New hotels are on the horizon, and agencies are in full-on promotion mode. Is the Eastside finally ready to compete for area visitors’ almighty dollars?
Disneyland. Honolulu. Palm Springs. The Eastside?
OK, the last one might be pushing it a bit. We all know the Eastside is not one of the West’s top tourist destinations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of people hard at work trying to make it one. Among such Eastside promoters, there is a renewed energy to attract travelers and the cash that comes along with them.
Tourism generates big money for the region. King County, for example, brought in $6 billion in visitor expenditures in 2013, according to Visit Seattle, and approximately 20 percent of that was spent on the Eastside.
“Tourism is the front door to economic development,” says Sharon Linton, whose career is tightly tied to tourism. Linton is marketing and communication manager for both Visit Bellevue Washington and Bellevue’s 54,000-square-foot Meydenbauer Center.
Visit Bellevue launched in 2011 after noted tourism consultant Bill Geist concluded that the city of 130,000 had evolved into an urban destination. Geist’s analysis said Bellevue’s proximity to Seattle, Woodinville’s wineries, Lake Washington, and the Cascades positions it well in the tourism world.
Weekday convention business has long bustled in Bellevue, but weekends traditionally were slow. Hotels had high vacancy; parking was plentiful.
Visit Bellevue’s first mission was to draw weekend visitors to the area.
“Five years ago, Bellevue was very quiet on the weekends,” says Jerry Stotler, who has managed the 67-room Hotel Bellevue for three years.
Stotler, a 30-year veteran of the hospitality industry, says Bellevue is now in a place where it can compete with Seattle for tourists. “There are great dining and lodging options, movie theaters, comedy clubs, arcades. It’s not just shopping,” he says.
To help fill weekend hotel rooms, Visit Bellevue’s staff searched for, and reached out to, groups that were in need of weekend facilities.
“Over the last three to five years, we have intentionally targeted groups like cheerleading, body building, and dance competitions,” Linton says. “Those groups need a larger space, a stage, and lots of seating.”
As a result, hotels are more full. From 2011 to 2014, occupancy rates have climbed from 71 to 76 percent in Bellevue’s 4,500 hotel rooms. Linton believes the higher number is a result of stronger weekend business.
Though Saturdays are now busier at his hotel, Stotler says Friday nights still are slow.
“It used to be that people would drive down here Friday night from Vancouver, B.C., or up from Portland on Friday,” Stotler says. “But the traffic is so bad on Fridays now. People just come on Saturday morning and stay for a night.”
The key to busier Fridays is to market two-night stays, Stotler says, and Eastside communities are banding together to do so. Recently, tourism agencies from around the Eastside have been meeting to share ideas and to let each other know what their communities are up to.
“I think we all know that there is no one-trick pony on the Eastside,” says Ellen Miller-Wolfe, the economic development manager for the city of Kirkland. “It’s the entire region that makes us special.”
While Bellevue is known for its high-end shopping and evening entertainment opportunities like dining, bowling, and comedy clubs, Kirkland’s main attraction is its waterfront. The city of 85,000 people boasts 90 boat slips for moorage, which are filled about 85 percent of the time during the summer months. Each boat brings about $150 to the local economy, according to a 2009 study by BST Associates, an economic and strategic planning company based in Kenmore.
Approximately 80 percent of those boaters come from outside Kirkland. To make the boat slips even more desirable, the city is looking into a reservation system that will ensure a slip will be available when boaters arrive.
Kirkland also promotes tourism through grants from funds generated by its 1 percent lodging tax collected from the city’s eight hotels. The tax typically raises between $250,000 and $280,000 a year.
Grants are awarded to organizations that promote tourism in the city. Examples include $10,000 given to the 2015 Junior League Softball World Series tournament, and $7,000 awarded to a stand-up paddleboard competition.
“The softball tournament brings in girls’ softball teams from all over the world,” Miller-Wolfe says. “The downtown merchants were polled, and the majority reported that business was stronger during the event.”
The Kirkland SUP Cup, hosted by the Northwest Paddle Surfers, also will bring in tourists, Miller-Wolfe says.
Issaquah’s proximity to the mountains makes it marketable to the outdoor adventurer, yet it’s still close to the region’s other tourism features. In Woodinville, the wine, beer, and spirits scene continues to develop.
“Word is getting out that Woodinville is Little Napa,” says David Yusen, director of marketing for Heavy Restaurant Group.
Heavy owns eight properties — six of Heavy’s restaurants are on the Eastside, and two are in Seattle. Half the Eastside properties are in Woodinville.
Not only does Woodinville boast around 100 wine-tasting rooms, it also has a number of breweries and distilleries.
“It used to be slow on a drizzly Saturday in March,” Yusen says. “Now Woodinville is busy year-round.”
Figures from Chateau Ste. Michelle, Molbaks, Willows Lodge, and other wine industry members indicate approximately 1.6 million visitors came to Woodinville in 2014, according to Laurie Cook, a board member of the Woodinville Chamber of Commerce.
Eighty percent of Willows Lodge’s customers arrive from the immediate region, says its general manager, Denny Fitzpatrick.
“Woodinville is just a short drive from Seattle, but it feels like a true escape to wine country,” he says.
Willows, with its 84 rooms, is one of the Eastside’s several small resorts that compete against the area’s large hotel chains for guests. Fitzpatrick says, for Willows at least, that competition isn’t quite as fierce as one might imagine.
“Our guests are coming here for more than a hotel stay,” Fitzpatrick says. “They are coming for a unique and memorable experience.” Willows encourages a “be the difference” service culture that urges each employee to enhance visitors’ stays, Fitzpatrick says.
Recently, a Willows employee noticed a guest struggling with his rental-car door lock. The guest’s key was stuck in the door, and the car battery was dead. Without hesitation, the employee found the guest a ride to a meeting, removed the key from the lock, charged the dead battery, and contacted the rental company about the problem.
“This is our culture: Do whatever it takes to make memories,” Fitzpatrick said. “All of our employees are empowered and encouraged to do this.”
Stotler, Hotel Bellevue’s manager, agrees that excellent service sets the small resorts apart from the competition.
“Here, you get personalized service,” he says. “You can drop your car off at the hotel and have a chauffeur drive you around. This really is a boutique market.”
Stotler says the reward systems used by chains such as Marriott and Westin are tough to compete with, but a smaller resort can still differentiate itself. “Here, you won’t earn points, but we will deliver a very different upscale experience,” he says. “We are attached to a private health club, have five dining clubs, a spa, yoga classes.”
Rather than competing against the bigger chains, the smaller resorts all seem to find their niche in local markets and use the area’s strengths to their advantage — whether it’s Woodinville’s wine, Bellevue’s downtown, or Kirkland’s waterfront.
Yusen — who also is chair of the Visit Bellevue Advisory Committee — believes the entire region can take a lesson from this strategy when dealing with that tourism behemoth west of the lake.
“We don’t need to compete with Seattle,” says Yusen, a lifelong Bellevue resident. “But how do we leverage their strength? It’s not us versus them. We are in it together.”
Seattle is great, Yusen says, but Eastside communities need to tout their strengths and work together.
The Eastside’s recent focus on tourism has not gone unnoticed by the hotel industry. Five downtown Bellevue hotels are in various stages of development, including a 384-room Marriott set to open in June, the 254-room Washington Square Hilton Garden Inn (2016), and a 245-room W hotel in the Lincoln Square expansion (2017).
Yusen says these hotel plans indicate that the Eastside’s tourism market is getting attention. “Someone smarter than me has deemed it wise to add all these hotel rooms,” he says. “I think that’s a good sign.”