Final Analysis: Out of Their Minds

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

When I moved to Seattle 22 years ago, I remember thinking I had never lived in a city where so many people had moved here not for a job, but for a sense of place. I had relocated from St. Louis, and I love St. Louis. But trust me: No one moves to St. Louis because it is geographically blessed, whereas hordes will move to Seattle precisely for that reason. Even during the 1990-91 recession, I kept encountering people who had moved here for the hiking, the climbing, the sailing. They sang the praises of the scenery, the temperate climate. They figured the career thing would eventually take care of itself. They wanted to live here because the place is so incredibly special.

A lot of people who don’t live here also think Seattle is pretty special. We know this because they pump $16.4 billion a year into the state’s economy and assure the employment of people who make $4.5 billion in wages.

How long that attraction continues will have a lot to do with how well we continue to promote Washington tourism. The state of Washington right now isn’t spending a penny on tourism promotion. A revenue-strapped Legislature shut down the state tourism office last year and eliminated its $1.8 million budget.

A makeshift private organization called the Washington Tourism Alliance is now the de facto promoter of state tourism. People who work in tourism created it, knowing that while Washington will always remain an attractive vacation option, it’s hard to compete with other inviting places that pump tens of millions of dollars a year into promoting their attractions. The thinking is that once we’re out of sight, we’ll quickly be out of mind.

At a public forum on travel and tourism recently, the sponsor of the event—a major bank—declared it had become the first financial institution in Washington state to join the Washington Tourism Alliance.

The announcement did not lead the 11 o’clock news. But it opened my eyes. “The health of the tourism industry does not just affect hotels and restaurants,” said KeyBank executive John Roehm. “The hundreds of attractions, retail and hospitality businesses, and the 160,000 people employed in this sector are our bank customers. They open checking accounts, they pay mortgages and they make investments. It is in our interest to ensure the industry survives and grows.”

That was my “well, duh!” moment. For some reason, we who live in this geographically blessed place don’t seem to think of tourism as an industry, at least not in the same way we think about airplane manufacturing, software development or even online retail. There’s no one going to a factory or an office building to “make” something. We seem to think it just happens. But if we take it for granted, it will go away.

In 1993, during an anti-taxation frenzy, Colorado voters apparently thought the same thing. They cut the state’s travel-promotion budget from $12 million to zero. Colorado’s share of the domestic travel market plunged from 2.7 percent to 1.8 percent. State funding returned about seven years later, but it took 19 years for Colorado to get back to the market share it had enjoyed in 1993.

In Washington state, the Alliance realizes it cannot continue relying on the kindness of strangers. Its ultimate goal is to persuade the Legislature to devise a promotion model that keeps travel and tourism a viable industry in Washington state. But until that happens, you may want to consider ponying up for a membership in the Alliance. After all, this is a special place. But, as Colorado quickly discovered, it’s not that special when an entire industry dries up.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Full disclosure: His wife is employed by KeyBank. 

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

How a certain local airline could strike a blow for fairer treatment of college athletes.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
Here’s a thought: While Alaska Air Group spends $2.6 billion swallowing up Virgin America, it should wield some of its new clout — Alaska will soon be the nation’s fifth-largest air carrier — on becoming the college athlete’s best friend.
 
Alaska already showers upon the University of Washington nearly $5 million a year for naming rights to the football field at Husky Stadium and the basketball court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It also has sponsorship arrangements with athletic programs at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. It even paints some of its airplanes in the colors of 11 Western universities, including the UW.
 
On the weekend that news of Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America broke, the UW women’s basketball team was completing its improbable and exhilarating run to the Final Four of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. It occurred to me that there’s an opportunity here for Alaska CEO Brad Tilden to start lobbying the NCAA on behalf of student-athletes everywhere, but particularly in Alaska Airlines’ own backyard.
 
Alaska’s Husky Stadium agreement — 10 years, $41 million — already earmarks half of the money for scholarships and “student-athlete welfare.” Last year, for the first time, the NCAA started allowing Division I schools to pay athletes a stipend for incidental living expenses — things like late-night snacks, student fees, incidental travel — that aren’t covered by athletic scholarships for tuition, room and board. 
 
The UW’s annual stipend for athletes is $3,085, or roughly $11.40 a day during a nine-month academic year. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for a couple of cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake when the dining halls are closed.
 
Alaska’s naming-rights money goes into the pot that helps provide those stipends, which the NCAA instituted as a means of closing the gap between what an athletic scholarship provides — tuition, room, board, books and fees — and the “real” cost of attending college.
 
The problem is that this “cost of attendance” stipend has made a  playing field that’s not level even less fair. Some schools pay stipends of more than $5,000, which is totally permissible under the NCAA guidelines. So if you’re a poor kid being recruited by several universities, which school would you choose — the one offering no stipend, the one offering $3,000 or the one offering $5,000?
 
This is where a corporate CEO has the opportunity to say to the NCAA, “We are a major employer who believes in treating its workers equitably. As a huge supporter of our local university’s athletics program, we think it’s time you paid your athletes a little bit more than cheeseburger money — and paid them fairly acros the board.”
 
It doesn’t have to be a quid-pro-quo situation, as in “pay these athletes or we’ll take our sponsorship money elsewhere.” But airlines have become adept at squeezing travelers for every last dime via baggage fees, boarding fees, legroom fees, beverage fees and the like. I imagine an airline executive could be pretty persuasive suggesting the NCAA assess itself a “fairness fee” and pay student-athletes a decent wage from its enormous piggy bank.
 
The NCAA can still call it a stipend if it wants. Regardless, it should finally admit that scholarships are meant to provide an education but don’t begin to acknowledge that an athlete’s contribution to an institution’s bottom line — not to mention its reputation in the media and its perception by the public — deserves considerably more than free tuition. 
 
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.