Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane’s hospitality industry is positioned for comeback

Tourism, convention marketer stays in ring after ‘punch in mouth’

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The year 2020 started with so much promise. It felt like Spokane was poised to emerge from the shadow of bigger, trendy Pacific Northwest cities.

Huge events like the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament were on the books in Spokane. With the possibility of Gonzaga playing at home, the national spotlight was sure to be shining on us. Conventions filled out the calendar at the Spokane Convention Center. New restaurants and bars were opening; new hotels and new construction filled us with hope.

But, like Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That quote encapsulates what the travel and hospitality industry has felt over the last year. COVID punched us square in the face. The pandemic impacted the travel and hospitality industry most. Restaurants are suffering, airplanes are empty, event spaces sit silent, theaters are dark, and for a year, we’ve all been clinging to hope.

As a destination marketing organization, Visit Spokane’s job is to tell the world about the Spokane region. We bring conventions, meetings, and leisure travelers to Spokane County who fill up hotels, restaurants, the Convention Center, and other venues. We sell the nature, the culture, the shops, the culinary, beer, and wine scenes. We pitch Spokane to magazine editors and journalists around the country.

A year ago, when the pandemic started and events began to cancel, we scrambled to reconnoiter. We saw what was happening to the industry and knew we had to act quickly. Visit Spokane laid off 70% of our staff, furloughed existing employees, and gave up our beautiful office space in the Wells Fargo building downtown. We made tough decisions to ensure we would exist when the world finally came out of the pandemic. The staff that remained has continued to book conventions, market the Spokane region, and pitch stories to national and regional media.

We were lucky enough to be awarded $2.5 million in CARES Act funding, which we then used to create a new marketing campaign called “Room to Roam.” We began a new strategy, capitalizing on the Spokane region’s outdoor space, and then we flooded Seattle and Portland with ads to drive on over and safely visit. It worked. The $2.5 million in Cares Act funding directly impacted visitors, who booked over $5 million in hotel room revenue for Spokane County hotels.

Spokane County fared much better than many counterparts in the Pacific Northwest. Spokane County had an occupancy rate double that of Seattle, and Spokane County had a higher revenue per available room than both Seattle and Portland in 2020, according to hotel industry market data provider STR Inc.

The revenue generated by visitors benefits every person who lives here. When people visit, they stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, and shop. They pay a bed tax and sales tax. That spending lowers the tax burden for Spokane County residents, essentially lowering taxes for every household in the county by an estimated $1,000.

Spokane is in a favorable position right now. It has always been a drive market, which has worked in our favor when people are reluctant to fly. We don’t rely on international travelers like more prominent cities do. We have a walkable downtown and plenty of outdoor space. We’re poised to make a more robust and quicker comeback than bigger cities. GoBanking.com recently named Spokane as one of 50 cities best prepared to reignite their economy and job market. Sometimes it pays to be small; it’s easier to dodge the punches.

Mentally, we had prepared for 2021 and knew it would be just as hard, if not more challenging, than 2020. Recovery is always hard. As we forge on into this year, we see glimmers of hope here and there, including construction on The Podium, a concert booked at the Spokane Arena for 2022, and Hoopfest rescheduling for September. 

We’ve been able to reopen the Visitor Center in Riverfront Park, and we just rehired a laid-off employee. But it’s been hard not to feel downhearted. The 2020 conferences we had rebooked for 2021 have canceled yet again. It feels like the movie Groundhog Day—except this isn’t funny. Jobs are on the line, and restaurants are on the brink of closing.

One thing remains clear: We must pursue safety and health to move forward and welcome visitors back to the Spokane region.

Spokane is ready for a comeback.

 

Meg Winchester is president and CEO of Visit Spokane

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