June 7, 2023

Seeing results: Dean Burke talks tourism and more

Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism and Sports is the official destination marketing organization for Pierce County. The private nonprofit, funded by hotel/motel lodging and tax assessments, works with leisure travelers, meeting planners and group tour operators to make Tacoma and Pierce County an easy choice.

It’s been more than a year since the EDB last sat down to talk pandemic recovery with Dean Burke, Travel Tacoma CEO and President. Burke recently joined us to share an update on tourism, sports and meetings, as well as a look ahead.

EDB: When we talked in spring 2022, there were a lot of variables in the mix, from inflation to the Ukraine situation to local issues like homelessness, mental health and affordable housing. How are things looking now?

DB: Wow. A year already?

There are two things to note as we look back on 2022 and we look ahead: The big macro picture of tourism, sports and meetings in Pierce County, and the part that Travel Tacoma influences.

Year-end 2022, the greater tourism ecosystem was still down overall in volume of visitors. In terms of revenue, however, it was ahead of 2019 due to inflation. But as an organization, Travel Tacoma exceeded forecasts and hit all-time records. And it’s because in collaboration with our funding partners, we’ve been strategically redirecting our focus over the last four years, with a hard lean on sales and ROI – as measured by “heads in beds” (the generating of lodging room nights). As a result, our recruitment, sales and marketing efforts have been stronger. We also had a market demand that was ready to show up.

More than anything, we act as a sales organization. And we accomplish our sales goals through three main channels of focused development: amateur sports events, meetings/conventions and leisure travel.

All said, on the very low and most conservative end of the spectrum, we drove just over 100,000 room nights for 2022.

EDB: The gymnastics event at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center in February 2021 really kicked things off after the pandemic shutdowns. What’s happening with sports events now? 

DB: Nationwide, sports made a massive post-pandemic rebound. It certainly led the recovery for us, making nearly 60,000 room nights.

After that initial gymnastics event – the very first Washington State Department of Health-approved indoor event in the state after the initial pandemic shutdowns – we went on to host several more in the first two quarters of 2021. Those led the re-opening charge. In 2022, gymnastics events accounted for more than 11,000 new room nights and drew competitors from some 30 states.

During the dark days of the pandemic, we also worked with Pierce County Parks and Recreation and the Pierce County Lodging Tax Advisory Committee to develop an NCAA Division-I cross-country starting line and event hosting capacity at Chambers Creek Regional Park. The races take place immediately south of the Chambers Bay Golf Course and can run without interfering with any golf. Cross country also falls during our shoulder seasons — fall and spring — so it’s a great way to bring in more visitors during a typically quiet time. This past fall race season, we hosted six cross-country events, all new products for the region. Those cross-country events alone accounted for some 7,000 new room nights and brought athletes and families from about a dozen western U.S. states.

Of course, we’d be remiss to not mention the impacts of the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association championships. As a collective, WIAA events across Pierce County accounted for some 18,000 room nights. Nearly 9,000 of those were from Tacoma Dome-hosted events.

EDB: Speaking of which… a year ago you were keeping an eye on the opening of Climate Pledge Arena and how that might affect the Tacoma Dome. How are you feeling now?

DB: Climate Pledge Arena’s ownership is more than just a venue owner; they also command one of the biggest entertainment booking portfolios in the nation. So, when they build a new venue like Climate Pledge, they can mandate that all their performers play there. That’s a measurable thing when they book shows into Seattle with regional provisions that prohibit artists from booking within certain distances of Climate Pledge.

So yes, there has been an impact on the Tacoma Dome, and it was known well in advance that that would happen. It’ll take a couple of years or so for that to cool off. In the meantime, the Tacoma Dome is winning some great bookings that not only benefit the Dome but fill Tacoma and surrounding communities – and their hotels – with visitors.

EDB: What’s coming up that you’re excited about?

DB: We recently published around 130 Tacoma and Pierce County events for the rest of 2022, including about 75 that take place during the 12-week summer window. It’s exciting because it means the lights are back on and most of what was happening pre-pandemic is back. But it’s also challenging when you consider King County probably has triple that number. The calendars are as competitive now as they have ever been.

Oversaturation of similar events makes it hard for new events to emerge and existing ones to grow. Event producers and stakeholders need to think more strategically about how they enter the market. It’s like when someone opens the tenth coffee shop on an eight-block run. You can’t just set up and expect the world. You must understand your opportunity. Are you showing up because of overwhelming demand? Or are you there to try and draw solely off your competitors?

 EDB: In a post-pandemic world, have any trends emerged that have surprised you?

DB: We saw our most core regional assets – the outdoors and nature – come to the surface more than before. Visitation increases around those themes have held up post pandemic. At the same time, volumes and revenues are still returning and rising in other areas, including museums, entertainment, dining, etc.

Rather than be surprised, I just want to be thankful. And as things progressively recover, I don’t want to lose sight of what we’ve gone through together. We’ve never worked harder, more strategically and with more precision. And I speak for our whole team and all our partners when I say how thankful we are that we are seeing results. But the fight is not over. We still have a ton of work to do, and we’re doing that work every day.

Overall, we’re optimistic. That’s not by blind faith. The data supports our beliefs and the results of our work. We’re here for it.

Get the full story on the impact of tourism in Pierce County in the Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier 2022 Annual Report .


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