usual, due to some restructuring of that organization's regions, she says.
Speaking of 2012, Kilday says, "That was the year we really started to see the full effect of the expansion of the convention center that was completed in 2007."
The Runyan report put the number of overnight visitors to Spokane County at 2.75 million, up from 2.57 million visitors the previous year. Total direct tax receipts rose to $60.9 million last year, from $56.3 million the previous year, and the report says total direct industry employment countywide rose by almost 600 workers, to 9,820 last year from 9,240 in 2011.
While conventions were the main catalyst for growth in visitor spending, Kilday says the Spokane area also had increases in business and personal travel as well.
Jensen says the Davenport Hotel Collection's three hotelsthe Davenport Hotel, the Davenport Hotel Tower, and Hotel Lusso, which combined have a total of 600 guest roomshistorically have seen an even mix of personal, business, and convention guests. Those numbers shifted slightly to favor convention visitors last yearthe Davenport served as the headquarters hotel for the preservation conferencebut not significantly so.
He says the company expects more business and leisure travelers this year, which should offset an expected drop in convention business.
"That's just a little bit harder to forecast," Jensen says of business and leisure travel.
Kilday says Visit Spokane's projections for a flat year are based on an increase in business and leisure travelers.
She says, "2013, from a group standpoint, is very weak."
Two factors contribute to the drop in convention business, she says.
First, even-numbered years are generally better convention years for Spokane than odd-numbered years. Kilday says a number of regional and statewide groups rotate between holding events in Spokane and on the West Side. Sweet Adelines, for example, was here last year, won't be in 2013, and will return next year, she says.
Also, most large convention organizers select their event venue three to five years in advance. In 2009, convention venues in Seattle, Bellevue, and elsewhere began to feel the effects of the recession before Spokane.
Consequently, when Spokane venues were charging market rate, Kilday says, "Seattle and Bellevue were giving it away."
For sporting events alone, the numbers are somewhat rosier. Jodi Kayler, vice president of marketing and communications at the Spokane Sports Commission, says the organization expects the economic impact of all 2013 sporting events to be close to $20 million, for a 10 percent increase compared with 2012's figure.
Kayler says the number of events hasn't grown substantially70 slated this year compared with 68 in 2012but participation is increasing and beating projections.
For example, the largest sporting event annually in recent years has been the USA Volleyball Pacific Northwest Qualifier, which generates about 10,000 room nights at Spokane-area hotels. Kayler says about 500 teams are participating in the tournament this year, which is currently under way and wraps up this weekend. That's about 50 more teams than played in the same event last year.
Spokane also is in the midst of hosting parts of the 2013 NCAA women's Division I basketball tournament and is due to host some games in the men's basketball tournament next year.
One of the sport commission's strategies is to create sporting events in addition to bidding to host them. This year, Kayler says, the commission has created six new events that appear to be well received. For example, the first Spokarnage roller derby tournament is scheduled for next month, and 20 teams already have committed to compete in the event.
While convention activity will be down this year, Kilday says one influential group, the Certified Meeting Professionals, will be among those that hold a national convention in Spokane this year.
"Seventy percent of the people coming has the potential to bring a convention or meeting to Spokane," Kilday says.
A similar group is scheduled to have its convention in Spokane next year.
For future years, Kilday says booking activity has started to increase.
"The pace for '14, '15, '16, '17 is picking up," she says. "To have that pace picking up is really important."
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