When the Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour
sent out an invitation via Twitter for its Aviation Geekfest at noon one day
last December, it figured the 50 open slots would be grabbed up by the end of
Elapsed time to claim them all: 52 seconds.
And it wasn’t just locals who were clamoring for the spots,
says Sandy Ward, marketing director for the Snohomish County attraction.
Queries came from as far away as Portland, Denver and Chicago.
That there would be such fervent interest in a special tour
of Boeing’s huge Everett plant isn’t so surprising. The Future of Flight center
draws 200,000 visitors a year.
But what it does illustrate is a new era for the tourism
industry generally and for Washington’s in particular, a new way of getting
information to potential visitors, a new way of connecting and communicating
with them, and a potentially powerful way of converting the curious into paying
customers. And how well Washington’s tourism industry masters those
technologies and techniques matters not only to that sector but also to the
state’s entire economy.
Tourism may be hard to define precisely—aside from the
obvious components such as hotel stays, it can include everything from museums
to golf courses, wineries, sports venues and shopping malls, and everyone from
locals out for a day trip to visitors from outside the United States here for a
couple of weeks.
Whatever the exact size the tourism industry actually is,
it’s big. An economic impact study prepared for and released by the state Department
of Commerce says tourism accounted for $14.2 billion in spending last year, as
well as $1 billion in state tax revenue and 147,600 jobs (3 percent of the
state’s total employment). The value of Washington’s tourism “exports” was
greater than that for both micro-electronics and wood products. Tourism is also
significant for the companies that have grown up here, from Alaska Air Group to
Holland America Line to Expedia.
Tourism is a big deal for the Seattle-Puget Sound region as
well. Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau preliminary numbers for 2009
show 8.8 million visitors spending $6.8 billion while visiting the city and
King County. The numbers for 2009 are down from 2008, although the Seattle
tourism bureau says it’s expecting a rebound in 2010.
But such fluctuations are typical of a highly cyclical
industry that can be helped or hindered by everything from regional, national
or global recession to fuel prices for cars and planes, currency exchange rates
that influence whether Washingtonians are spending the weekend in British
Columbia or Canadians are coming down here, even border security issues that
cause delays. “We can almost look backward every five or six years [and see]
you’re going to go through a cycle of overbuilding of hotels and economic
downturns,” says Tom Norwalk, president and chief executive of Seattle’s
Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Future in Social Media
|Click images to enlarge|
As the tourism industry recovers from a particularly nasty
down cycle, the focus shifts to longer-term issues and trends. At the top of
the list is figuring out who the industry’s potential customers are, what they
want and how to get information to them.
What the industry is finding is that the travelers of
today—and tomorrow—are not like their predecessors, at least when it comes to
finding places to visit.
“Travelers are a lot more knowledgeable about tourism
products and prices due to increasing utilization of the internet,” says Dogan
Gursoy, a professor in the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington
State University. “They know what they want and also they know what is
available in the market at what price,” he says.
Visitors may still look at brochures, advertisements and
websites, but increasingly, they’re turning to social media sites. Gursoy predicts
that trend will grow. “Most hospitality and tourism products are experiences,”
he says. “You cannot try the product before you buy it. In order to lower the
risks associated with a vacation decision, travelers heavily rely on word of
mouth [WOM] and recommendations of their friends and relatives. In the future,
social media are likely to replace the face-to-face WOM behavior.”
That’s where much of the innovation is at Bellevue-based
online travel site Expedia Inc., whose social networking sites, including
TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic, draw tens of millions of visitors. “It’s all
based on the idea of travelers telling each other unvarnished, unedited
opinion,” says Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.
Tourist organizations that don’t have the resources of Expedia
to create or buy their own niche networking site but still don’t want to be
left out of the conversation are following their customers onto popular social
media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
“We’re doing all of that because the cost of participating
in social media is somewhat limited,” says Amy Spain, executive director of the
Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. The bureau is still taking the traditional
marketing approaches of travel-magazine ads, brochure distribution and media
relations because people still use those channels and because not all the new
approaches work. “We attempted initially to put up a blog,” Spain says. “We
really didn’t have a lot of traffic,” and eventually the bureau pulled the plug
But with others, the trend is clear that social media are
where the audience is. Says Spain, “What really gave us the shot in the arm to
expand into more social media was that we attended a wedding show in January.
The brides, who for the most part are a younger age group, came to our booth
and asked not for our website but for our Facebook page. That’s where they
wanted to get the information. We came back from that show and started
contacting our wedding venues to say, ‘OK, this is what they want. This is how
they’re getting their information, not only direct from you as a venue. They
want to see comments that other clients are posting to your Facebook pages.’”
At the same time, the bureau is seeing a long-term decline in visits to its
brick-and-mortar visitor centers.
What particularly appeals to travelers about social media as
an information-gathering tool is its immediacy and the capacity for feedback.
“The most important word in there is ‘social,’” says the Future of Flight’s
Sandy Ward. “Some use it as a broadcast device. We use it as a listening
device.” Ward monitors Twitter feeds and if she spots a posting from someone
who is at the center, she’ll go meet with him or her and take the visitor’s
picture. “Being able to talk to you is what’s important,” she observes. So is
being friendly and responsive “in real time,” instead of sending a brochure and
hoping for a response.
The immediacy of social media and mobile communications,
Gursoy notes, matters to those who “want to be in more control of their travel
activities. They want to be able to change their plans at the last minute
without penalties. As a result, they wait till the last minute to make their
travel arrangements. In the future, it is likely that more and more travelers
will wait till the last minute to make their vacation decisions. Since they
want to be in control, they want business to offer a wide variety of
experiences that they can choose. They do not want to buy a set of fixed
Tourist organizations that want to connect with those
travelers will have to tailor their services to the mobile world. “Smart phones
are taking over,” Spain says.
Finding a Niche
Beyond the issue of information access is the matter of what
attractions and activities those travelers are interested in. That, too, is
The tourism industry, Gursoy says, “will have to change to
cater to the needs of an aging population and younger cohorts. The types of
products and experiences older and younger groups want are significantly
different.” While older generations are looking for vacations that feel more
like adventures and include new experiences, their activity level tends to be
lower than younger generations and they don’t want to give up some of the
creature comforts while having those new experiences. One major trend for older
generations is spa and golf vacations, he says, while another is more baby
boomers traveling with their grandkids. Yet another issue is that as boomers
age, they require more medical attention. The tourism industry needs to start
thinking about accommodating them.
Meanwhile, younger travelers are “willing to try everything
at least once,” Gursoy adds. “They want customized products that will satisfy
their needs. They want products that are high tech, environmentally friendly,
chic, fashionable. They do not want your typical hotel room. They want a room
that makes them feel at home. While they want to experience the nightlife, they
also want to experience the nature and the culture. They are a lot more diverse
and open minded than their parents. A destination may be able to go after both
groups but the destination may need to clearly brand their offerings.”
The single most successful industry in this respect is the
cruise industry, which has adapted its experiences so that it now offers all of
the above: fun activities for the grandchildren, exercise rooms and yoga for
the health-conscious, fine dining and wine, and medical attention for the aged.
Cruise ships made 2,180 calls in Seattle last year, bringing in 423,000
passengers and generating $312 million in business revenue to the local
But for the most part, it’s hard for destinations to please
everybody. More often, tourism increasingly involves a wide range of niche
activities and attractions that must be marketed to specific interest groups.
The fragmentation of the market doesn’t make it necessarily easier for travel
marketers, Norwalk says, but it does make it easier to identify potential
visitors. “We have to be very segment- and niche-oriented to compete,” he says.
Seattle is well ahead on the concept of niche marketing. For
example, the visitor bureau’s website includes a tab for information for gay
and lesbian tourists, a large niche market who will spend an estimated $84
billion nationally on travel this year. While Seattle has the second-highest percentage
of openly gay residents in the country, it has a far lower share of the gay
travel market. To tap that opportunity, the Greater Seattle Business
Association, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
chamber of commerce, has partnered with Alaska Airlines to launch Travel Gay
Seattle, a website that serves as a one-stop online shopping destination for
travel planning. “Tourism is
instant stimulus,” says Jerome Bader, the association’s director of marketing,
“and 20 percent of our member businesses are directly involved in hospitality.”
Norwalk also notes the growth of “voluntourism,” in which
visitors take time for community service projects, often as part of a
convention or meeting in town. “It’s a whole new area of tourism Seattle lends
itself to very well,” he says. Another potential niche market: winter sports.
A component of niche marketing is clustering—having enough
of certain attractions to appeal to people interested in that activity, such as
the concentrations of wineries in the Woodinville area, the Yakima Valley or
Walla Walla—which helps draw tourists.
Snohomish County’s clustering strategy is focused, not
surprisingly, on aviation. In addition to the Future of Flight and Boeing Tour,
the area has the Museum of Flight’s Restoration Center, Paul Allen’s Flying
Heritage Collection, the Historic Flight Foundation and Legend Flyers (who
build replicas of the Messerschmitt 262), all concentrated at Paine Field.
The parallel analogy in retailing, Spain says, is the
combination of anchor tenants, such as national department store chins, and
smaller stores in a shopping mall. “There becomes critical mass,” she says.
“The [aviation] collections and facilities are different. They’re not duplicate
stores where you can get the same thing and same experience at each of them.
They all have different collections and different ways of presenting different
information. They are complementary.”
Spain hopes the same clustering technique will work in
another growing tourism segment—agriculture, including wineries, boutique
distilleries, breweries, U-pick farms, food processors, markets and festivals.
“What we’re missing is that anchor tenant” such as the Tillamook Cheese factory
in Oregon, Spain says. Snohomish County tourism officials have studied creating
a year-round farmers market from which other ag attractions and activities can
The Tri-Cities also hopes to build such a cluster around
wine and food. Walla Walla and Yakima have already shown their ability to draw
visitors to wine country. Now, the Port of Columbia has purchased 28 acres in
Dayton to establish Blue Mountain Station, the world’s first eco-friendly
artisan natural and organic culinary center, where officials hope tourists will
stop to watch the production of cheese, chocolate and other foods that
traditionally accompany wine.
The Rise of Asia
While Washington tourism suffers from its distance from
major population centers in the rest of the nation, it is well-positioned to
capitalize on a much larger market, Gursoy notes. “Because of increasing income
levels in Asian countries, more Asians are likely to visit Washington state.
When they travel, Asians tend to look for places that will satisfy their
needs.” Many hotels don’t, especially when it comes to food. For example, they
prefer Asian-style breakfasts, which often include rice, but also, depending on
the traveler’s country of origin, include anything from fish and meats to miso
“Business needs to understand the wants and needs of Asian
travelers,” Gursoy says. “For example, most Asians like the idea of camping but
most of them have not camped before. Developing a high-end camping and nature
experience for Asians may be a good idea.”
So while there are opportunities, there are also challenges.
One is declining attendance at national and state parks, a trend cited in a
state tourism strategic plan a few years ago. That’s worrisome for Washington
given how much of its tourism is based on its natural attractions.
While locals are aware of the amenities of the outdoors,
many travelers from out-of-state are not. “I think it is a branding and
marketing problem,” Gursoy says. “National and state parks need to work with
local [convention and visitors bureaus] and local hotels to promote the outdoor
activities and attractions.”
National and state parks will need to find out what kind of
outdoor activities and attractions those travelers want, however. “A
one-size-fits-all approach is not likely to work anymore,” Gursoy says.
Building that brand raises another long-running challenge
for Washington tourism—funding for marketing.
Norwalk notes that travel-promotion funding is often the
first thing to get cut in a recession, and tourism is also an easy target for
political protests (think Arizona and immigration). That reaction reflects a
deeper philosophy that travel is nonessential, even frivolous.
The state of Alaska took that approach when it reduced
tourist promotion while at the same time boosting taxes on visitors arriving on
cruise ships. The taxes prompted Holland America to divert some of its ships to
Europe, a move that also hurt Seattle, which benefits mightily from visiting
Norwalk doesn’t want to see Washington similarly
underestimating the importance of tourism. “What we’re trying to do is really
continue to help position travel as critical, important; it can be life
changing. Culturally, it enriches what we do, and that’s how we need to look at
travel. ... We’re going to have to figure out a way to tell that story, and
really creatively promote what we have.”