Local agency: Walla Walla tops state in visitor growth

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Walla Walla is leading the state in visitor growth, according to new numbers posted by Tourism Walla Walla.

For the first six months of the year, the area's increase in hotel revenue has dwarfed the state average, said Andrew Holt, tourism services manager for the local agency.

June was a particularly strong month. Officials said it was likely bolstered by a feverish social media campaign, marketing efforts and pursuit of the recent Best of the Road contest resulting in Walla Walla being named Friendliest Small Town in America.

"I think a lot of it is the continued goods news about Walla Walla," Tourism Walla Walla CEO Michael Davidson said.

He said the agency's social media program has grown by leaps and bounds, but all of the efforts in the name of tourism really start with a dynamic community.

"This has always been a strong destination," Davidson said.

Hotel revenue in the first six months of the year was $7.8 million, up 21.2 percent compared to the same period in 2010 when it was $6.4 million. The state average is 7.3 percent, the numbers showed.

Next to Walla Walla, Snohomish County posted the highest percentage increase at 13.6 percent.

Hotel revenue for June increased 24.2 percent from $1.5 million to $1.9 million. Room occupancy jumped 17 percent from 15,990 to 18,708. Occupancy and daily rate year-to-date are up 12.8 percent ¬¬-- 82,245 from 72,996 -- and 7.5 percent -- $94.98 from $88.33 -- respectively.

The percentages, according to the announcement, are the highest in the state.

Exposure to new potential visitors has grown in recent months. During the month of May, Tourism Walla Walla's Facebook page drew 3,000 more followers after Tourism Walla Walla launched a Facebook advertising campaign. Ads circulated in the greater Seattle, Portland and San Francisco Bay areas.

The image of the community also is changing, Tourism Walla Walla said.

Six years ago, study groups in Seattle and Portland were asked what came to mind when they thought of Walla Walla. Their answers were the Washington State Penitentiary, Walla Walla Sweet Onions and wheat farms.

A recent round of focus groups showed things in a slightly different order: a relaxing wine valley, Walla Walla Sweet Onions and the penitentiary.

In addition to recreational visitors coming to the community, Walla Walla is starting to see an uptick in convention tourism.

That side of the industry had experienced a drop, Davidson said. It was particularly affected during the economic crisis when some companies scaled back travel -- not only because of budgetary reasons but also because of the controversy of high-ranking professionals taking indulgent trips, he said.

Davidson said Walla Walla is slated to host a large convention of Seventh-day Adventists in September. The gathering is expected to result in about 1,500 mid-week room nights.

Tourism Walla Walla's 2011 budget is about $575,000. Its funding comes from a lodging tax on overnight guests in local establishments.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 526-8321 or vickihillhouse@wwub.com

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