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Grant funding through CARES expected to help with tourism recovery

  • Updated
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Hundreds visit downtown Walla Walla for Wheelin’ Walla Walla Weekend held last September. Tourism officials plan to use a $102,000 allocation to help reach potential visitors in anticipation of travel restoration.

A $102,000 infusion of grant funds is expected to help Walla Walla’s destination marketing organization with COVID-19 tourism recovery efforts.

The city and Walla Walla County are reportedly finalizing an agreement that will provide the funds to Visit Walla Walla through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Tourism officials say the money will be used on a combination of existing programs and new tactics as communities and visitors seek balance between wanderlust, public health and economic recovery.

“There is obviously a lot of pent up demand to travel right now, which is what I think we are currently seeing in Walla Walla…,” said Justin Yax, partner in Bend-based DVA Advertising & Public Relations, the agency contracted for marketing by Visit Walla Walla.

Most visitation — from day-trippers to those staying in hotels or reserving vacation rentals — is believed to be “organically” tourism, meaning it is driven by visitors themselves rather than the result of paid marketing efforts on Visit Walla Walla’s behalf, he said.

The money will help with tourism adaptations in the COVID-19 world, Visit Walla Walla said in its announcement. That includes for digital advertising, social media content, video marketing, web development, expanded public relations and the implementation of a universal booking software program.

Contingency funds will be reserved for other potential opportunities, such as education and messaging on distancing, use of face coverings in public and other coronavirus prevention practices.

“For many, a return to traveling means the opportunity to return to Walla Walla, but for others who are still undecided about where to go, we need to be strategic about how, when and where we reach them while being mindful of the health and safety of our community,” said Visit Walla Walla board member Tabitha Crenshaw in a prepared statement.

The advertising is meant to keep Walla Walla at the forefront for visitors, including those who may not be ready to travel yet.

At this point, Visit Walla Walla will target digital advertising to markets that are in the same or advanced phases, or equivalent markets in other states, Yax said.

Still in Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start phased reopening, Walla Walla is limited to essential travel only. Nonessential travel is allowed to resume in Phase 3.

“This means Visit Walla Walla must be prepared to begin actively promoting leisure travel once Phase 3 commences, and even the notion of planning travel in the days leading up to a transition to Phase 3,” Yax said.

With the date uncertain, the work must be developed ahead of time for an industry that drew $123.5 million in visitor spending in 2018, according to figures from destination research firm Dean Runyan Associates.

Data from the latest study showed tourism-related spending was led by accommodations ($27.3 million); retail purchases ($17.3 million); food services, including restaurants ($17 million); and arts, entertainment and recreation ($15.1 million).

Studies of tourism in the era of coronavirus have shown visitors are more likely to travel by road and for long weekend getaways rather than extended vacations.

“The ways in which consumers research, plan, and book travel have changed in the current environment, and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future,” Crenshaw said in the announcement. “The CARES Act funds from the City and County will help us meet and address these and other challenges head-on.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.