By Mai Hoang, March 4, 2015, Yakima Herald-Republic
Treveri Cellars was “discovered” a few years ago by a chef who worked for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Like many other visitors to this Wapato producer of sparkling wines, the chef heard of Treveri through word of mouth.
“He heard about Washington state (wine regions) and wanted to know what was going on here,” co-owner Julie Grieb said.
Grieb and the winery staff also spread the word to whoever they meet on their marketing trips around the country and the world.
“Wherever we go, we say, ‘Come and see us,’” Grieb said.
While word of mouth and personal invitations help attract visitors to Treveri Cellars and other destinations in the Yakima Valley and around the state, Grieb and tourism officials know they can’t replace a statewide tourism program, something this state has lacked since its tourism office closed nearly four years ago as a cost-saving measure.
That’s why tourism promoters are pushing for passage of House Bill 1938, which would provide $7.5 million for statewide marketing via an assessment to tourism-related businesses.
“All of those businesses are having to work harder, and they don’t have the leverage of someone from a state program saying, ‘Come to Washington,’” said Cheryl Kilday, CEO of Visit Spokane and chairwoman of the Washington Tourism Alliance, a nonprofit formed after the state office closed.
In 2013, tourism spending in Washington state increased 2.4 percent, well below the 4 percent seen nationwide. “If we’re slowing and other states are gaining, that could suggest we are losing market share,” Kilday said.
That, along with the economic impact of the statewide tourism industry — in 2012, tourism generated $1.1 billion in local and state tax revenue and supported about 154,000 jobs — is why Kilday nurtures optimism that the House bill and a companion Senate bill will pass.
Tax on certain sectors
Under the measures, assessments would be charged to entities in five different sectors: accommodations, food service, attractions, retail and transportation. The assessment targets businesses that benefit from tourism, such as clothing stores and tour buses.
Other entities, such as government- or tribal-owned organizations, wineries and nonprofit member associations, are exempt, since they already are charged assessments or are regulated in ways that make assessment difficult, according to a report to lawmakers by the Washington Tourism Alliance.
Small retail, entertainment and lodging businesses that don’t meet certain benchmarks, such as number of rooms or a certain revenue threshold, would also be exempt.
Those businesses and organizations could still support tourism through donations or in-kind contributions to the Washington Tourism Alliance or whatever nonprofit travel organization is chosen to coordinate state promotion efforts.
Tourism officials decided that generating money from hospitality-related businesses would be more sustainable than trying to persuade the state to include more tourism dollars in its budget.
When the state tourism office closed in June 2011, it was operating on a mere $1.8 million budget during its final year, putting the level of funding for the state tourism program at 48th out of all 50 states.
“The funding we did have was not competitive,” Kilday said.
Relatively small budget
The Washington Tourism Alliance, which is made up of tourism organizations such as Yakima Valley Tourism and tourism-related businesses, first operated on donations but received about $1 million in state funding that stretches through June. That sum bought the agency time to generate a permanent revenue source.
The Washington Tourism Alliance is now operating on a $1 million annual budget, enough to run Experiencewa.com — a statewide tourism website — and print a visitors guide.
But that amount is minuscule compared with the tourism budgets of nearby states in 2014: California, $60.4 million; Alaska, $18.7 million; Montana, $14.2 million; Oregon, $13.7 million; and Idaho, $8 million.
With larger budgets, these states can seize opportunities Washington cannot, Kilday said.
For example, Brand USA, a national organization focused on encouraging international visitors to the U.S., worked with tourism entities in Washington, Oregon and California on an international promotion of its wine regions.
Such efforts included a culinary television special that was broadcast in nine countries. But with no funding, Washington was left out of the show, which focused instead on wineries in Northern California and Oregon.
Mostly local efforts
Without a comprehensive statewide program, local tourism organizations have had to take on some of the burden of statewide promotion, limiting the time they can devote to their own region, Kilday said.
She praises Yakima Valley Tourism for its aggressive promotion of the Yakima Valley, which has prompted national and regional media attention.
But while mentions in national magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler are nice, they can’t replace statewide promotion to international and national markets, Yakima Valley Tourism CEO John Cooper said.
“A state tourism program can help us extend (exposure) to other markets, whether it be overseas or domestic, outside our Northwest corner,” Cooper said.
Barb Glover, executive director of Wine Yakima Valley, said although organizations like hers and the Washington Wine Commission do plenty to promote wine regions elsewhere in the U.S. and worldwide, a statewide tourism program provides one more voice to introduce the region to potential visitors, including those who might do business with the state.
Grieb, the Treveri Cellars owner, said she encourages out-of-town customers to visit the Yakima Valley, but most of her effort and time is spent building the winery’s brand and to sell the product.
She notes that other established and growing wine regions have the backing of strong tourism programs, which could adversely affect tourism to wine regions here.
“California gets a lot of visitors,” she said. “It would be nice for people to look at Washington state for that.”