Chamber: visitors up

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer February 20, 2013 08:11 am

by BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer

People driving west on Interstate 84 and passing through Ontario these days see a billboard inviting them to jump off at Exit 285 and take in some sights.

If they want to know exactly what they’re in for, they can whip out their mobile phones and go to a website called Exit285.com. 

The site is devoted to the drive along Highway 237, through North Powder, Cove and Union. Included is information on the history of the area, seasonal events, places to lodge and places to eat.

Exit285.com is one of several initiatives the Union County Chamber of Commerce has put in place since taking charge of county-wide tourism promotion efforts in 2010.

On Feb. 11, Chamber Executive Director Judy Hector talked about the website and other initiatives as she gave her annual report to the La Grande City Council. City and Union County transient room taxes are the main funding sources for the chamber’s tourism marketing program.

Hector emphasized performance measurements, especially Transient Room Tax revenues and occupancy rates for local lodging businesses. It was a positive report, indicating that visitor numbers are up.

“I’d like to think it’s because we’re doing something right,” Hector said when asked for reasons for the overall improvement in the tourism outlook.

Transient room tax revenues represent a key performance measure for tourism. According to Hector’s report, the city collected $259,651 in TRTs in 2011, and Union County $128,785, for a total of $338,436. In 2012, the city took in $278,103 and the county $142,919. TRT collections climbed by $32,484, or 8.36 percent.

Numbers were less exact for lodging occupancy rates but looked encouraging as well.

Hector said six of 11 lodging properties responded to a request for information on changes in occupancy between 2011-12. Two were under new ownership and had no comparative data. The others reported occupancy rates up between 18-50 percent, with visitors spending an average of 2.75 nights.

The lodging properties that did respond said most of the visitors’ purpose of travel was work-related, though leisure travel did play a part.

In more talk about performance, Hector said requests for information from visitors increased about 28 percent in 2012. For the year, there were 1,427 walk-in visitors. The chamber also mailed 440 visitor packets, 101 relocation packets and responded to more than 1,800 phone calls. Maps, visitor kits and magazines were distributed as well.

Hector spent some time talking about web marketing, saying the chamber now operates four websites including EXIT285.com. The sites generated more than 35,000 visits. Most visited was the calendar of events page on the chamber’s main site, followed by the Mt. Emily Recreation Area page on LaGrandeNaturally.com.

Hector said the chamber has done a lot of innovating, trying to tie local events in with tourism. One such event was the Grande Ronde Valley Springfest, held for the first time in conjunction with the annual Ladd Marsh Birdathon. Birdathon organizers reported that participants purchased 46 lodging nights, 14 more than in 2011.

Hector also said cooperative marketing efforts were a “cornerstone” of 2012 activities. The Exit285.com project was one example, with the chamber collaborating with the cities of North Powder, Union and Cove. The chamber also partnered with Anthony Lakes ski area on an ad campaign that appeared on the OregonLive.com website, the Oregonian newspaper’s web portal.

The chamber teamed with several local businesses to buy a display ad in the Eastern Oregon Visitor’s Guide, and also partnered with local businesses to create a discount card good at Buffalo Peak Golf Course in Union.

In addition, the Chamber worked with the City of La Grande’s Community and Economic Development Department on a branding project for the city.

Out of that effort came a logo and tagline that represents, according to Hector’s report, the “open ... wholesomeness of the community while inviting visitors to experience all that La Grande has to offer.”

Talking about other activities in 2012, Hector said the Chamber sent a representative to the Oregon State Fair, produced a tourism e-newsletter, emailed a list of weekly events to tourism stakeholders, produced a YouTube video showcasing local artists and purchased advertising in various print publications.

Hector closed her report with a look ahead at the 2013 marketing plan. She proposed a $134,700 budget, an increase of $8,200 over 2012. She said she is seeking the increase mainly to change a part-time staff position to full time.

“By increasing the tourism assistant’s hours, we will be better able to manage our free marketing efforts,” Hector said.

She said costs for website and social media maintenance, video development, public relations and other activities cost little money but are labor intensive.

Paid marketing efforts do continue, however. The chamber will buy ads in publications including Northwest Travel, the Eastern Oregon Visitors Guide, the Travel Oregon Trip Planner, OregonLive.com and the Oregonian.