Bellingham tourism companies weather recession

Even though people are staying closer to home for their vacation, they still want a "get-away experience." Regional tourism, however,...

By Anne Maertens

When the economy slides south, many people begin bargaining. Tourists who plan on emptying their wallets in Bellingham this summer are not only hoping to keep some change in their pockets, but they are waiting until the last minute to swipe their credit cards.

“I think people are shopping more. People are looking for a deal. They’re waiting for that last minute, [thinking] if the hotels are going to be empty, then maybe they’ll lower their rates,” said Gina Mazzeo, sales manager at the Hotel Bellwether.

While certain tourism-focused companies in Bellingham have been able to offer discounts, many are trying to adjust the way they do business rather than slash prices. 

The Hotel Bellwether, for one, has created various new package deals that allow guests to pay a flat fee for lodging and activities arranged by the hotel. Guests can choose from golf, whale watching, sailing and more. 

Corporate parties have continued to make reservations to stay and hold conferences at the Bellwether, Mazzeo said. But parties that would normally book three months in advance are now booking with less than a month’s notice.

Mazzeo said she believes all hotels have experienced a decline, but with the corporate parties and individual guests, the Hotel Bellwether has been able to remain at approximately 80 percent occupancy. She said she believes this is due to the Bellwether’s reputation.

“We’re an upscale property,” Mazzeo said. “But we’re not so upscale that we out-fit the community.”

Tourism vital to Whatcom County

Keeping the occupancy rate high is important for hotels and the community because hotels pay a bed tax, which is split to fund different parts of Bellingham and Whatcom County, said Loni Rahm, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. 

One recipient of the bed tax funds is Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, which has been open for 31 years.

“If the [hotel] revenues don’t continue to grow, we don’t continue to be funded,” Rahm said. “It’s kind of an interesting way to reward positive results.”

Rahm said the bed tax is the only way for most tourism offices to track how many people are visiting their town, even though it doesn’t account for people who are staying with family and friends or those who own second homes in Whatcom County. 

In the first quarter of 2009, bed tax revenues were 15 percent below projections. Rahm said this was due to much more than the economy. December and January brought snowstorms and flooding, and border construction has discouraged many Canadians from driving to Washington, she said.

While things are still down and the hard numbers are not in yet, Rahm said the second quarter has seen a steady rise and has only gotten better as the summer continues.

An analysis done by Dean Runyan Associates, a Portland-based tourism market research firm, shows that Whatcom County is the fifth largest tourism revenue generator in the state. It accounted for more than $450 million in 2007 revenue in Whatcom County, generating $7.1 million in local taxes.

“Part of the story that we’re always needing to share with our local community is that’s $453.7 million we wouldn’t have in our community if we did not embrace the visitor industry,” Rahm said.

County tourism is a year-round industry because of the variety the landscape has to offer for all seasons, Rahm said, which attracts visitors who fit a profile dubbed by the National Geographic as “geotourists.” 

Rahm said geotourists are of any age and demographic, but tend to have a higher education and income. The most common thread tying geotourists together is their desire to have an authentic trip, not a “prefab, fill-in-the-dots, amusement park experience.”

AAI adjusts marketing

For many, that means experiencing things as locals do and visiting places that are unique to the area. Bellingham remains a popular destination because it has a variety of these opportunities from the Puget Sound to the Cascades, Rahm said.

Dunham Gooding, director of the American Alpine Institute, said the Cascades offer sites that will awe visitors, especially when they witness some of the views that aren’t visible from the road. The Institute specializes in taking climbers to these sites. 

The institute offers guided courses, ascents and expeditions around the world, but Gooding chose Bellingham as a home base in 1975 because, he said, Mount Baker is the perfect training ground for all of the biggest mountains in the world.

In addition to climbs on Baker and other Washington sites, the institute offers trips in five other states and 16 different countries. Each trip is intended to leave climbers with beneficial skills, whether they are taking a three-day glacier course on Mount Baker or spending nine weeks ascending Mount Everest.

Although the institute was started with the intention of teaching to intermediate and advanced skill levels, beginners are an essential part of the institute’s success, Gooding said. 

One of the more basic courses is a three-day Mount Baker ascent with a $590 price tag. Gooding said since the economy shifted, fewer people are traveling from across the nation to do these quick trips. 

In response, Gooding has shifted marketing for the short trips to a more regional scale. Meanwhile, people traveling from across the United States or internationally have shown a shift in interest toward longer trips. 

As a whole, Gooding said, the institute has not been hit too hard by the economy. To date, it has been running at a normal rate, and while some trips like China and Bolivia have received less interest in 2009, their Ecuador and Denali expeditions have gained some. 

Also, the end of this summer is not completely full, but he expects to fill up the open spaces because he too has noticed the trend of last-minute travelers. 

Gooding said his company has stayed successful for several reasons. One reason is that each client is valued individually, and they become repeat customers. Another reason is that climbing is an important part of many people’s lives, and they aren’t willing to give it up. 

“What our clients do with us is part of their lifestyle and part of their identity,” Gooding said. “For many of them, the vacation trips they take either to the Cascades, the Andes or Himalaya are without doubt the highlight of the year. If you’re excited and fit and ready to go, you don’t want to postpone a climbing trip.”

But as the economy beats away many industries, Gooding was concerned his higher-end trips would start to fade away. However, his fears have yet to be realized. 

“It might be that people that have quite a bit of money, always have it,” Gooding said. “Even though they may have lost a lot on paper, they’re still going to take their vacations.” 

Sail the San Juans stays afloat

Jon and Jette Baker, captains and owners of Sail the San Juans, relax on their luxury sailboat Northwind. Photo by Anne Maertens
Jon and Jette Baker, captains and owners of Sail the San Juans, relax on their luxury sailboat Northwind. Photo by Anne Maertens

 

The effects of the economy are also being felt in the maritime tourism industry.

The customers at Sail the San Juans pay $1,995 per person for a six-day luxury sailing charter around the San Juans with gourmet food service. If groups fill all three double-bed rooms, they receive a 10 percent discount. 

Jon and Jette Baker, the captains and owners of Sail the San Juans, said their typical clients are retirees who have traveled the world. In May, the beginning of their season, Jon said bookings were so low he was afraid their business was going to be down 40 percent for the season. 

Thanks to the last-minute bargain hunters and last-minute discounts they’ve been able to offer, the latter half of their season, which runs through October, has filled with all but one room left.  

Jette said the unfortunate thing is they can’t go back and fill the weeks they’ve already lost. She said this year many people came to them expecting a deal.

One group that had already made a credit card deposit decided they wanted a better deal because they could have gone on a cruise for $600 per person instead.

“We can’t compete with that, that’s a cruise ship that can take thousands of people,” Jette said. “It’s not the same kind of thing.”

Jon said he doesn’t think many people could start a business like theirs with the economy as it is. He said he believes the reason they’ve been able to remain in business is because they have been doing it for more than 20 years. 

However, the Bakers said they would like to retire as captains of the 50-foot Northwind sailboat in about five years and sell the whole business to someone younger. 

Jon said he is uncertain about how the economy will affect the next five years of their business. With moorage fees, paying for the boat and other overhead costs, it’s a very expensive business to run, Jon said.

“As far as how we see it in the future, I think it’s a little early for us to predict next year,” Jon said.

Rahm said there are some things Whatcom County could do to improve its tourism industry, such as completion of the waterfront development project, because people love opportunities to connect with water or to clean up all of the I-5 corridor entrances to Whatcom County.

“A lot of energy and marketing has gone into the brand of Bellingham and Whatcom County,” Rahm said. “We want to make sure the back door and the front door to our community is a welcoming one.”

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