Sandy Ward puts our region on the map. Literally. And in brochures, in magazines, and to millions through the internet. Anywhere the trademarked BE (Bellingham Experience) can attract travelers, and inform them on where to eat, sleep, and be merry. Sandy, just three-plus years into her position as president/CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County tourism, has moved the organization to a seven-figure budget, attracting over $700 million in travel & rec visitation.
Cue the sound of a screeching halt.
Circumstances far beyond extraordinary drew Sandy’s professional and personal world to standstill status. When we first sat down for conversation, very early in March, the agency’s doors already were closed to public, some travel cancelled, and we bumped elbows instead of a handshake or hug in greeting. Within a week, due to virus vicissitude, all doors slammed shut. Tourism’s louder than most. Much of our content became moot points. Hence, working backward, the give-and-take with Sandy begins at the end.
BP: Your industry is surreal, in slow or even no motion. What’s the trickle-down effect to the local level?
SW: Whether national, county, city, local — we’re all in the same boat. People are really not able or allowed to travel. We’re told to shelter in place, stay home and not travel. Interestingly enough, we received an email reply from Bend, Oregon, when we requested a visitor’s packet, that said, “Your Bend vacation can wait. Stay home. When this passes, then we want you to come.”
BP: Any alternatives?
SW: No. Some cities on the Washington coast shut down their roadways because people were flocking to beaches and trails, going on hikes and not doing social distancing, which defeated the purpose. With the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, people started heeding the advice and only left home for essential reasons.
BP: Are you optimistic?
SW: When recovery starts, we know Bellingham and Whatcom County will be in a good position, because we sit between two giant easy-drive markets — Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s millions who don’t have to take an airplane. Drive markets with outdoor activities usually recover more quickly than the fly-in markets during downturns.
BP: What actions have you taken now that your office is closed?
SW: Immediately at the end of February, we rescheduled the inclusivity training for staff that was set for March 16. Also, before the mandated closures of non-essential businesses, we closed our visitor centers to the public because many of our volunteers are in the high-risk category for the virus. The only events we stage, Tastes of Tourism, are cancelled. Tastes of Tourism features restaurants that donate all the food. It puts them in a precarious position, and that’s a lot to ask of them.
Our only other event is the annual meeting of membership, now postponed from May until October, but without food.
BP: What’s your crystal ball say?
SW: All of our partners are suffering and laying off people. But here’s the interesting thing: I’ve been in this industry my entire adult life and seen recessions and other things that cause chaos, and what I know is that people will do without a lot of things. From new carpet and drapes to foot deodorant.
But they will not do without their travel and leisure activities. All around us, major events have evaporated. Ski to Sea had been going 46 years.
BP: What exactly is the agency’s purpose?
SW: Our job is to publicize and promote to bring visitors in for all events. We don’t produce events. We do cooperative ad buys — for example, either Alaska Beyond (airline magazine) or AAA Journey. We’re going to do one in Allegiant Airlines’ in-flight magazine, Sunseeker, in the July-August issue so that people flying to and from the West Coast, Las Vegas, Arizona and Bellingham will learn all about Bellingham SeaFeast while flying.
BP: How are you structured?
SW: We’re a 501(c)(6) nonprofit that’s been around since 1978. We have a board of directors; they’re my boss. We have seven full-time employees and three part-time, and about 30-plus volunteers. That could change temporarily, given the current circumstances surrounding COVID-19.
BP: Where does your funding come from?
SW: We’re funded mostly with hotel/motel taxes from City of Bellingham, from unincorporated Whatcom County — which includes Birch Bay and Lummi Island — and a bit from contracted partnerships with the Port of Bellingham, Blaine and Lynden. We also have funding from advertising sales and membership.
BP: Can you tell us about your budget?
SW: It’s around $1.2 million per year. We own our building, so the bulk of our money is spent on marketing, advertising and media outreach, which includes salaries. We are about 85% funded by hotel/motel taxes and the rest from dues and ad sales (for in-house publications).
BP: What’s your No. 1 priority?
SW: Stewardship, above all else. Sure, we need to spend wisely to replenish our funding. But mostly, we want to make sure that the people who live here can coexist with the visitors we bring — that those visitors share our values. Example: We value the environment and the outdoors, so we want people who visit Bellingham and Whatcom County to share our commitment to protecting it. We believe in sustainability, so we want our visitors to feel the same way so we can all coexist while having a positive impact on the economy.
BP: Your role is basically marketing, then.
SW: Yes, we are a destination marketing and management organization. That’s our whole job. A lot of people in town don’t know about what we do because we don’t advertise locally.
We want to offer visitors from far enough away plenty of fun things to do that keep them circulating around the county so they’ll spend the night. They spend money differently than people who live here. And we want them to have so much fun that they will come back again and recommend us to others.
BP: Where do people find you?
SW: At our visitor centers. Besides our main one off of Lakeway (904 Potter St.), we have one at Village Books, one at the cruise terminal in Fairhaven, one at Woods Coffee in downtown Bellingham’s Flatiron Building on Bay Street, one at the Bellingham airport, and one at Bellis Fair Mall.
BP: What’s your main source for recommendations?
SW: Reviews on websites such as Tripadvisor and Expedia and direct response from ad campaigns and media coverage in magazines and online. We had around a million visitors to our website last year, and we have a huge social media presence on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and our YouTube channel, where we are known as @BellinghamExperience. Further, we do a number of publications: a visitor guide, a hiking guide and some other collateral materials. We mailed about 10,000 visitor guides last year to potential visitors outside the area. Another 15,000 were distributed around the Puget Sound region, and the balance went to local hotels, restaurants and attractions.
BP: How else do you spread the word?
SW: We attend a lot of trade shows meeting consumers and tour operators and wholesalers and travel agents. We have a very comprehensive media outreach program to get stories written about our area. With Annette (Bagley, director of marketing), we work on bringing in travel writers. And we know that people believe what they read in an article more than they believe in advertising. Finally, if you want to see what people are saying about us — around the world — you can go to the www.bellingham.org media link and look for articles and coverage.
BP: How do you measure results?
SW: We measure our activity with industry research that tells us average daily rates and occupancy trends, so we know how full the hotels and short-term rentals are.
We share all of our information with the state of Washington and get reports back that tell us the economic impact of the industry, including hotels/motels, retail, restaurants, gas stations, transportation, entertainment, those kinds of things.
From that annual report, we know that over $705 million was spent by visitors in 2018. We haven’t gotten the 2019 information yet.
BP: What’s the biggest spend?
SW: Restaurants. People who come here like to eat, and restaurants were expected to be the first businesses to recover after COVID-19.
BP: Where do people come the furthest from?
SW: We see people from all over the world. India, South America, Mexico, Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany work really well for our destination because they like to hang out with locals and drink beer, for which we are famous, and they enjoy the great outdoors.
BP: All that you’re describing makes you an economic driver, doesn’t it?
SW: Yes, we’re an economic development agency, and the way we drive the economy is by bringing in outside visitors with outside money. We’re another economic development tool in the toolbox that Bellingham and Whatcom County and Port of Bellingham have, and we succeed when everybody works together. We also know that tourism is what we call the front door of economic development. A lot of times, business owners or corporations come here for vacation and they look around and they say, “Gosh, this would be a great place to live. I could bring my business here.” Many businesses came here first as a visitor — it’s really common here.
BP: Do you see light at the end of the tunnel to ramp back up?
SW: Absolutely. The flower festivals might be off, but the daffodils and tulips are still growing. Earth knows what to do — birds, the soil, flowers, plants… none of that has changed.
We humans will get through this together and recover quickly once the coast is clear.