YAKIMA -- Tourists come to the Yakima Valley for the sun, the wine and the array of outdoor activities. This year, if predictions hold true, even more people will spend their time -- and money -- in the region.
"I'm very confident in the future of travel and tourism," said John Cooper, president of the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau. "I think, just like our weather here, we will see sunny days in the years to come."
Despite its volatility, Cooper said the economy is recovering. Visitors spent $309 million in the county in 2009 and about $331 million last year. This year, tourism revenue is expected to increase by another 2 percent to 4 percent -- despite the pending closure of the state tourism office.
Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed 2011-13 budget calls for eliminating the Washington State Tourism office by June 30. The House and Senate are proposing an even earlier closure date for the office, which is part of the Department of Commerce.
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The office -- which does not fund the Yakima Valley agency -- is charged with promoting tourism to international and non-Washington residents. Some contend tourists will continue to flock to Washington with or without the state promotional office. Cooper is not so sure.
When Colorado closed its tourism office in 1993, annual visitor spending plummeted by $1.4 billion in the first two years. The state also dropped from first place in summer resort states to 17th, according to a study by Longwoods International, a company that conducts marketing and public opinion research.
When funding was restored, the state took seven years to rebound, Cooper said. That's why he and others are taking steps to ensure tourism promotion continues in Washington.
"We just have to work harder and sustain our momentum, and that will be done through regional partnerships," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
A recent poll of 624 Yakima Valley tourists revealed some interesting, yet expected, trends, Cooper said. Fall is the busiest season. Most visitors are women, and the majority stay in hotels or motels because there are a lot of rooms available.
Tourists also are happy with the region's overall value, wine experience and scenic beauty -- so much so that 76 percent of first-time visitors said they would come here again.
People are looking for bargains, Cooper said, and they are relying heavily on the internet to research vacation spots and make bookings. Across the nation, 63 million people use mobile web technology, and in the next two years this trend is expected to increase by 60 percent, Cooper said.
That is why Cooper said he believes marketing must be tailored to consumer habits.
To that end, the Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau is revamping its website this year and will give added attention to social media outlets lsuch as Facebook. It's also planning to post directional signs to wineries and promote the region to group tours and international markets -- welcome news to area businesses.
Shannon Hitchcock, executive director of the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail, said Cooper and his team understand the marketplace and have excelled at luring tourists to the region. But once they get here, she said restaurants and wineries must do their part to ensure people enjoy their visit.
"There isn't a silver bullet," she said about tourism promotion. "It's the stories to be told at each winery. It's the customer service when they go to a local hotel or bed and breakfast. They're looking for that overall experience."
Pepper Fewel, co-owner of Cherry Wood Bed Breakfast and Barn in Zillah, agrees. She opened her business in 2002 and relies on its uniqueness to stay competitive. Guests stay in deluxe teepees and explore local vineyards on horseback.
This year, she is planning on building a bathhouse. Fewel's daughter also is working on adding spa services and classes in Feldenkrais, which uses self awareness and movement to reduce pain and promote general well-being.
"You have to expand," she said. "If you stay the same, people don't want to come back."
Nina Ummel, co-owner of the Ummelina Day Spa in downtown Yakima, also is anticipating positive changes this year. Like the economy, she said demand for her services ebbed the past two years but began rebounding several months ago.
She said more and more people are looking to take care of themselves, and they need a place to relax and rejuvenate. This year, she is planning to create a rewards program, giving product and service discounts to repeat customers. Other changes are in the works, but she's keeping mum on the details for now.
"This is a growing area for tourism, and spas are important for the wine-tasting environment," she said.
"I think (growth) will be slow and steady, and as long as it stays that way, that's good."