Growing tourism - organization has found ways to promote area

October 08, 2007 11:00 pm

I received an email this week from a former La Grande resident who now lives in South Carolina. She said she had read online about "La Grande's ailing tourism industry."

While there is plenty of room for growth, La Grande's tourism industry is not ailing. We have had a record-breaking year, according to reports from many lodging businesses, specialty shops and restaurants. That follows a 2006 season during which our transient lodging tax collections increased considerably.

In a two-part series, the newspaper reported on a proposal for a change in direction for the way the City of La Grande invests in tourism promotion and economic development. I feel the public needs more information on what Union County Tourism does to increase tourism's economic impact and how we measure our effectiveness.

La Grande is a very pretty city in a highly scenic area, with friendly people, wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation, a strong arts scene and interesting museums. In addition to providing higher education, the university adds much to the community in the way of cultural amenities and sports activities. We also have lots of fun specialty shops and great restaurants. However, when I began this job 13 years ago, I quickly realized that we lack the big, major attractions that get the attention of travelers and travel and lifestyle media and make a community a destination. Instead, people tend to stop here on their way to distant urban areas, our neighboring counties where there are bigger attractions, or as they are going to the mountains, rivers and lakes for outdoor recreation.

To get more financial gain for the community, my board and I knew we needed to increase the things visitors could see and do in order to get them to spend time right here in Union County. To do that, we assisted with developing and promoting the Hells Canyon All-American Road, The Grande Tour state tour route, Buffalo Peak Golf Course, the Eagle Cap Excursion Train, the Eastern Oregon Fire Museum, the Cowboys Then & Now collection at the Union County Museum, a studio tour, a historic homes walking tour, created and ran a fiddle contest for 10 years and organized two visits from Cycle Oregon and two stops by The Great Race, plus numerous other events and smaller projects.

We also help promote places to go birding, cycling, hiking and wildlife viewing. We work with the downtown association on a regular basis and we publish a specialty shopping guide as well as a dining and lodging guide.

To help ensure that visitors learn about all of the things to see and do in Union County and throughout the region, we operate the Visitor Information Center. We developed the Hospitality 101 customer service training, which we have presented to hundreds of people who come into contact with visitors through work or as volunteers. We are scheduling two H101 sessions for later this month. We publish a variety of brochures and have a comprehensive website, www.visitlagrande.com, to help people with their advance planning and to inform them of attractions and activities when they are here. We work extensively with newspaper, radio and magazine writers to garner attention in the media.

We select our advertising venues carefully, assessing each publication's circulation, readership, distribution and editorial content and choose magazines that have a method of referring leads. We stretch our advertising dollars by forming partnerships for cooperative advertising and providing ways for local businesses to effectively and economically promote to visitors.

We promote the Blue Mountain Conference Center and other facilities around the county for meetings and conferences and work with our statewide packaged travel association to market to groups and international travelers. In response to all of this activity, the number of annual requests for visitor information to which we mail packets has increased from under 1,300 in 1995 to more than 13,000 in 2006.

In addition, we work closely with our state and regional counterparts to first get people to Oregon, then Eastern Oregon, then Northeast Oregon, which they have to choose to do before they can come to La Grande and Union County. The county, our other funding source, is very supportive of our program.

The travel industry is by nature dynamic. Promoting tourism requires constantly tracking and adjusting to trends in travel, publications and advertising. Union County Tourism's program is multi-faceted and well balanced. It is guided by a board of directors that is made up of representatives from different sectors of the tourism industry, local governments, and two at-large positions appointed by the City of La Grande and the board.

There are many challenges, but my board of directors and I feel very strongly that our strategy is good and that we truly are delivering the city its money's worth.

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Janet Dodson is executive director of Union County Tourism.