Tourism is Washington's fourth-largest industry, after aerospace, software and agriculture. It employs tens of thousands of people. The taxes it collects from visitors save every household $1,000 a year. So this is important.
In an interview during the WTA "Summit" last week, Fletcher told me, "Tourism is a diverse industry, of course. We're competitors, yes, but we're also colleagues. And we're learning to speak with one voice."But Friday came word that Fletcher had resigned. She had just attached her name to a newsletter "from the executive director" that made no mention of an impending change. To the contrary, the tone was optimistic.
You'll recall that the Legislature, in order to save less than $2 million, zeroed out the state's anemic tourism promotion budget. It fell to Seattle's vested interests to step into the breach. David Blandford of the Seattle Convention and Visitor Bureau (the organization that took the lead role in creating the WTA) says Fletcher did a fine job "jump-starting" the Tourism Alliance, and that her departure is part of a grander scheme of things.
Kevin Clark, ceo of Argosy Cruises and chairman of the WTA's board, said in an interview Friday, "We need to focus now on the next phase." That means more members from the private sector (hotels, attractions, restaurants) and more contributions from visitor bureaus around the state; a long-term funding model; and a long-term marketing plan (a bigger and better Web site, a communications plan, and, perhaps most importantly, a new start in Olympia, which has already shown that it's willing to throw tourism under the bus.
Left to its own devices, Seattle's hotel industry voted last year to impose an extra $2 per night head tax on visitors. The initiative means there's now a $6 million budget to promote Seattle tourism, and it seems to be working. It's a small, fragmented step, but moving in the right direction.
Washington's story needs to be told, not just in a giant directory that lists every member, but in a variety of media; not just once a year but over and over and over. (In just a couple of weeks, Key Bank is sponsoring a downtown seminar titled "Bigger Than You Think: The Economic Impact of Tourism on the Puget Sound Economy." Doh.) Meantime, the exec director's job description is online. It's a pretty tricky assignment, working with all the private-sector players in a non-profit environment, then pitching Olympia to start funding tourism again.
Tourism promotion gets a huge return on investment, but it's a competitive and highly fragmented industry that gets little respect at the lowest levels. Does the guy who changes tires on vineyard tractors in Sunnyside consider himself part of the tourism industry? Doubtful, but every tourism executive I've talked to this week mentions the Yakima Valley wine country as a major visitor attraction.
Two cautionary tales: In Italy, they actually voted, in a plebiscite 20 years ago, to close down the Ministry of Tourism because it was felt that everybody already knew what Italy had to offer. Italy promptly sank from the world's leading tourism destination to fifth place. And in France, which took over Italy's top spot, the fragmented regional structure of tourism, along with an entrenched bureaucracy, resulted in a dysfunctional website. In both countries, private tour operators, journalists and bloggers stepped in with plenty of useful information, but Italy still lacks meaningful tourism promotion on a national level.
Industry insiders agree that the best way to promote Washington tourism to visitors around the world is to focus on one destination: Seattle. All else follows. But motel owners in Wenatchee, wineries in the Yakima Valley, even ranchers on the Palouse all want their share of the tourists' wallet. Persuading them to promote Seattle and be patient? Persuading the Legislature? That's the tough job facing the WTA's next director.