Tri-City tourism report has mixed news

The Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau has just released its annual tourism and economic report, and the scorecard is mixed.

The Tri-Cities was host to fewer conventions and sporting events in 2012, but the number of visitors remained close to the same as the year before.

"That's because the events have grown in size. That's a good thing for us and for them too," said Kris Watkins, the bureau's president and CEO.

The bureau booked 196 events in 2011 and 182 in 2012. Watkins expects 2013 to be as good or better.

"We've already booked 191 future conventions and events for this year, even as far out as 2016, and more are coming in," Watkins said. "This time in 2012 we had only 147 future events on the books, so we're way ahead of the game this year."

One of the larger events coming to the Tri-Cities is the Jehovah's Witnesses annual series of conventions, drawing people from all over the Pacific Northwest.

"They'll only be meeting three weekends this coming year instead of four, but each session still draws about 5,000 people," Watkins said. "We consider them a good stable customer and are pleased to have them."

The report analyzes the impact of conventions, sporting events and tourists on the Tri-City economy.

Visitors spent $392.6 million in 2012 on hotels, dining, shopping, ground transportation, food/groceries and recreation. The largest percentage, 30.8 percent or $120.9 million, went to restaurants, from fast food to fine dining. The other slices of the financial pie range from 11.2 percent for groceries to 16.2 for retail shopping.

Hotel and motel bookings were down 6.5 percent in 2012. But then 2011 was an exceptional year, the best ever for the hospitality industry in the Tri-Cities, Watkins said.

That's because Hanford contractors still were receiving the last of $1.96 billion in stimulus money in 2011.

"The stimulus money helped a lot because we had a lot of long-term reservations. Hanford brought in a lot of consultants who stayed seven to 14 nights at a time," said Linda Hendricks, general manager of the Hampton Inn in Richland. "There were lots of people in and out of the Tri-Cities working at Hanford."

The hotel/motel occupancy rate was 58 percent in 2012, down just 6.5 percent from 2011. That was the second-highest in the state, right behind Spokane at 59.3 percent. Walla Walla's occupancy rate was 55.1 percent, Wenatchee 54.4 percent and Yakima 49.3 percent, Watkins said.

The number of hotel rooms in the Tri-Cities has stayed constant at 3,371 for about the past three years, but will increase by 112 rooms when Townplace Suites -- a Marriott -- opens at Columbia Point in Richland.

Two other hotels should open in the next year. An Embassy Hotel in the Horn Rapids area will add 164 rooms -- with a possible future expansion of 120 rooms -- and Springhill Suites, a Marriott, is planned adjacent to the Three Rivers Convention Center.

"An abundance of hotel rooms is always a draw for organizers of large events, and it helps the tourists coming here for wine tasting, golf and other recreational activities," Watkins said.

Not having rooms available -- especially during the prime tourist seasons in spring, summer and fall -- discourages people from coming here, she said. The additional hotels should help when there are big events in town.

Hendricks at the Hampton Inn said any new tourism-related businesses are a benefit to all the others, big and small. She believes the wine industry, in particular, will only continue to grow in coming years.

"We see a good share of people in town for wine tasting and the special events the wineries have like Catch the Crush and Spring Barrel Tasting. They always help," Hendricks said.

John Bookwalter of Bookwalter Winery in Richland said he sees two types of wine tourism: People who come for the wine and dining, and those who are here for another reason -- a convention or sporting event or work -- who also enjoy wine and get out and go tasting.

"Both types are vital, critical for our area," Bookwalter said.

Bookwalter, Tagaris and Barnard Griffin wineries are clustered together and each offers dining as well as wine tasting. Bookwalter said they've found having food helps draw people in.

"Our wine industry in Eastern Washington is one of the more remote domestic winery areas in the country," Bookwalter said. "The Willamette Valley outside Portland sits close to several million people and Napa has 10 million people nearby. We are three hours away from the closest dense populations. You need to give people lots of reasons to come and stop in."