Downtown businesses improvise in pandemic

Shoppers stroll downtown Walla Walla during the Passport to the Holidays event this year. The gift service helps consumers support local businesses without leaving their homes.

If you’ve been understandably preoccupied in recent weeks and months, you might not have noticed that visitors have returned in droves to Walla Walla. The likelihood, of course, is that you have noticed.

As vaccinations rise, the weather warms and the popularity of more open, rural and outdoor-minded destinations continues, Walla Walla’s emergence — and resurgence — from the pandemic is clear to see in the form of visitors who finally have the chance to release some of their pent up demand for travel.

After a year when tourism took an understandable back seat to global events, our restaurants, shops, hotels and tasting rooms are once again filled with the sounds of people enjoying a return to travel, rewarding themselves for their patience and vigilance and celebrating this special community we are fortunate to call home.

Their pre-pandemic presence in Walla Walla was something that many of us took largely for granted — something that’s easy to do when we are accustomed to seeing visitors in town on a daily basis. We assumed they would just continue to show up in increasing numbers, as they have done for many years. But their abrupt disappearance over the last 14 months left a noticeable void in our community, one that we are fortunate to once again be able to fill.

Pandemic aside, many of the local businesses that residents are able to enjoy would simply not exist if it weren’t for the millions of dollars that visitors annually contribute to our economy. And vice versa, many of the very things that draw visitors might cease to exist if local residents didn’t support these businesses throughout the year. This symbiotic relationship is better known in the tourism industry as the interdependence economy — where the combination of business from locals and visitors allows a community to truly thrive — and the numbers clearly support this principle in Walla Walla.

In 2018, the last full year for which data is available from Dean Runyan & Associates’ bi-annual “Washington State Travel Impacts & Visitor Volume” study, Walla Walla County’s 439,000 overnight visitors spent more than $136 million on direct travel expenses for things like accommodations, meals, activities, entertainment, shopping and more. By that math, each overnight visitor is like a three hundred dollar bill in terms of the money they leave in the community when visiting the County. And those numbers don’t include the countless “day trippers” — people who visit Walla Walla for the day before returning home to their own bed or are just passing through on their way to spending the night somewhere outside the county.

Economic development of this magnitude, and the impact it has on our local businesses and the families that rely on them, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Rather, it is borne out of a relationship that has to be cultivated and nurtured over time. As an agricultural community, we understand and can draw parallels to the growing season and how much time, hard work, and investment must go into the process before we reap the rewards of harvest.

Understanding this, many organizations in support of the Valley, such as Visit Walla Walla, move strategically through advertising to keep Walla Walla front-and-center on the screens and in the minds of potential visitors. An equally robust earned media and public relations effort helps garner regional and national editorial coverage for the region. And direct marketing (social media, email, website) provides detailed information and fulfillment resources. While these efforts and the messaging and tactics supporting them changed out of necessity during the pandemic, they never disappeared completely at the risk of losing hard earned awareness.

Travelers have many options when it comes to choosing which community to visit, and their contributions to Walla Walla County are welcome at all times. But perhaps none more so than right now as we continue to rebound from COVID-19. So the next time you see a visitor walking downtown, dining next to you in a restaurant or tasting through the lineup at your favorite winery, please join me in taking a moment to appreciate their presence after an extended absence, making them feel welcomed to our community and thanking them for choosing to spend their time and money right here — and right now — in Walla Walla.

Tabitha Crenshaw is the board chairperson of Visit Walla Walla.