Visit Spokane’s CEO Meg Winchester: Selling the future
New leader hopes to tell region’s story to outsidersMarch 14th, 2019
Meg Winchester has joined Visit Spokane, the region’s convention and visitor bureau, on a high note.
As the organization’s new president and CEO, her job will be to carry that tune into the following years.
The Spokane area is due to experience a spike in convention activity in 2019, with 16 citywide conventions on the books, doubling the conventions this year from last year’s total of eight.
By definition, a citywide convention uses two or more hotels plus convention center space.
Some of the larger groups slated to hold conventions in Spokane this year include the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, World Wide Group, and Lions Clubs International.
“What we’re doing is always selling the future … trying to bring our footprint into the destination. So, our sales team is out there constantly working with meeting planners,” Winchester says.
Visit Spokane is looking years ahead to prepare for conventions and being able to predict certain patterns, she says. Winchester aims to grow tourism for Spokane by focusing on its competitiveness within the group-bookings market, working with the convention center, hotels, and the airport.
“We’re really looking at ways to enhance that and increase that market share,” Winchester says.
Winchester stepped into her new role with Visit Spokane in January, replacing Cheryl Kilday, the organization’s president and CEO for the previous eight years. Kilday left the organization last October to become CEO of the North Myrtle Beach, S.C., Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Winchester points out the Spokane hospitality market focuses heavily on group market sales, while Galveston, Texas, where she served for nearly a decade as the director of Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, was more of a leisure-based tourist destination. In 2008, after Hurricane Ike hit Texas and the economy crashed nearly 10 days after, Winchester was instrumental in helping to rebuild the tourism industry in that Texas city.
Since moving to Spokane three months ago, her goal has been to get to know as many people as she can, and to listen to others before she makes judgments about the city.
“The vision is to grow and sustain our tourism assets and our tourism presence,” Winchester says.
Winchester says she considers Spokane a cosmopolitan city, with its downtown businesses and surrounding scenic nature, including the Centennial Trail.
“There are so many things you can sell,” Winchester says.
Winchester wants to work on expanding outsiders’ perceptions of Spokane.
“I think the story hasn’t been told as well as it could be told to outside of Spokane,” says Winchester. “I’m a huge partnership person, and just working with all of our partners here is how we can all live up collectively to really tell that story more powerfully.”
For Winchester, challenges may include competing in a region with cities such as Portland, Boise, Seattle, and Olympia, she says.
“It becomes a little more competitive, too, so we are already starting to look at that and ways we can maintain our relationships and competitiveness, even if there is a little bit of a downturn in the next couple years,” she says. “We have to show why Spokane would be a better choice for them to come … and what that takes is education.”
She says that a significant number of people end up starting a business in a city after they’ve gone on vacation there and took the time to explore it.
“A big push into it is to bring as many people as we can that are decision makers to Spokane. When they come, they’re like, ‘I had no idea, what a beautiful destination, what a beautiful convention package you have,’” Winchester says.
As part of its marketing effort, Winchester says, Visit Spokane might start looking at tweaking the tagline it has used for the past two years, “Creative By Nature.” For example, the organization might experiment with replacing the word “nature” with other terms to encompass a broad variety of interests.
Spokane has a thriving economic base with large companies, she says. Regional partners for Visit Spokane also include the University District.
“We’re kind of the inspiration. We’re doing the marketing,” Winchester says. “We don’t sell a hotel room. We don’t sell a convention center, but all of us, when we work together present as a unified front.”
Visit Spokane acts as a facilitator between groups and hotel and convention partners, she says.
With a current budget of about $5 million, Visit Spokane is in good fiscal health, she says. Budget funding comes from a combination of a bed tax, sales tax, and tourism promotion dollars from the city, county, and Spokane Valley.
Thanks to growth in convention business, several hotels are expected to be booked fully during events this year, she says. Winchester isn’t worried about the city not being able to accommodate what is sold in terms of conventions. She says that rooms reaching maximum capacity creates compression, meaning that visitors may be pushed out to parts of town they normally might not visit. That’s a good thing, she says.
Spokane currently is a seller’s market, Winchester says, which means that the hotel and destination can name their prices and buyers are trying to negotiate.
Winchester says that the key to success will be trying to keep up with patterns and predict the outcome of the next several years.
“Economy plays a lot into it,” Winchester says. “We’ve had a great last five or six years. That helps, too.”
There are indications of what’s to come, and if Visit Spokane continues to pay attention it will stay ahead of the game, Winchester contends.
“I really encourage our team to keep up with everything,” she says.
Keeping track of market trends and using marketing with social media are helpful tools, she says.
“This city seems like it’s totally on the precipice of just taking off, on the verge of greatness,” Winchester says.