Mountain/City/Sea reboot Q&A with Dean Burke, president and CEO of Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports
Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports is the official destination marketing organization for Pierce County, Washington. The private non-profit destination marketing organization, funded by hotel/motel lodging taxes and assessments, works with leisure travelers, meeting planners and group tour operators to make choosing Tacoma and Pierce County easy. Dean Burke, Travel Tacoma CEO, recently sat down with the EDB to chat about the resurgence of events, travel and tourism in Pierce County in the wake of COVID-19’s devastating blow.
As COVID-19 restrictions gradually lifted, there were some significant events around Pierce County. Would you mind giving us a snapshot?
We started seeing signs of green shoots in mid-February 2020, the same weekend as the big snowstorm. We hosted the first event in the state, the Charity Choice Invitational youth gymnastics competition at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center. It’s been a steady build since then. There have been multiple gymnastics events, the United States Golf Association (USGA) Four-Ball Championship at Chambers Bay, NCAA Pac-12 Cross Country Championships at Chambers Creek Regional Park, the SEVENTY48human-powered boat race from Tacoma to Port Townsend, and more. It’s been sports-heavy on the launch simply because those events require the shortest runway.
What were the biggest challenges in bringing back events while COVID-19 restrictions were still in place?
Just navigating the sea of changes was probably the biggest challenge. One sector would be allowed to do one thing, while a similar sector wasn’t. Or the rules on Tuesday would change again on Wednesday, and phases moved back and forth. It was a handful.
We spent a lot of time shuffling workloads and moving things down the calendar. Additionally, there was a lot of effort put into changing how the big venues would operate in a post-pandemic world. The goal has been to have touchless systems at every point of contact, from ticketing to food and beverages. At the Tacoma Dome and Convention Center now, you can put cash in a reverse ATM in exchange for bank card for the same amount.
Washington’s COVID restrictions have been tough and long lasting. And yet, hotel occupancy data looks good and has for a while. Is it true Pierce County’s hotel occupancy rate is the highest in the Puget Sound region?
Pierce County hotels outperformed not just the Puget Sound region, but the entire state, and by a fairly long shot. Across the map, the closer you were to a downtown, the harder the impacts. So, markets like Seattle, with a downtown full of premium hotels rooted in business and leisure travel, dropped into single-digit occupancy for months. Downtown Tacoma hotels also suffered disproportionately compared to the rest of Pierce County but scaled at an entirely different level.
Other economic factors to our benefit also shifted. For example, as warehouses were challenged to fulfill orders, many of them moved inventory closer to the interstate and port areas. That translated to a lot of walk-in and overnight trucking business for economy-brand hotels on I-5. The military also had increased usage as the National Guard was called up in ways it had not been in decades. The medical sector also placed a lot of workers in hotels for many months, and of course there were people self-quarantining.
Another big surprise was local staycation demand. People needed to leave the house or have somewhere to take the kids or work remotely away from distractions at home. Even my wife and I stayed at a hotel in downtown Tacoma just to break up the monotony and experience a little get-away.
What do you expect in terms of tourism activity in Pierce County this summer and beyond?
Generally, as a destination right now, if you have a shoreline or a mountain, you’re doing better than if you have skyscrapers. We have all three.
While indoor and manufactured experiences get back on their feet, the outdoors will continue to lead. Outdoor events will be next. And as I said, sports are a big part of that. Folks have really been emotionally challenged by the absence of sports.
Across the country, outdoor tourism could not be hotter. It’s actually too hot. Overtourism is a big issue because it affects the destination and the visitor experience. National Parks across the US are setting records. Trails, parks and outdoor areas are taking a beating from over-use as people take to the outdoors at record levels.
Consumer confidence to travel is only rising exponentially. Outlying surges and spikes won’t last long. Soon, every sector will be showing growth back to what we knew prior.
How are you promoting Pierce County tourism?
We remain primarily focused on group business as the best bang for the buck – sports, conventions, meetings, special interest, etc. That focus has been driven by the funding committees that make up the greater tourism efforts across Pierce County. So right now, as we push through these early stages of recovery, we have a heap of group business to bring back online. Normally, we have more than 400 group bookings a year that create more than 70,000 hotel room nights throughout Tacoma and Pierce County. That number was taken to almost zero during the pandemic.
For the leisure traveler side, we’re engaged in a variety of digital campaigns and partnerships carefully designed to attract overnight visitors to the right places at the right time. But at our core, our funders want us to book groups as often as possible.
How do meeting and convention bookings look?
The answer changes weekly, and in a positive way. Last year was about nothing, and then it was about small family events like weddings, and then it was about some limited sports competitions. Right now, 2021 is mostly localized business, which is to be expected. But 2022 is significantly outpacing forecasts.
Meeting planners are definitely ready to get back out there. Unfortunately, a lot of them lost their jobs during the pandemic. So, there is some rebuilding to be done throughout both sides of the industry—those with destinations to host meetings and those who represent the meetings that are needed to fill the destinations. But by and large, confidence is high.
What are some notable events coming to Tacoma-Pierce County?
For starters, there are two sold out shows at the Tacoma Dome in August—Celine Dion and Harry Stiles—and the Washington State Fair returns this year. We also have the Mount Rainier National Park Half Marathon trail run in July that sold in just 3 days. A total of 1,500 runners from 47 states will attend that event.
But 2021 events are still somewhat compromised or limited. We’re really looking ahead to 2022. Some notable events on the docket include the 2022 NCAA® Division II Fall National Championships Festival, a multi-sport event that includes the cross-country championships at Chambers Creek Regional Park; the USGA Women’s Amateur at Chambers Bay; and the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada is coming to the The Home Course in DuPont with a qualifying camp and a tournament.
What 2022 event are you most jazzed about?
In May 2022, the Glass Art Society (GAS) global conference is coming to Tacoma. When we partnered with the Museum of Glass to bid on the conference, we saw a unique opportunity there. We wanted more than just to host a one-and-done event. So, we worked with them to also create a public-facing component—a glass festival that would draw people to Tacoma and help further elevate the glass arts scene here. The best of the best in the world of glass art will be in Tacoma, and every glass asset will be polished and fired up. Why not use the moment to invite more people to come and experience that?
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the tourism industry and your work at Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier?
It’s no secret this industry took a total beating. Consider that the downtown sector alone typically sees some 2 million ticketed guests through the net sum of its main venues—museums, the Dome, Convention Center, live arts and more. That number was less than 200,000 for 2020.
During the pandemic, our office changed radically. We had to lay off half our staff and spend a massive amount of time just moving booked business, again and again. But we’ve been optimistic throughout. There is a difference in a recession versus what this is. “Pent-up demand” has been a hot phrase throughout. We’ve even coined our own internal variance—”pent-up demand is about to get un-pent, big time.” So far, that statement is entirely true.
How have you been working with local partners through the pandemic and recovery?
The list is long and deep. It has taken a very team driven, all-hands-on-deck approach to get through this. We would be nothing if not for our local and state partnerships.
We’ve worked with the Pierce County Economic Development Department, the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, City of Tacoma, Tacoma Pierce County Chamber and chambers and economic development departments in cities throughout Pierce County.
We’ve also worked closely with the Washington State Hospitality Association, Washington State Tourism Alliance and The Northwest Seaport Alliance, and there’s been a lot of work with advisors in Olympia. There are also our partnerships with the Pierce County Tourism Promotion Area (TPA) and Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC), and Metro Parks, Pierce County Parks & Recreation, Mount Rainier. The list goes on.
I also want to call out our municipal tourism partners that make this all work: The cities of Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup, Fife, Gig Harbor, Sumner, DuPont and again, Pierce County, which also includes the areas surrounding Mount Rainier and Crystal Mountain.
Looking back over the last 15+ months, what are some lessons learned?
I don’t think anyone looking back would have done anything different. Everyone did the best they could with the information they had at the time they had it.
But I think we learned we’re pretty resilient, and that we are community-formed creatures that need to be together. We need our coffee shops and markets and indoor and outdoor festivals, concerts, bars, restaurants and social experiences to thrive. I think we’re going to cherish and value those experiences even more as they come back to life.
We also learned how to be better partners. While we all have distinct lanes of travel, we have the common denominator to make Tacoma and Pierce County even greater. I think it will benefit how we move forward. I don’t want those partnerships to lose their spark as things recover.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to talk about?
I think it’s easy for us to lose sight of the rare gem we get to live in. We have a mountain, a city and a sea, all compressed within a narrow space. The experiences and the stories within are incredible.
In our collective bubbles over the last year and a half, we’ve have been compressed to an even smaller world view and confined to living in the world through a screen. I think we’re all going to be in for a pleasant surprise as we come back together and share our lives and our places together. People are going to experience peace and joy and, yes, some anxiety. But it’s going to feel good.
From the Mountain to the City to the Sea, learn more about what Tacoma-Pierce County has to offer at Travel Tacoma + Mt. Rainier Tourism & Sports.