Hotels compete for tourist dollars; Marriot eyes Walla Walla

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Walla Walla hotels maintained a healthy number of heads in beds in 2009, but with a growing supply of rooms available each one got a smaller piece of the financial pie, according to figures from Tourism Walla Walla.

Despite a recession that stifled tourism across the country, Walla Walla had a relatively strong showing for hotel room sales last year.

Just over 151,500 rooms were sold in 2009. The number reflected a drop from the previous year when 159,155 room nights were sold, but a jump from 2006 when Walla Walla had one of its best years for occupancy at 65 percent. Last year's rate was 47 percent.

What's different? Back in 2006, fewer hotel rooms existed. So even though fewer people -- 144,325 -- came to stay that year, the hotels that were here captured a greater percentage of the market share.

And it may only get more competitive with reports that Marriott Hotels representatives have been asking questions about the local market.

Consequently, helping to create demand for more rooms will be part of the tourism strategy for 2010, said Tourism Walla Walla Chief Executive Officer Michael Davidson.

"The health of tourism in general is fine," Davidson said. "But it's more challenging now to run hotels."

The difference between occupancy and room nights can be slightly tricky. For all intents and purposes, more people are staying in local hotels than they were five years ago. But if the same hotel that operated then is getting fewer people because of the increase in supply, the financial stability of the individual operations could be affected.

Davidson said he doesn't believe the situation has been an overwhelming threat to any local hotels. But he also wants to make sure that doesn't become the case.

"For the overall health of the tourism industry in Walla Walla, you want to sell rooms," he explained. "But for the health of hotels, you also have to focus on occupancy. We've got to increase the demand."

Davidson said strategies for boosting demand during 2010 include a continued focus on customer service throughout the industry and the increased utilization of social networking to reach visitors.

He said 345 hotel rooms were sold through the Tourism Walla Walla Web site during 2009. He considers that a "passive" number since that site isn't typically used as a sales tool.

But he said through social media, such as Facebook, the organization may be able to play a greater role in connecting visitors to local services.

"The role that we always play is we are the intermediary between hotels and restaurants and the visitors," he said. "We need to provide visitors the information they need to make decisions, but we don't need to make the decisions for them."

Davidson said in order for Walla Walla hotels to return to that 65 percent occupancy rate, another 50,000 rooms would have to be sold in 2010. It may be a tall order given the national and regional financial outlook. On the other hand, he said, Walla Walla continues to be a popular destination with tourism playing a greater role in the economic vitality of the community.

According to information from regional labor economist Arum Kone, accommodations and food services are becoming an increasing factor in Walla Walla's percentage of retail sales.

During the third quarter of 2009, taxable retail sales in the retail trade sector only declined 1 percent when adjusted for inflation, compared to sales during the third quarter of 2008. Total sales were $73.7 million, compared to $75 million the previous year. All taxable sales during that period declined 7 percent -- $180.1 million from $195 million -- compared to the corresponding period in 2008.

Davidson said Walla Walla saw a jump in tourism activity during the tail end of 2009. Room tax revenue in December was up 4 percent compared to the same period in 2008. The number of rooms sold and occupancy were both up 10.1 percent in December from the previous year.

"Is the product still solid?" Davidson pondered. "Yes."

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