Few industries have suffered from the coronavirus pandemic as much as tourism and hospitality, with restaurants, independent retailers, hotels, and attractions among those hardest hit.

“We now know that the worst thing that can happen to the tourism industry is a pandemic, a global pandemic — it’s hit us between the eyes, both private and public sector, everybody affiliated with travel and tourism; nobody’s been able to escape it,” Brad Jones, executive director at Visit Bellevue, said during an interview in late July.

David Blandford, interim executive director of the Washington Tourism Alliance (WTA), echoed Jones’ comments about a month later, when he said COVID-19’s impact on the industry is nine times more impactful than the economic fallout for the industry following the events of 9/11, noting that full recovery could take two to five years. Speaking Aug. 27 during an online event, the Visit Bellevue Tourism & Hospitality Marketing Research Forum, he also cited Longwoods International data indicating 52 percent of U.S. travelers were hesitant to travel.

Blandford said “flexible marketing” for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and others is part of the new normal.

Visit Bellevue is among the DMOs around Puget Sound and the world that have had to do the pandemic pivot, the delicate dance of trying to cater to visitors within the confines of important public health rules for keeping people safe. They’re working with less money, too, since they’re almost entirely funded by lodging taxes. When rooms are barely filled, DMO revenue barely registers.

Photo by Zac Gudakov on unsplash

Visit Bellevue cut approximately 60 percent of its staff, with other staff on furloughs and reductions; cut its budget by 65 percent, or more than $1.2 million; and remains in a “paused-spending environment” until there’s more clarity about the future, Jones said in late July.

Visit Bellevue’s home page in August noted the city was “open, resilient, and committed,” adding that the wellbeing of visitors, residents, and hospitality providers is Visit Bellevue’s greatest priority, and asking travelers to respect the health and safety of everyone.

Gone are the big conventions and trade shows, international travel groups, throngs of business travelers, and many other valuable visitors. DMOs have had to refocus some of their messages to inform people still hungry for escape, perhaps an outdoor adventure rather than an indoor one, and who might live in and around Washington. Messaging has included what’s open, suggestions for nearby drive travel, and reminders to be safe.

King and Snohomish counties were in Phase 2 of “Safe Start Washington” in mid-August, which allows essential and limited nonessential travel, and outdoor recreation involving five or fewer people outside one’s household, among other criteria. Visit Bellevue was more or less accommodating travel, not proactively promoting or advertising in Phase 2 over the summer, instead patiently waiting for the county to enter Phase 3.

“We are still communicating with our consumers and encouraging people to plan travel for future visits,” Jones said in a follow-up email. “We are certainly still serving those visiting and planning to visit.”

Visit Bellevue is being careful, though, in its messaging and stressing safety, communicating that its hotels are open, recreation is open, and restaurants and retail locations are open on a limited basis.

It’s offering tips for fun and safety, providing experiences and activities for when people are ready to travel, Jones said.

Bellevue is well-positioned geographically to myriad regional attractions accessible from base camp in the city. Visit Bellevue, for example, launched a website feature called “Socially Distanced Road Trips” using Bellevue as a home base for five day-trips.

“With these five socially distanced epic road trips, you don’t need to put yourself and your loved ones at risk in order to explore the Bellevue area’s natural beauty, hyperlocal dining, and distinctive charm,” read an introduction to one of the trips before stressing the need to plan ahead and take all necessary safety precautions.

Similarly, Visit Bellevue launched a free digital Brew Thru Bellevue Passport to introduce people to breweries and craft beverages in the Puget Sound.

“People in and around Washington are wanting to travel, get out, and enjoy,” Jones said in late August. “We see upticks on weekends, and so we developed these because people are seeking information and direction,” he said of trying to inspire safe and responsible ideas.

Visit Bellevue also provides links to content on shopping and dining, for which Bellevue is a known destination, letting people know what’s available during COVID-19, information that also caters to travelers who might simply be traveling the highways looking for a convenient stop.

“From a consumer standpoint, we’re kind of trying to move at the speed of sentiment,” Jones said.

“I think it’s kind of sent us all back to really reevaluate how we’re positioned to our local and regional audiences,” Jones said. “Typically, we’re so focused on the long-haul people and business. Our new brand has served us really well through this because it really celebrates the leisure components of Bellevue and the tourism components, and so we were counting on that to drive us forward.”

Visit Bellevue unveiled that brand identity last fall, saying then that it “boldly depicts the allure of aspiration through creativity, innovation, style, and the outdoors,” part of the DMO’s road map to grow the visitor industry, which had an economic impact last year of about $1.8 billion in the city.

That included a focus on what the industry refers to as “bleisure,” converting business travel into some leisure travel by urging business travelers to extend their stay a night for two to enjoy the city’s many assets.

“We’re actually finding that that’s still relevant in what we’re doing,” Jones said, noting some uptick in business travel, particularly among vendors seeking to reestablish face-to-face contact with client companies after months of only telephone or video conference contact.

Normally, Visit Bellevue tries to attract a good mix of both segments: meeting/convention/business and leisure, the former positively affected by efforts around its new branding highlighting the city’s leisure segment.

Speaking at the online forum with Blandford and others, Ron Peck, director of tourism development for the Port of Seattle, said business travel and conferences would return more slowly from the pandemic. People now are more inclined to travel outdoors and locally, he said, stressing the need to convey accessibility to the outdoors and safety measures that are being employed.

Another Eastside DMO, Visit Issaquah, launched in March, which Executive Director Beth Javens said might make it the only DMO started in a pandemic, “which is a little bit of a challenge.”

A banner across its home page noted the COVID-19 travel advisory in August, reading, “Visit Issaquah’s position is to communicate safety and best practices for those traveling and assist our hospitality partners with information when needed.” It provides links to additional information from health authorities and others.

Photo by Dave Hoefler on unsplash

As a new DMO, Visit Issaquah has focused more on general branding awareness of what the city offers, not direct marketing, highlighting its proximity to outdoor recreation, including boating, paddleboarding, and kayaking at Lake Sammamish State Park, and Tiger Mountain with its hiking, mountain biking, and paragliding. They’re messages that position Issaquah for when people are ready to travel or nonessential travel fully resumes — letting travelers know what’s available.

“We’re absolutely tapping into the national trend of outdoor recreation,” Javens said. “Obviously, that’s a big thing for us anyway, what a lot of people know us for, and it’s what we hope to be known for at least from now until probably through October,” she said in mid-August of trying to position Issaquah to outdoor enthusiasts, plus show the city’s other draws.

The WTA also has highlighted the outdoors and produced guidance for visiting safely and being prepared.

The hunger for outdoor escapes was evident at Mount Rainier National Park over the summer. It saw visitor trips surge starting about mid-July to “extreme visitation, and really extreme on our east side, Sunrise,” said Tracy Swartout, deputy superintendent at the park. While July visitor counts were about 24 percent below July 2019, she was expecting August counts to meet or exceed 2019 when she was interviewed in mid-August.

Meanwhile, attempting to maintain awareness during a pandemic and as a new DMO, Issaquah’s messaging has included social media on Facebook, Google, and Instagram. It also was provided space by the Port of Seattle before the pandemic for an ad outside the Alaska Lounge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, she said. The ad is a general imaging piece largely highlighting the city’s outdoor menu.

Research has shown the city’s top spots visited include Tiger Mountain, followed by downtown Issaquah, Lake Sammamish State Park, Grand Ridge Plaza in the Issaquah Highlands, and the Gilman Village dining and shopping complex along Northwest Gilman Boulevard, Javens reported.

“I think our community is perfectly positioned to continue to leverage those resources,” Javens said. “We also know that there’s a health crisis, and so we want to make sure that the people coming to the community know what they need to do in order to recreate safely within our community, and how our community is preparing the protocols that are necessary to host visitors.”

The top sources for out-of-state visitors the past two years have been California, Oregon, Texas, Idaho, and Arizona, according to research. Top sources of in-state visitors are cities within King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties, and Spokane.

As the rainy season nears, message positioning can shift more toward the city’s shopping, including the abundance of independent retailers, and catering to friends and family who are visiting.

Issaquah also had approximately 900 events planned this year, with many taking on a different look than normal and requiring creativity to pull off. For example, Salmon Days Festival, Oct. 3-4, was planned as a mix of virtual and live events, the latter focused on safety, according to The Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce, the event’s organizer. Virtual activities were planned on the chamber’s website, social media, and new Salmon Days app, it said.

At the Washington Hospitality Association (WHA) — which has more than 6,000 members representing restaurants, hotels, bars, golf courses, and other hospitality businesses — a key focus during the pandemic has been education.

“We’re putting up brand new news on regulations or relief efforts, probably five or six times a day,” Anthony Anton, WHA’s president and CEO, said of efforts to keep members updated.

People are looking for the latest information on best practices, what’s allowed or not allowed, which face mask is best, and more, he said, noting most members are small businesses that don’t have a CFO or lawyer on staff to interpret rules and regulations. Therefore, WHA is trying to make it easy for them to stay informed.

WHA also is working to bridge the industry to government, informing public leaders of the “unprecedented crisis” facing the sector. Restaurants and hotels are typically the No. 1 tax provider in most communities, and the largest private employer, Anton said.

“If we’re going to come back out of this thing economically, we need to support the bridge to get them through this,” he said, noting about half the hospitality industry jobs had been lost through May.

Restaurants are low-margin businesses that aren’t meant to operate at 25 percent or 50 percent capacity, he said.

Opening fully, but doing so safely to prevent going backward, are two keys to survival, Anton said in late July. Another is relief from fixed costs out of operators’ control, like rent, property taxes, and set fees and taxes that aren’t based on a percentage of sales, he added.

“That’s a conversation we continually have with government officials is, ‘We can’t pay what doesn’t come in the door,’” Anton said.

Anton complimented state DMOs for spreading the word in their communities about local hospitality and safety protocols.

He lauded the WTA and others for highlighting in-state travel opportunities because there won’t be large groups coming to Washington from out of state for a while.

WTA’s website said it developed two new marketing programs in response to COVID-19: showWAlove.com and Explore Washington’s Backyard.

The showWAlove website gives Washingtonians a way to support their favorite tourism-related businesses by purchasing gift cards to give small businesses much-needed income, and play later, the site says, noting more than 1,000 businesses registered.

Explore Washington’s Backyard is a “new website that highlights safe and fun adventures throughout Washington,” WTA said. The site notes which phase counties are in and what’s allowable in each phase.

“If we really want our communities to continue to be vibrant, now’s a great time to explore Washington,” Anton said. “I think we’re hoping everyone will see eight things in Washington that they haven’t seen before, and that will help our economy keep rolling.” 

Woodinville wineries adjust to the pandemic squeeze

Woodinville wineries fill some high-profile shelf space among Eastside visitor attractions, so we asked Amber Schmitt, media representative for Woodinville Wine Country, to share how the market had adapted to the pandemic. Woodinville Wine Country represents about 90 percent of the 120-plus wineries in Woodinville. Its members also include local restaurants, breweries, distilleries, hotels, and other like-minded businesses in the surrounding area, which extends into Bothell.

In general, how much has business declined during the pandemic?

Compared to prior years, our summer crowds here in Woodinville Wine Country have definitely slowed. Depending on who you talk to, business is fairly similar to prepandemic times. For others, it has been more difficult within the current landscape. We think our community has shown their support and are continuing to shop local and support the businesses in their backyard. Current capacity requirements interfere with the amount of traffic our local businesses would typically have, but we are confident all our local businesses would agree that the safety of their staff and guests is a fair price to pay for a little less foot traffic. 

How has Woodinville Wine Country pivoted during the pandemic to keep as much business flowing to members as possible?

We joke that our new favorite word is “pivot.” It seems that every day our local businesses are asked to come up with new ways to operate in order to stay in accordance with local legislation and health concerns. Woodinville Wine Country pivots in a much similar way. The ways we promote our members and drive traffic safely into Woodinville are ever-changing these days. 

We launched our Digital Pass program last May, which consists of custom wine-tasting itineraries here in wine country. We started this program with the intent of providing our visitors a digestible way to taste their way through Woodinville. These passes are available on our website (taste.woodinvillewinecountry.com) and are instantly delivered to your smartphone/device after purchase. We currently have eight different themed passes that highlight four different wineries per pass. Guests can expect to receive discounted tastings at each location and other unique discounts for bottle purchases. We originally designed these passes to be the perfect weekend experience for our tourists, but have found that our locals love them, too! They also make great gifts for families and friends.

Traditionally, we have hosted biweekly wine walk events each summer from June-October. With current health concerns, we have canceled all our summer events. In order to still engage with our community and fans, we have launched a new virtual event series called Cheers for Peers. Every Thursday, we get together with two local businesses here in Woodinville for a Facebook Live event featuring virtual tastings and candid conversations that allow our followers to get to know each business more. We are fortunate to be part of such a strong community, and our wine country family looks forward to connecting with you all — virtually.