Smoke from September wildfires ended a 61-month winning streak in the city of Bend, according to Visit Bend, the city’s tourism marketing agency.
Every month starting in July 2012 showed a year-over-year increase in room tax revenue until September. The city that month collected $814,047, or 3 percent less than it collected in September 2016. In August, by comparison, the city collected $1.3 million in tax, or 21 percent more than it collected in August 2016.
Wildfires burning in the Cascades created a fog-like blanket of smoke that covered portions of Central and Southern Oregon for days at a time in August and September. Under those conditions, a quick weekend trip to Bend was off visitors’ radar, said Kevney Dugan, president and CEO of Visit Bend, at the agency’s board meeting Tuesday.
Dugan said late tax payments may still come in, but likely not enough to lift the month out of its record-ending slump. Board member Erick Trachsel, director of sales and marketing at the Riverhouse on the Deschutes hotel and convention center, said business there softened slightly even into October before picking back up.
“The smoke definitely had an impact on ourselves and our market,” Trachsel said. “The effect it had in the first part of (October) was pretty drastic.”
One group, Cycle Oregon, canceled its September event due to smoke; otherwise convention business helped the hotel bottom line, he said.
“That was the only event that was impacted,” Trachsel said. “A lot of groups still came, but leisure business stayed away.”
Early tax returns show fewer visitors to Bend in October this year than last, he said after the board meeting.
On the upside, four October “marquee events” in Bend this year showed sustained or increased participation over last year: BendFilm, Bend Venture Conference, Bend Design Conference and Swivel Digital Marketing Conference, said Nate Wyeth, Visit Bend vice president for sales and marketing, to the board.
Wyeth said attendance at the BendFilm festival was up 8 percent over last year, with 24 percent of attendees coming from outside Central Oregon; attendance at Swivel was up by 20 percent and at Bend Design Conference by 33 percent, with 40 percent of attendees from outside Central Oregon.
The numbers show that while leisure travel, or travel to Bend to take part in outdoor activities, for example, remained muted in October, “purpose-driven” travel to events like Swivel or BendFilm were up, Dugan said. That indicates a subtle shift in Bend tourism trends.
“To only be down 3 percent (in September) is testament that there is more business travel and purpose-driven travel” compared to leisure travel, he said after the board meeting.
The board also discussed a proposal Tuesday to increase the Visit Bend reserve fund to meet expenses in the event of an economic downturn or another natural event that impacts tourism. Dugan said September provided an opportunity to gauge what marketing costs the tourism agency might incur should its operating revenues for the month fall short of the approved business plan.
“We’re really paying attention to this event as somewhat of a case study as how we would react next time,” Dugan said to the board.
Visit Bend proposes increasing the three-month cash reserve of $65,811 it’s allowed under its contract to $750,000. The Bend Economic Development Advisory Board, which has oversight of the Visit Bend contract, earlier this month endorsed the idea, Dugan said. Visit Bend must assemble a proposal that could reach the City Council in May as part of the Visit Bend business plan for the next fiscal year.
Visit Bend through its destination marketing generates traffic for other city businesses, Dugan said. If an economic downturn or natural event curtails that traffic, Visit Bend has a role to play in recovery, he said.
“If we’re in the middle of a budget cycle or a budget year and we need to move the needle right now,” he said, “let’s spend some of the reserve.”
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