It’s hard to predict what will pique tourists’ interest.
Take Fargo, N.D. It boasts a Walk of Fame (“Wow, Richard Simmons’ handprint!”) and Bonanzaville, the region’s “foremost pioneer prairie village.”
Yet one of the biggest draws is having your photo taken next to the wood chipper – yep, that wood chipper – proudly displayed at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center.
Who’d have thought a grisly crime film would lure tourists to Blizzard City?
Cheryl Kilday can appreciate the genius of it. She’s president and CEO of Visit Spokane, which promotes local economic development through tourism.
Kilday says visitors pumped $770 million into the local economy last year. And we don’t even have a wood chipper photo op.
During a recent interview, Kilday explained what her organization does to raise Spokane’s stature among convention planners, and what local sites she’d show a first-time visitor.
S-R: What is Visit Spokane?
Kilday: We’re the sales and marketing arm for the whole Spokane region. We reach out to convention organizers and travel operators, and encourage them to come here for their meetings and getaways. Our highest priority is conventions, because their participants stay longer and spend more.
S-R: What are your responsibilities?
Kilday: To make sure we’re always looking ahead, and to plant seeds. Visit Spokane can’t do it all, but we can get people thinking in the right direction.
S-R: What trends have you noticed?
Kilday: We just completed a yearlong study and discovered we’re more of a couples getaway, when we thought of ourselves as primarily a family destination. So we need to focus on dining, shopping and entertainment. Another thing visitors want is more information about Spokane’s early history.
S-R: Does that tie in with the city’s “Near nature, near perfect” slogan?
Kilday: It does. When I moved here, I got the “near nature.” But we have to establish what “near perfect” means. Is that our urban sense – that everything you need is close by?
S-R: The slogan has been around a while. Is it approaching its expiration date?
Kilday: No. Usually by the time we’re sick of something, it’s just catching on with consumers.
S-R: Where does your funding come from?
Kilday: About half of it comes from countywide tourism-promotion assessments. A fourth comes from lodging taxes, and the rest from member/partner dues, participation fees and other private sources.
S-R: What’s the return on investment?
Kilday: Based on 2012 data, we figure Visit Spokane generated $71 in tourism revenue for every dollar we spent. Some people came here as a direct result of our efforts, while others stayed longer and spent more because of our website. Meetings and conventions accounted for 22 percent of our visitors.
S-R: How did you get into the tourism business?
Kilday: While in college in Salem, Ore., I worked at a hotel where the manager had a pet peeve. He said hotels were great at helping college students work their way through school, but not so good at keeping those employees after graduation. So he developed a training program for students, and I continued working at the hotel after I graduated. Then the city created a visitor and convention association, and I went there in 1986.
S-R: Did you study business in college?
Kilday: I majored in psychology and sociology at Willamette (University), thinking I would be something like a child advocate. But when I graduated in ’83, the county juvenile probation department wasn’t hiring, and I needed a job, so I stayed on at the hotel and discovered I liked it. One day, one of my college advisers came by, and I told her that if I had known about the tourism industry, I might have studied it in school. But she pointed out all the coursework I’d done was applicable – selling is all about behavior.
S-R: How has the industry evolved since then?
Kilday: Back in the day when organizations like ours were getting started, conventions were more social, less about the collaboration that occurs around meetings. As the world economy has grown, the reason for meetings has changed.
S-R: How about technology?
Kilday: Some people predicted the Internet would make visitor centers obsolete. There are a lot of websites out there to help tourists, but people still want to talk to a local.
S-R: How much impact did the recession have on Spokane tourism?
Kilday: We’re still feeling it. It took longer to hit Spokane, and it may take a little longer for us to recover.
S-R: What is Spokane’s natural tourism niche?
Kilday: We’re very similar to Portland and Seattle and Calgary, but our smaller scale is part of our appeal. You can do a lot of the same things here that you can do in bigger cities, but it’s easier here.
S-R: What are Spokane’s crown jewels?
Kilday: The river gorge, Riverfront Park and the Centennial Trail, all right in the heart of downtown. Visitors think that’s amazing. And I really see the Convention Center being an economic engine for the downtown, creating ripples throughout the whole region. People here for a national convention will walk around the community and say, “I could move my business here.”
S-R: What about weaknesses?
Kilday: We need more direct flights to attract visitors. We just got L.A. and we’re ecstatic about that. Now we need Atlanta.
S-R: If you could change one thing about Spokane’s image, what would it be?
Kilday: We need to define ourselves as more urban, and then behave that way. An example would be that we don’t have very many restaurants on OpenTable (a reservation website). If you’re used to looking on OpenTable in Seattle or Portland to find a place to eat, and you get to Spokane and there are only seven restaurants, you might underestimate us.
S-R: If Walt and Karen Worthy build their proposed 700-room hotel, how big an impact could that have?
Kilday: I think it’s a game changer. It’s a matter of timing – making sure we don’t overbuild, and that the Convention Center configuration and the new hotel work together. But it’s a huge opportunity.
S-R: What else does downtown Spokane need?
Kilday: For the entertainment district to continue developing. But we’re getting there, with more restaurants and tasting rooms coming in.
S-R: Bloomsday and Hoopfest are big draws. What other events could get people excited about visiting Spokane?
Kilday: There’s an event in Grand Rapids, Mich., called ArtPrize, where they match artists and venues, and people vote for their favorite art. Thousands of people showed up and waited in block-long lines to vote. We’re talking to the ArtPrize people to see if they’d do something like that here.
S-R: When you see news items like the one about the Knitting Factory temporarily losing its entertainment license, what goes through your mind?
Kilday: I think about the need to strike a balance between supporting cool places like the Knitting Factory and also maintaining public safety. But we do worry sometimes about how things look to our regional market when we have people in our downtown who make visitors feel uncomfortable.
S-R: What’s the solution?
Kilday: Attracting more (foot) traffic, so people feel safer. It’s also about where we place those (social) services, because right now you have to drive by some of them to get downtown.
S-R: What important conventions are scheduled for this year?
Kilday: One that’s not the largest but was a huge coup for us is the Certified Meeting Professional Conclave (June 8-10). It’s a convention of meeting planners. We’re the smallest city they’ve ever met in. To host hundreds of meeting planners who may not have even thought about Spokane as a destination is a great opportunity for us to showcase the community.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Kilday: The balance between the cool, creative things we do (to market Spokane) and looking for ways our community can benefit from tourism.
S-R: What do you least enjoy?
Kilday: The number of meetings that requires.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone interested in getting into the tourism industry.
Kilday: Communications and business backgrounds are always helpful. We sell experiences, which isn’t easy. You have to get your message out there in a great way with limited resources.
S-R: What’s your favorite city to visit?
Kilday: San Antonio is one. I like how they took their floodplain and turned it into an asset – the River Walk. They made the back of their city beautiful. We have to figure out how to make our backdoor entrance to Spokane from I-90 more attractive.
S-R: Say you had one day to introduce someone to Spokane. Where would you take them?
Kilday: The Centennial Trail and Manito Park. Greenbluff, to give them a taste of Spokane’s scenic, agricultural side. And I always try to show people the not-so-obvious things – places like Hay J’s Bistro at Liberty Lake. But you really need more than a day.