WALLA WALLA — Visitors to the community spent $91.9 million in their travels to the community in 2011, according to the latest tourism figures.
Spending at hotels, motels, restaurants and retailers skyrocketed about 13 percent last year to their highest level on the books, officials announced.
“I think it has a lot to do with the continuity of our message,” said Tourism Walla Walla interim Executive Director Michele Rennie on the success of the growing industry. Once visitors arrive, she said, they can see the depth of what the community offers with its bustling and diverse historic downtown, the wine industry and array of restaurants.
The 2011 numbers bested figures from 2008, which had previously been the best year for tourism in the community when destination spending was at $85.7 million. (That figure was initially reported in 2009 as $91.4 million but has since been adjusted.)
The data is compiled by Portland-based Dean Runyan Associates as part of its annual Washington State Travel Impacts study. The report explores economic effects of travel to and through the state’s 39 counties.
According to the results, spending on accommodations increased $2.3 million from 2010 to $18.5 million last year. Rennie said that increase wasn’t a huge surprise since Tourism Walla Walla tracks monthly occupancy.
Officials with the agency were struck, however, by the $2 million jump in food service spending, from $22.8 million in 2010 to $24.8 million last year.
“We talk a lot about heads in beds because tourism is funded by the lodging tax,” she said. But dining and other food services are huge contributors to the industry’s overall financial picture.
Industry employment grew in 2011 by 80 jobs, the data showed. Sixty of those were in accommodations and food service combined. According to the study, every $74,000 of visitor spending in the community supports one job. For every $100 generated by visitor spending, $28 goes to employee earnings.
In addition to spending on accommodations and food service, visitors last year spent $11.8 million on arts, entertainment and recreation (up from $11 million the previous year), and $14.2 million on retail sales (an increase of $1 million from 2010).
The spending generated $1.9 million in local tax receipts. That’s a $1 million increase over the last decade.
Rennie, who owns a three-suite bed-and-breakfast Girasol Vineyard & Inn, said she has noticed more visitors coming from greater distances — nationally and internationally. Over the summer two couples from Germany stayed at her bed-and-breakfast.
“Word of Walla Walla, especially with wine visitors, is getting around, and they’re making the trek,” she said.
While Walla Walla has also become increasingly known as a foodie destination — evidenced this year when the community was a finalist in Rand McNally’s Best of the Road competition to find the Best Small Town for Food — the opportunities here for more job creation are robust, Rennie said.
The Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce’s new Walla Walla Film Office is an example of ingenuity using the community as the setting for television and film and creating job opportunities for those involved.
Rennie said 2012 is shaping up already to be slightly ahead of last year’s numbers. She said Tourism Walla Walla officials plan to focus next year on marketing the community for Sunday-through-Thursday visitors. She said government travel and small conventions have decreased in recent years. There may be opportunities to market the community during the weekday.
Doing so would help spread business around for hotels, which are often at capacity on weekends between April and mid-November. She said the industry is learning from the wine industry in Napa Valley.
“What they found is if you can drive your Sunday-through-Thursday business, we can shift the numbers up which would raise occupancy significantly without adding infrastructure.”
She said that will be a major goal in 2013, which is also expected to see the opening of a couple of new bed-and-breakfasts and the new Best Western Suites in Dayton.
Officials are also continuing with a nationwide search for a new executive director for Tourism Walla Walla.