Tourism: Washington vs. Montana

31 10 2011

You must have noticed Montana tourism advertising in Washington state, at least around downtown Seattle. (The photo above is at a vacant storefront on University Way.) They are taking siege, knowing full well that Washington doesn’t have a whole lot to combat their big gorgeous illustrations of wildlife and clever marketing aimed at wooing Washington residents to the “Big Sky Country.”

And who’s to stop them? As voiced in the New York Times, Washington officially became the only state in the union without a tourism office this year. Due to budget cuts, there is no more state money to promote tourism within or outside of the state. Archived property has been transferred to members of the Washington Tourism Alliance, formed this year with the goal of taking over statewide marketing coordination. This nonprofit group includes big agencies like Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau and smaller operations like Indian-owned casinos and ski resorts. With tourism as the fourth largest industry in Washington and a year-over-year upswing on visitor spending and international visitors from 2009 to 2010, Montana clearly sees market share to capture.

If the grand billboards weren’t enough to make you realize Montana’s success, the tipping point for me was a recent radio commercial promoting Montana by Washington’s own Warren Miller. (He lives on Orcas Island.) It’s in this 60-second radio spot that Mr. Miller attributes Montana as the perfect destination for winter adventure, and likens settling in Montana to that of the early pioneers who ceased their travels upon landing in Montana – because it was just that perfect then too. Heck, surrounding this year’s Warren Miller film alone, look at Montana’s tourism efforts to raise awareness:

Montana-focused tourism is also a political issue requiring advocacy within the state. Montana currently has a dedicated funding source for tourism promotion, a 4% Lodging Facility Use Tax commonly referred to as the “Bed Tax.” This tax was enacted by the 1987 Montana legislature and is collected from guests of hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, guest ranches, resorts and campgrounds. And just like Washington’s new Tourism Alliance, Montana has a coordinated group of regional organizations dedicated to educating the public about the power of tourism, and value of the tax.

While Washington doesn’t have a state-initiated tax to promote tourism, there are some already enacted city-mandated bed taxes to fuel support for city specific tourism. (See the City of Olympia for example.) Downtown Seattle hotel owners have proposed a $2-per-night room tax to fund advertising that would promote travel to the city, particularly in slower months. If passed, that fee will add to the 15.6 percent tax Seattle hotel guests already pay in sales and room taxes, which go in part toward paying off debt on the Washington State Convention Center and promoting Seattle as a business and convention destination.

The good news for Washington is that despite dismal efforts to market the state, tourists do seem to keep coming and spending money. We also have a great state tourism website at www.experiencewa.com too. So there’s already a foundation for the Washington Tourism Alliance to grow and succeed, not to mention a grounding of support from hotel owners looking to advocate for new funding resources to expand the tourism industry. The tough part, particularly in this economy, is advocating to the public why this issue so important – over countless others – and how the numbers work out to our advantage. Enter the challenge of consensus building.

Until then, enjoy drop dead gorgeous images of Montana. They’re a nice diversion from the reminder of vacant storefronts regardless.

P.S. I’ve also been fascinated with Oregon’s tourism campaign too.

Photo courtesy of Montana’s Office of Tourism.

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