Tourism officials promote Washington as destination

Start your day kayaking, try a little wine tasting in the afternoon and top it all off with an evening of opera.

Washington offers opportunities for all of these activities in the course of a day, and the Washington State Tourism Commission is out to make sure people throughout the Northwest and beyond are aware of all the state has to offer.

“This state has huge diversity,” said Marsha Massey, executive director of Washington State Tourism.

She and other commissioners were in the Tri-Cities on Thursday for their May meeting, where they approved the content of a six-year strategic plan, discussed a grant program set to start this summer and heard comments from community members.

The strategic plan sets the target audience for state tourism, as well as developing programs and products that maximize the collective appeal of Washington, said Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Continuing to communicate well with local chambers, hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses is also part of the strategy, as is recognizing the state’s competition.

“Target, develop, organize and compete. That’s what it boils down to,” said Watkins, who also is co-chairwoman of the commission.

Duane Wollmuth, a commissioner and co-founder of Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla, discussed the proposed Tourism Commission Grant program, which would award $150,000 in $5,000 to $25,000 increments to local governments, tribes and nonprofit organizations for promoting tourism-related activities.

If approved, grants could be awarded in early 2009. Once the plan is approved, likely in June, the commission could begin accepting applications July 1.

Grant money will increase to $250,000 next year, Wollmuth said.

The commission also announced two companies it would like to hire for its visitor guide and advertising campaign.

Destination Media Alliance of the Seattle area likely will produce and publish the visitor guide, pending successful contract negotiations, Massey said. The guide, which will include an interactive online component, is expected to be ready in February.

And Hadley Green Creates of Seattle is the apparent successful bidder for the commission’s advertising campaign, once a contract is negotiated.

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, attended the beginning of the meeting to offer his praise for the commission’s work.

“The tourism commission is extremely important, not only for this region but for the state,” he said. “With this board, if you can inspire people to treat visitors as friends,” they’ll keep coming back.

Michael Davidson, president and CEO of Tourism Walla Walla, said he wanted to make sure the strategic plan included educational components, such as helping organizations develop superior customer service and other tourism products.

He also encouraged the commission to use its website to drive visitors to local tourism websites, which he said contain more comprehensive information about the specific locations.

A representative from the Ice Age Floods Institute urged the commission to write letters of support for legislation establishing the National Geologic Trail.

The request prompted Watkins to encourage the commission to develop a policy for writing letters of support.

Massey also presented a draft of the annual report, which will be finished by the end of June and delivered electronically to legislators.

The commission first met in September after 2007 legislation that doubled the state’s tourism budget to nearly$7 million.

Tourists spent $14.8 billion in the state in 2007, according to the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, making the industry an important one for economic development, officials said.

“We’re doing well,” Massey said of tourism growth in recent years. “But we can do better.”