A proposed Umatilla County tourism tax was killed last week after Pendletonians expressed the sentiment that Hermiston doesn’t care about tourism, but the city of Hermiston is pushing back on that notion.
“The proof’s in the pudding that we are investing in tourism assets and infrastructure, but you don’t start marketing the car before you build the car,” assistant city manager Mark Morgan said.
Residents from both ends of the county expressed opposition to the proposed 2 percent tax, added to hotel customers’ room bill, which would have been earmarked to promote tourism in Umatilla County via grants, product development and marketing. But their reasons for opposition highlighted two very different approaches to tourism.
In Hermiston, the city has invested heavily in the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center on the southeast edge of town, including a $1 per room per night tourism promotion assessment on hotel rooms that goes directly to marketing EOTEC (a second dollar per night, added last year, is being used to pay off bonds used to complete EOTEC’s construction). The project started out the 2017-2018 fiscal year with more than $350,000 in TPA funds in the bank. Now that construction is complete and venue-management company VenuWorks is set to take over management on Jan. 1, the EOTEC board hopes to use that war chest to start marketing the facility in earnest for conventions, trade shows and other events that will draw people from out of town.
The facility recently hosted the Hermiston Farm Fair, an agricultural trade show which Greater Hermiston Area Chamber of Commerce director Debbie Pedro said is usually the event which draws the most people to Hermiston each year — about 1,500 visitors.
The city is also investing in things like a downtown festival street — with construction planned for spring — to provide a venue for smaller events to entertain travelers during their stay. And it offered financial incentives to the Holiday Inn Express that opened within easy walking distance of downtown businesses.
When tourists come to Pendleton, they often come purely for vacation, and find plenty of events, tours, museums, outdoor recreation, shopping and dining experiences to keep them busy during their stay. Those experiences are promoted by Travel Pendleton via a comprehensive tourism website and other marketing tools, which is why Pendleton hoteliers were opposed to a tax they felt would duplicate those efforts.
Hermiston’s hotels, on the other hand, tend to be more full during the week than on weekends. Holiday Inn Express manager Steven Arrasmith said during a meeting last week that the hotel has “a lot of corporate travel, and not as much for leisure.”
If hotels, restaurants and gas stations are seeing an uptick during the weekend, it’s usually for sports tournaments held at Kennison Field and other Hermiston School District venues that the community has invested in.
AAU basketball tournaments and trade shows at EOTEC might not be as glamorous as the Pendleton Round-Up, Morgan said, but they can still direct out-of-town dollars into local businesses. They just require a different strategy.
“The engineer that has to come here for work, what are the things that would get dollars out of his pocket?” Morgan asked.
Umatilla County’s proposed tourism lodging tax seemed to lean more toward the Pendleton style of tourism, which relies on a distinctive Pendleton brand of a good time in the “real west.” The proposal put together by the county spoke of “marketing Umatilla County as a destination” via brand development, membership in statewide tourism associations, social media campaigns, grants and paid media campaigns with analytics gathered from “our outside-of-area target audience.”
Morgan said one measuring stick used in the tourism industry is that people expect about four hours of fun for every hour they traveled. Right now, he said, Hermiston has about enough entertainment for the “just for the heck of it” visitor to warrant a day trip from the Tri-Cities. So until Hermiston builds up some more tourism events and assets, he said it didn’t make sense to try and market it as a vacation destination.
“We’re not at the stage where I could justifiably, with a straight face, tell people that we’re using their money wisely,” he said, explaining why the city declined a proposal from the chamber to start something equivalent to a Travel Hermiston.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.