CONVERSATION WITH LONI RAHM
This was not the first time Loni Rahm applied for the position of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism president and CEO.
Fourteen years ago she competed with John Cooper for the same job. For Rahm, it was either Bellingham or Chelan, where she was also job hunting, and Chelan is where she ended up.
After Cooper left his post earlier this year, Rahm applied for the job again and beat out three other final candidates for the position
Having spent most of her life living and working in Washington — in radio broadcasting, as the membership and marketing director for the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau, as the director of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau, and as vice president of marketing and media relations for Chelan-based R&R Marketing Group — Rahm said she and her husband had set their sights on Whatcom County ever since they first considered moving to the area 14 years ago.
“We’ve always had an eye on what was happening in Bellingham, and I’m very pleased that it was the right time and the right place and the right opportunity, because this is where we had always wanted to be empty nesters,” she said.
The BBJ recently sat down with Rahm three weeks after starting her new job to discuss her past tourism experience, her impressions of Whatcom County, and what her future plans are for the bureau.
BBJ: How did Chelan’s tourism change and grow while you were there, and how were you involved in that change?
Loni Rahm: The most significant change that took place during my helm was the fact that we developed a marketing program. Until that point we had nothing to demonstrate what we were all about.
My background in the media means I place a great deal of importance on media relations. The media outlets have grown so much faster than content has been made available to them, and there are always avenues desperate for content. One of the things I did for the Chelan area was to identify those outlets, pursue them, and truly generate millions of dollars worth of positive exposure on behalf of the Lake Chelan Valley.
BBJ: What are some of the similarities and differences between Chelan’s tourism industry and Bellingham’s?
Rahm: Both of them are heavily scenic and recreation based.
What’s interesting is what I sense is a trend — that the second home market in Chelan has become huge. There are far more homes that are owned by second home owners and visitors than there are residents. I see that trend gaining momentum in Whatcom County as well, and I sense there will be a certain element of part-time residence and visitor ownership that has an impact on the visitor market here as well.
“The weather is the major difference. In Chelan, the mountains are a barrier. If people have a concern about winter travel, they will not come over the mountains, but they will come up and down I-5.
BBJ: What are Whatcom County’s tourism strengths?
Rahm: Its authenticity. It is a very fresh, natural and authentic experience that people are not only attracted to as visitors, but (residents) respond favorably to. (The visitors and residents) have similar philosophies — they’re not looking for a false or make-believe experience.
BBJ: What do you think are its weaknesses? Where can tourism in the area be improved?
Rahm: I think our biggest challenge is and probably will continue to be mobility, such as moving people into, through and around Whatcom County and Bellingham, and across the border. There doesn’t seem to always be an easy way to get from point A to point B and in many areas we’ve grown faster than what we can accommodate, so there are certain clogging points. It’s just a challenge that we are obviously going to continue to be aware of. Various entities are already working on transportation plans and some of the public transportation options are a little more visitor friendly.
BBJ: What are your plans for Whatcom County tourism? Do you have any programs or initiatives you are working on?
Rahm: We’re working on our 2008 marketing plan right now and you will see that there is a stronger emphasis on public relations because of my own background and my interest and experience with it.
There is a technology marketing initiative we have put into our budget for 2008, and one of the components of that I’m very focused on is the necessity for online marketing and our online presence to be more three dimensional. There’ll be more activities, more participation with consumers. Some of that will take the form of our events, for example. It’s not that difficult or expensive now to showcase an event or festival with an audio-visual presentation, and store it some place, link to it, so it’s not a huge time-consuming download, so that people are able to actually experience a festival, activity or event. I’d like to see us gradually integrate more and more of that kind of activity and liveliness.
BBJ: How is the tourism board preparing for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics?
Rahm: There is a local 2010 committee and we meet quarterly. I am starting my third week on the job and so far that committee has not met during my tenure. I know there is a lot more that I’m going to know about what we’re doing than what I do right now.
We feel strongly at the bureau that one of our greatest responsibilities is to provide the public relations resources and the media resources that can leverage the spotlight into our area as well. There’s going to be pre-Olympic coverage, Olympic coverage, post-Olympic coverage. Every opportunity that we can take advantage of to demonstrate what a welcoming environment we are, what a phenomenal destination we are that attracts repeat visitation, will be to our advantage.
Secondly, I have spoken with the Washington state tourism director, Marsha Massey, about their interest in bringing the Superhost program, that British Columbia does, (to Bellingham). I have spoken with her about her desire to bring that program, to pay the royalty fees, to Washington state. It’s a customer service training program, very intense, very focused on the visitor industry and helping people in frontline businesses and anybody who has any opportunity any time to run into visitors … (who) are looking for guidance, assistance and interaction with the local residents. It’s a very costly program, and what Washington state is hoping to do as part of their 2010 umbrella organization, is to figure out a way they can bring the program to Washington state so organizations like ours can offer it back to our communities at a greatly reduced price.
BBJ: What is the tourism bureau doing to promote the area outside of Whatcom County — statewide, nationally and internationally — and what are you promoting about Whatcom County?
Rahm: There is a very integrated strategic activity and marketing plan to target all of the various markets and audiences we have available.
One, of course, is consumer marketing going directly to the consumer with our advertising campaigns, our Best Buys program, incentives marketing to get people here at a specific time of the year.
We do more regional West Coast marketing. There are travel publications we advertise in that are cost prohibitive to do on a national basis. Our advertising campaign includes color publications that are very specific travel-oriented markets like Sunset, Budget Travel, Conde Nast Traveler and NW travel, all of which are national publications that we target into West Coast audiences. We also do regional newspaper advertising.
We also participate in various activities — usually in partnership, because the international marketplace is very expensive to pursue, with the exception of Canada, which is international but we see it more regionally — that the Washington state tourism office developed.
BBJ: You are stepping into some big shoes, as John Cooper had been the tourism president here for 14 years. How does that feel?
Rahm: If feels great. I absolutely appreciate everything that John did for the last 14 years, because when I look at the alliances and the partnerships and the positive momentum and the respect the visitor industry has in Whatcom County and throughout the state and the world, it’s really a good feeling to step into that environment.
He also recruited and drew into the organization very strong leadership in the board level and on our committees.
Probably more to the point, I am so appreciative of the staff he assembled because this is a phenomenal team, and I really hope he inherited as phenomenal a team as I did.
Loni Rahm Bio
Name: Loni Rahm
Family members: Husband, Dennis, 56; daughters Jenna, 21 and Kacie, 17; stepson, Jason, 37; grandsons Jesse, 2, and Hunter, 5 months
Favorite vacation: Either 10 days every winter with family in Cabo San Lucas or her rustic cabin in Lake Chelan that has no electricity or TV
Favorite local restaurant: So far, D’Anna’s, but she’s only been here since September 16.
Hobbies: Reading, boating and her kids.