Central Washington hopes to boost winter tourism
Yakima Valley hopes to boost winter tourism, from Suncadia resort to wineries and even a special Seattle-Yakima train to get around Snoqualmie Pass closures
Through frigid temperatures and snow and ice, local tourism operators and marketers still see opportunities to attract tourists to Central Washington.
Winter will never see the same-sized crowds typical in the summer months, but tourism operators and marketers believe that they can — and should — generate more business during the typically slower period.
One indicator of this is the lodging numbers, which show that demand is slower in the winter months. In January 2008, occupancy for lodging facilities in Yakima County was 35.3 percent, well below the 64.3 percent the county had in July 2008, the peak of the summer months. Those figures then dropped to 38.8 percent by November 2008.
However, the numbers don't provide a complete picture, said John Cooper, president and CEO of the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau.
The bureau is working on a visitor profile that would provide more data on the reasons visitors come — or don't come — to the area during the winter months and throughout the year. It would also show which seasons generate the most tourist activity.
"The tourist industry, the hotels and everyone else can't really afford to have all those down days," said Pat Strosahl, president of The Seasons Performance Hall. "We need to give them a reason to come into town."
And it would provide a boost to the already growing sector. Despite the slower winter months, visitor spending for all of 2007, the last year figures were available, was $327 million, an increase of about 6.5 percent from 2006.
Suncadia, the all-season resort in Upper Kittitas County, is popular for its golf courses and other recreational activities in the summer.
But there is plenty to do at the 6,400-acre resort during the winter. There are typical activities such as tubing and ice skating and a whole slew of non-winter activities, such as visiting its swim and fitness center with water slides or relaxing at its high-end spa.
"Our benefits are obvious in the summer, but we need people to discover us in the winter," said Jack Schmidt, vice president/regional director of sales and marketing for Suncadia.
To attract visitors to use the new facilities, Suncadia offered a 72-hour-sale last month for a special rate of $99 a night for The Lodge, one of the resort's lodging facilities. (Rates normally start at $199 per night.)
The special rate will likely generate about 1,000 new visitors to the resort this winter, Schmidt said.
Such promotions will not be common, but Schmidt believes that once customers make their initial visit, they will find enough value in the offerings to come back at full price.
Wineries in winter
Likewise, though some wineries and recreational facilities have fewer hours, many people may not know about the other wineries, entertainment spots and restaurants throughout the Valley that people can visit during the winter, said Kirsten Danielson, director of marketing for the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Indeed, drawing tourists for concerts in the winter can be difficult, said Strosahl of The Seasons.
During the winter, Strosahl tends to shift the venue's focus to cater to the local crowd, who would be more likely to attend.
Doing so has helped — attendance at the venue's Christmas shows was up slightly from a year ago.
"It's also been an awful year for people to get across the (Snoqualmie) pass," he said.
But Strosahl sees the value of marketing to out-of-towners because if the weather clears up, that gives a boost to venues, restaurants and other tourism businesses in the Valley.
To highlight those businesses and the activities they offer, the bureau has organized two different marketing campaigns to attract winter tourists.
Its "Winter in the Valley" campaign highlights winter activities for all the cities throughout the Valley from Yakima to Prosser.
The campaign includes print advertising, a special logo and a special section on the bureau's Web site, www.visityakima.com.
It even partnered up with The Seasons by having the entertainment venue use the campaign's logo when advertising its concerts.
Danielson hopes that other tourism entities will be encouraged to hop on board for similar campaigns.
The more businesses involved, the more effective the message for tourists, she said.
The bureau's other campaign, "Red Wines of the Yakima Valley" coincides with the annual Red, Wine & Chocolate Event that the wineries organize on Presidents Day weekend. The event attracts about 2,000 visitors every year, but the campaign is designed to attract tourists throughout the month of February and March.
Included in this campaign is a map that visitors can print out from the bureau's Web site that shows all the red wines offered at all Yakima Valley wineries.
Of course, even the best marketing can't overcome the weather. Sometimes Snoqualmie Pass closes, keeping those from the west side from driving over.
But there are still plenty of potential tourists left.
"I think it's hit and miss because of the traffic on the pass, but we also have a large regional audience from Grandview, the Tri-Cities and various other cities that are on this side of the mountains that may like a getaway and a day focusing on the entertainment possibilities," Strosahl said.
Others also note that while it may be challenging to cross the mountain pass at times, it certainly isn't impossible to do so.
"While there will be a perception that the pass closes a lot, really in the context of winter, it is not closed regularly simply because it's the main lifeline of goods and services," said Schmidt, the vice president/regional director of sales and marketing for Suncadia.
Strosahl believes that for future winter tourism to be most successful, visitors must have access to a mode of transportation that can deal with the unpredictability of the mountain pass.
One method he envisions is a nighttime train ride from Seattle to Yakima. During the trip, people can see the mountains while enjoying a fancy meal with Yakima Valley wines.
In the meanwhile, Strosahl believes that generating any winter tourism this year will only help boost tourism during those slow months for the years to come.
"If we have a little success this year, we will have a little more next year," he said.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company