“Twenty-ten” has become a mantra of sorts for Northwest Washington. Between the Winter Games (February 12-28) and the Paralympics (March 12-21), this mutliweek block of time carries with it the mystical aura of Olympic prosperity. The financial bull’s-eye, of course, is centered around Whistler Village, greater Vancouver, and the British Columbia communities that are immediately adjacent.
Without the megamillion dollar budget necessary to achieve “official status” from the International Olympic Committee, our role as the nearest international border and closest U.S. destination is still largely undefined and difficult to predict. From a tourism bureau perspective, however, our efforts have been focused on three arenas: economics, encouragement and exposure.
A variety of studies have been released, and presentations and seminars have been conducted throughout Whatcom County over the past several years by the 2010 Commerce Centre, Washington state’s Office of Trade and Economic Development, Bellingham Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Council, WWU and other agencies and organizations. Their focus has been to inform local and regional businesses about contracts, bid processes and opportunities to become aligned with the various construction, distribution and supply needs spurred by the upcoming games.
While we have participated in many of these presentations, the tourism bureau’s explicit focus is targeted economic development. Tourism specific development. Which is why our annual luncheon — Wednesday, May 13, at the Cruise Terminal — will feature keynote speakers from Tourism Vancouver. After all, a key element of the games’ proximity is the increased travel potential which generates an increase in overnight stays, which in turn, results in increased visitor spending on food and beverages, fuel, shopping and activities.
A group of representatives from the hospitality sector meets regularly to discuss the importance of consistency, product value, and how to deliver an exceptional lodging experience. We anticipate strong occupancy rates in February and March 2010 — traditionally a softer season for us.
We have joined forces with our tourism counterparts in Skagit, Snohomish, Island and San Juan counties to work cooperatively on international marketing opportunities that none of us could afford individually. These include representation at United States Travel Association (USTA) International Pow Wow, National Tour Association (NTA), and others.
The Northwest Washington “coalition” is also coordinating efforts with Washington State Tourism to help define and promote an “I-5 Information Corridor” — stretching from Sea-Tac Airport to the Canadian border. We are collectively advocating for smooth, efficient and welcoming border transitions.
Our office continues to compile a list of multilingual local volunteers, who are willing to be called upon to answer simple questions, provide directions, and offer assistance to non-English speaking travelers.
Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism has also partnered with Whatcom Community College to offer the internationally acclaimed SuperHost customer service training. Developed by Tourism BC in anticipation of Expo ’86, SuperHost has become the definitive, low-cost, one-day training experience specifically tailored toward tourism. The next class is scheduled for May 18; register at whatcomcommunityed.com.
We are confident that many of these activities will help to provide tools that will enhance the positive experience of visitors to our area before, during and well after the Olympics and Paralympics.
Over the years, tourism bureaus have often been likened to community “cheerleaders.” A metaphor we embrace.
There are several collaborative efforts under way by communities as well as individual businesses and organizations that we include as part of our tourism marketing and media relations message. These range from the “History of Snowboarding on Mt. Baker” exhibit scheduled by the Whatcom Museum to the Flags of All Nations cross-border display currently in development by the United States Canada Peace Anniversary Association.
In addition, we have written letters of support for state and federal funding requests by community and cultural groups to bring specific events, activities or exhibits to our area in 2010. All of which is intended to tie the first “e,” economics, to the final “e” — exposure.
For the tourism industry, the most valuable long-term impact of the games — extending well beyond the actual competition — is the exposure of the Pacific Northwest to the world! In addition to the accredited media (traditionally print, radio, television, and online outlets) that will be covering the games in an official capacity, can you imagine the millions of images that will be circulating the globe from cell phones, cameras, computers, and every other image-capturing gadget developed between now and next February.
For many would-be travelers, this exposure will be a first glimpse of the majestic beauty of the Pacific Northwest. For others already familiar with our region, this exposure may provide the motivation for a return visit. And given the extremely high return rate of first time visitors, we are confident that many of the actual ticket holders will find their way back to this region in the years to come.
So how do we influence this exposure? For the past 18 months, we have targeted national and international media — providing niche as well as general interest story lines and information. We have invested in photography, b-roll, video clips, and other resources that media outlets will need. We have “beefed up” our Web site and extended our publicity reach beyond our traditional markets.
While restricted by copyright laws from using actual 2010 Olympic graphics or specific references, we are doing everything possible to leverage our proximity to the host city — highlighting the unique products, places and people travelers can discover just across the border in Whatcom County.
Vancouver is, after all, poised to capture the gold from this event! Whistler is after the silver. We’re positioning ourselves to stand on the prosperity podium to accept, with great enthusiasm, the bronze!
Loni Rahm is president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, a nonprofit, economic development organization dedicated to stimulating the local economy through tourism.