The return of downtown events and more
We won’t say things are back to normal, but in-person events and tourism are making a comeback in Tacoma-Pierce County. To learn about what’s happening and what may be on the horizon, the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County turned to the people in the know: Dean Burke, President and CEO, Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier Tourism & Sports, and Adam Cook, Director of Tacoma Venues and Events.
EDB: As restrictions have slowly lifted, you’ve had to navigate two variants. What’s that been like?
BURKE: No question the variants sucked the fun out of the party, but we managed to tip-toe through and figure out how to coexist amid mask requirements, vaccine ID cards and testing. When Labor Day weekend rolled around and back-to-school arrived, we saw events, festivals and new gatherings the likes we had not seen in over a year. As more restrictions lifted, concerts returned.
In January of this year, we saw a steady decline of the virus paired with the steady rise in consumer confidence. Things really started to change for the better. Let’s call this the “post pandemic” moment. But we’re not quite ready to compare it to life pre-pandemic.
EDB: There was a lot that needed to be done to ensure venues were ready when events returned. How did the City of Tacoma make that happen?
COOK: During the shutdown, we took the opportunity to make our venues safer, healthier and more friendly for our guests. We upgraded HVAC systems and installed ultraviolet UV disinfectant lights and electrostatic sprayers. The Greater Tacoma Convention Center and Tacoma Dome also obtained GBAC (Global Biorisk Advisory Council) STAR certification, the premier outbreak prevention, response and recovery accreditation for facilities. And we updated policies and procedures across the board.
To reduce touchpoints, we instituted a clear bag policy and digital ticket scanning and made each facility cashless. And we focused on messaging to guests and clients as they came through. We were ready to start building back.
EDB: Sports were the first events to come back on line in Tacoma-Pierce County. How have they performed since?
BURKE: Traveling youth teams showed strong in the first quarter of 2022 and outperformed Q1 of 2019 by a whopping 33 percent. That even included one large event that was still compromised by pandemic issues.
In short, the sports events we worked with in Q1 of 2019 produced 11,180 room nights, while those same events in Q1 of 2022 produced 16,624 room nights. This was driven by a few factors. More teams from farther away qualified and travelled, and families were hungry to get back out and support their kids. Keep in mind that we’re talking about early-to-mid Q1 when restrictions were not yet fully lifted and travel sentiment was still mixed.
So, here’s the snapshot so far for 2022: Sports went 73 percent to goal for January, 138 percent to goal for February and 163 percent to goal for March. Booya.
EDB: Are things picking up at the Dome?
COOK: Well, that is a variable right now. The industry has returned to full bore with a vengeance and there are lots of touring shows and entertainment out there. Unfortunately, we have a new competitor up the road. With the opening of the Climate Pledge Arena, we expected a downturn in Tacoma Dome business for the first 12 to 18 months. We’ll be at that 12-month point in October, and it’s going to be the busiest month we’ve had since even before the pandemic. Some of our annual shows will return, including the Tacoma RV Show and Tacoma Holiday and Gift Show. A large business meeting will bring several thousand people into the community for a week and change. There are also major concerts slated, including two nights with Elton John as part of his farewell tour. The My Chemical Romance concert is almost sold out, and there two or three additional concerts yet to be announced. Traffic is also picking up in November, December and into 2023.
EDB: How are things going on the convention and meeting side?
BURKE: Convention and meeting space is slowly but surely picking up momentum. We knew this sector would be the slowest to recover, because its “on-ramp” is the longest. We’re celebrating the first benchmark of positivity: Our rooms target was 4,750; we reached 6,181.
COOK: We will continue to see a rise in short-term and local businesses, including banquets, fundraisers, weddings, small business meetings and some regional conferences. Larger international and national conferences will take little longer. We see that building through 2023 into 2025.
EDB: What about the downtown arts scene?
COOK: In August 2021, City of Tacoma signed a deal with ASM Global to manage our historic theatres, including the Rialto and Pantages. They are running full speed ahead working with resident arts organizations to bring them back to business and get them engaged as they rebuild.
They are also focused on recruiting outside events. Two recent sold-out shows featuring Blippi, a wildly popular children’s entertainer and YouTube sensation, brought 2,000 parents and kids into the downtown Tacoma core. ASM will bring in more family-style shows during the next 6 to 8 months, along with smaller concert events.
EDB: Are visitors from outside the region starting to return to Tacoma-Pierce County?
BURKE: Across Pierce County, the leisure travel sector continues to gain momentum, and traveler volumes (visitors from outside of 50 miles) are just starting to intersect with 2019 levels. It’s still slightly under but certainly closer than it has been in two years. In the downtown Tacoma core, we’re still below 2019 volumes, but clearly seeing improvements over last year.
[Note: You can take a closer look at Pierce County’s 2020-2022 hotel occupancy numbers here.]
EDB: Are you feeling optimistic? Cautious?
COOK: I am definitely optimistic. But that’s also tempered with realism. It will take time, especially on the convention side. But we’re seeing a comeback. We’ve put systems in place that aren’t going away. If there is another shift with the pandemic or something else comes along down the road, we are ready to respond, stay open and deliver outstanding events.
BURKE: Overall, things continue to perform on a ramp right now. Sure, some things changed during the pandemic and will not return to what they were. But sort of like a forest fire, there are trees that survived and there are new ones sprouting right now.