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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane sees rebound in tourism following pandemic lull

Mark Starr, the owner of David’s Pizza in Spokane, demonstrates how to hand toss a pizza crust in his restaurant.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Mark Starr, the owner of David’s Pizza in Spokane, demonstrates how to hand toss a pizza crust in his restaurant. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The Lilac City’s convention business has finally begun to jettison its pandemic-forced meltdown.

Hotels are seeing an uptick in guests, restaurants are gaining more foot traffic and tourism officials are anticipating this year to be the best on record for convention groups.

A recent report conducted by Tourism Economics for Visit Spokane shows 9.5 million people visited Spokane County in 2021, generating a total economic impact of $1.9 billion.

Visitors to the Spokane area last year spent $1.2 billion compared with $2.1 billion of spending in 2019, which was the county’s busiest year on record for tourism and conventions.

“It was really driven by leisure last year,” Meg Winchester, CEO of Visit Spokane, said of the rise in visitor spending.

Winchester also attributes an increase in tourism last year to Spokane’s proximity to outdoor activities.

Spokane hotels saw a rise in guests last year with properties in downtown reporting occupancy of 52.4%, compared to 34.1% in 2020. Spokane Valley hotels had an occupancy rate of 66% in 2021, compared to 50% a year prior, according to Visit Spokane.

“We were pretty proud of the occupancy rates we were able to maintain in our hotels,” Winchester said.

Of the $1.2 billion spent by visitors in the county last year, food and beverage accounted for $360 million, followed by lodging and retail with each sector reporting $290 million, according to Visit Spokane.

Pent-up demand for concerts, events and conventions is likely to make this year one of the busiest for leisure and tourism in Spokane, Winchester said.

More than 18 conventions are scheduled through the end of the year, with venues hosting organizations such as the International Association of Electrical Engineers, North American College and University Food Service, Housing Washington and American Fisheries.

“This summer, we have back-to-back conventions,” Winchester said.

“That’s partly because so many were displaced from 2020 and 2021.”

Some organizations are visiting Spokane for the first time, which, in turn, is resulting in national exposure for the Lilac City, Winchester said.

The Spokane Convention Center and the Davenport Grand Hotel hosted the Public Relations Society of America’s Travel & Tourism conference in May.

The event drew hundreds of travel writers and industry professionals, many of whom were visiting Spokane for the first time, Winchester said.

“The economic impact just from people coming and staying in hotels as well as earned media is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Winchester said.

“It was a home run all the way around.”

Some other events that were a boon for Spokane this year include Paul McCartney’s tour kickoff at the Arena as well as the USA Indoor Track and Field Championships and the 2022 USA Karate National Championships, both held at the Podium.

Sporting events Hoopfest and Bloomsday also returned this year, drawing attendees from cities nationwide.

Between January and June, more than 448,100 people attended events at the Podium, the Arena, the First Interstate Center for the Arts and the Spokane Convention Center, according to the Spokane Public Facilities District, which owns and operates the venues.

“Right now, we are doing three years of business in one year,” Stephanie Curran, CEO of the Spokane Public Facilities District, said. “We are slammed with business in 2022.”

The Podium is undergoing acoustic improvements this summer in preparation to host concerts beginning in October, Curran said.

Curran, like Winchester, anticipates this year to set a record for conventions in Spokane.

After the Spokane Public Facilities District shut down its venues during the pandemic, it made efforts to reschedule several events and conventions, she said.

“Our management team continued to book business, some of which was moved four times,” she said. “We kept working on booking business and that set us up for a really strong future.”

Visitors to the area support hotels, restaurants, recreation, retail, shopping, air travel and local transportation.

Tourism revenue generated last year sustained 16,340 jobs and generated $198 million in state and local tax revenues, according to Visit Spokane.

David’s Pizza is seeing an increase in foot traffic as a result of events held at the nearby Podium and Arena, owner Mark Starr said.

“Foot traffic has been incredible,” Starr said. “A lot of it is due to people living in Spokane and people coming to Spokane. That’s important because it’s a lot of dollars being spent here.”

David’s Pizza, 803 W. Mallon Ave., experienced a drop in staff and revenue as a result of pandemic-related closures and mandates, Starr told The Spokesman-Review in March 2021.

Since then, however, Starr has been able to reopen his catering business and the restaurant’s revenue is exceeding what it generated prepandemic, he said.

“Hoopfest was great this year. Bloomsday was phenomenal,” Starr said. “People are starting to come out again, thank goodness.”

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