Growth of tourism continues upward, tops $1.2 billion

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Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

The two-night, three-day visitor is Pierce County’s bread and butter. And the butter is getting richer, so the bread is getting thicker.

Last year marked the sixth consecutive year of increased overnight visitor volume and visitor spending in the county, according to a recent report released by Travel Tacoma + Pierce County, the region’s official destination marketing organization.

“It’s just sort of that consistent trend that we have had over the last five years or so,” CEO Bennish Brown said, noting that annual tourist spending tallied about $880 million in 2012. “It’s that slow, steady progress.”

Tourists, some 3.2 million of them, poured $1.23 billion into the county last year. That number of overnight visitors increased 5.7 percent over 2016, according to the annual Travel Impacts Study by Dean Runyan Associates that Travel Tacoma commissions. The report showed that visitor spending in 2017 rose 8.8 percent, and tourism generated 12,350 jobs comprising $341 million in payroll and profits as well as $127.6 million in combined state and local taxes. 

A deep dive into hotel stays by STR, Inc. Destination Report showed hotel occupancy inched up 2.6 percent to 70.1 percent occupancy with an average daily room rate of $100.30, a jump of 3.4 percent over the year, both breaking records since the county started tracking hotel data a decade ago. 

All matrixes broke records last year at a time when many industry watchers predicted tourism to begin to plateau or even slump following the tourism “spike” associated with the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in 2015.

It did not. Tourists just kept coming.

“That’s the year that put us on a whole different level, and it hasn’t gone down,” Brown said.

Tourist-related spending has benefited from a booming economy. People around Puget Sound are taking more extended weekends to bed and breakfasts in Gig Harbor, while Tacoma is hosting more national and regional conventions. So-called “under the radar” tourists are increasingly coming to the county for day trips that turn into overnights so they can take in attractions that range from Mount Rainier to brewery tours. They are either arriving early to have a “museum weekend” by visiting Museum of Glass, Tacoma Art Museum, LeMay: America’s Car Museum and the Washington State History Museum and maybe also swing by Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium or simply staying the weekend rather than driving home once a show ends at the Tacoma Dome or the Emerald Queen Casino.

“Whether it’s for a concert, a conference, a weekend getaway or a trip to Mount Rainier, we’re thrilled that overnight visitors keep finding reasons to visit Pierce County,” Brown said. “On days when there was a big event at the Tacoma Dome, a large convention or a sizeable sporting event, we saw huge spikes in occupancy – or as we call it ‘compression’ – across all parts of the county. Sometimes, when all the stars aligned, this meant being completely sold out throughout the county.”

That “compression” translates into “expansion” as hoteliers add capacity to keep up with demand, namely McMenamins renovating the Tacoma Elks Lodge, which is set to open in early 2019, and the Marriott Tacoma Convention Center Hotel, which will greet its first guests a year later. 

None of this growth just happens, although local folks don’t often think about it or see it since it happens around the world through pitches to travel writers about what Tacoma has to offer or trips to conferences for event organizers that land future meetings at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center. 

“People locally don’t necessarily see our work,” said Travel Tacoma Communications Manager Matt Wakefield. “It might seem like things are happening organically.”

The 2017 eclipse was a good example of those behind-the-scenes efforts. Sun seekers from around the country were planning trips to Portland to be closer to the “best path” to view the solar eclipse. Traffic watchers were expecting Interstate 5 to be choked during the week leading up to the celestial event, with promises of more traffic as people flooded home. 

“So we developed an eclipse page to encourage folks who were driving through Tacoma from Seattle or Vancouver, B.C. to consider stopping here for a bite, a beer or – if the traffic was snarled as predicted – maybe stay the night and enjoy our 94-percent-of-totality view,” Wakefield said.

The page offered free eclipse-watching glasses and listed local sun-gazing activities around the county. The site ended up with 17,040 visitors. 

“While we can’t track the number of people who actually stopped or stayed here overnight because of that page and our marketing, the crowds that showed up for the glasses were massive and our supply was gone immediately once we opened our doors.”

Tourism jobs

The rise in tourism, in Washington in general and around the county specifically, is causing a shortage of workers as the state’s largest private employer heads into the industry’s busy season, according to the Washington Hospitality Association. 

The association will host a hiring event at the Hotel Murano on May 31 to match job seekers with the tourism businesses that need them as well as connect to other career resources and opportunities through event partnerships with the state Employment Security Department, Department of Social and Health Services and WorkSource that include certification programs, childcare vouchers and bus passes. The free event marks Hospitality Month in the state as well as the Tacoma City Council proclaiming this week that May 28 to June 3 will be Tacoma Hospitality Week. More information about the event is available at hospitalityjobs.wahospitality.org.

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