Tri-Cities likely to see more tourists

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 28, 2014 

The Tri-Cities is poised to see an increase in tourists and the dollars they spend here.

Kris Watkins, Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau president and CEO, said this year's openings of the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center in Richland and Carousel of Dreams in Kennewick will help the Tri-Cities capture a bigger tourism bite.

To top it off, the Wine Science Center under construction at Washington State University Tri-Cities will open next year and will be a regional and international draw, Watkins told the Kennewick City Council last week.

And Watkins expects to have a new brand for the Tri-Cities identified by June 1. It's something the bureau plans to use to better market the area as a destination.

The bureau, the Tri-City Development Council and the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce plan to spend $87,000 to create a regional brand for the community. Consultant Roger Brooks told the Herald recently that the brand was likely to draw on the area's lifestyle.

Last year, the Tri-Cities played host to 196 sporting events and conventions. Visitors who came for those events spent about $35.6 million at local businesses, Watkins said.

She's anticipating more visitor spending from sports events and conventions this year. There are 168 events booked, though the number of expected visitors is 3,000 fewer than last year.

That's good, she said, considering the Jehovah's Witnesses conventions -- which brought 16,500 visitors to the Tri-Cities last year -- are not coming this year. They previously announced they were downsizing the number of their conventions.

The Tri-Cities received about $1 million in hotel/motel tax revenue last year, according to the bureau. That amount has grown overall in the past decade, with a slight dip in 2012.

Of that, about $492,000 went to support the bureau and its marketing efforts.

The bureau's budget last year was about $1.8 million, including hotel/motel tax, tourism promotion area assessments and memberships.

The bulk of the bureau's expenses are for marketing conventions and sports events, followed by destination marketing. Administration accounted for about 15 percent of the budget.

Recently, Kennewick, Pasco and Richland city councils approved increasing a per guest room fee from $1.50 to $2 to help the Tri-Cities stay competitive in marketing itself. The effort was supported by Tri-City hotel owners.

The increase to the tourism promotion area assessment will allow the visitor bureau to hire two new employees -- one to focus on sports marketing and another on wine tourism.

Watkins said they'd like to have the sports sales manager by April 1. To do that, as well as to create a new website, the bureau is asking the city councils to approve spending about $134,000 of a reserve from past assessments. All but the $4,000 to bring the sports sales manager on the team early would go to the new website.

The Tri-City Regional Hotel-Motel Commission, which includes representatives from the three cities and hotels, felt it was wise to keep at least $300,000 as a rainy day fund, she said. The reserve has up to about $496,000. The remainder would stay in the fund for now.

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