Tri-Cities gaining regional reputation for hosting conventions, sporting events

In April more than 100 softball teams descended on the Tri-Cities for a tournament, taking over hotels and ball fields in all three towns.

“They used all the fields we have,” said Janice Heitschmudt, Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Center sports sales manager. “It’s a great time of year for people to visit.”

And the Tri-Cities is seeing more and more athletic- and event-driven traffic. Soccer, softball, lacrosse and water sports are bringing more visitors to the Tri-Cities for a few days, leaving some money behind.

“Even in an economy like we’re in right now, people still want to be a part of sports, and they still want their kids to play.” Heitschmidt said, “It’s always a strong market for us, and it’s continuing to grow, especially as word gets out.”

About 40 percent of the bureau’s overall expenses in 2008 were for convention and sports sales and marketing, according to the Bureau’s annual report.

The biggest advantage the Tri-Cities has for sporting events isn’t fancy ball fields or sports venues – it’s the mild weather.

“On the other side of the state, there’s rain, traffic congestion and open land is pricey,” said Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the visitor and convention bureau. “But we have a lot of great outdoor facilities to offer groups, along with great weather and almost 3,400 hotel rooms.”

Sporting groups make up about 50 percent of the entire visitor portfolio, Watkins said. Events like the Washington Potato Conference and Trade Show, held in Pasco, also bring in large groups.

According to the Visitor and Convention Bureau, attendees at large conventions, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, spend an average of $150 per person per day including hotels, shopping, meals and gas. Smaller convention attendees spend about $135 per person, and visitors here to play sports spend an average of $95 per person daily.

In March, more than a dozen groups visited the Tri-Cities, most of them for smaller conventions, which typically have fewer than 150 people, and sports events.

In 2008, there were about 130 convention and sport group bookings, drawing almost 85,000 delegates, filing 68,900 hotel room nights and spending $27.9 million.

More than 170 conventions or large sporting events are currently booked for 2009 and forward, said Watkins. Those will bring in at least $37.5 million. “The Tri-Cities is really hard to beat as a first-class conference area, because we have the facilities, great hotel rooms and accommodations, and numerous attractions in the region,” Watkins said.

The amount of tourism money coming to the area is growing. In 2007, those visitors spent about $348 millions in Benton and Franklin counties. In 2001, it was $238 million. that’s a 46 percent increase in 6 years.

“We’re downright aggressive in bringing in large groups,” Watkins said. “We get very involved with sports events, offering them services and helping them book and coordinate hotel rooms, media contacts and within the business community.”  Many staff members follow leads and spend hours working with groups, Watkins said.

The Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau has media outreach across the country, including stories in Seattle Homes & Lifestyle magazine, Northwest Travel, Bike Freak Magazine and Sunset Magazine. Convention and sports marketing was about $618,000, 40 percent of the $1.5 million 2008 advertising budget.

But much of the networking and planning falls to Heitschmidt, director of the 40-member Tri-Cities Sports Council for the Visitor and Convention Bureau. The 40-members represent various Tri-Cities sports interests, including the high schools, Youth Soccer USA Swimming, regional semi-pro teams and independent youth teams.

“Every month, those folks get together and collaborate on tournaments and activities,” Heitschmidt said. “They’re essentially the experts on each sport that they represent.”

Facilities like TRAC in Pasco have a lot of athletic and convention groups come through its doors. TRAC is a quasi-convention center with an adjacent hotel, with restaurants and retail stores within walking distance. 

But when TRAC was built back in 1995, it was surrounded by sagebrush.

“We’ve definitely seen increases in tracking our numbers through the doors,” said Troy Woody, TRAC’s general manager, who is also on the Tri-Cities Sports Council.

TRAC had a 50 percent increase in sales from 2004, when sales were $1.4 million to 2008, when they reached $2.1 million.

“That’s sizable,” said Woody. “I don’t think there’s any question that we’ll keep growing, but TRAC will also have to somehow diversify – we need to get bigger or be able to offer additional amenities or services.” Right now, TRAC has a tough time hosting sporting events because it doesn’t have locker rooms, Woody said.

But the complex is still popular for trade, rodeos and livestock shows and the adjoining hotel often functions as a base for those groups.

“The TRAC, Three Rivers Convention Center and the Toyota Center are all remarkable venues that help us pull groups in,” said Watkims. “We need hotel rooms to host them overnight, but that has grown continuously.”

Since 2000, the number of hotel rooms available has increase 15 percent from 2,950 to 3,400. There will be more hotel rooms opening in 2009, including a new 60-room Cedars Inn & Suites at 601 N Young Street in Kennewick near the convention center.

In 2008, Tri-Cities hotels saw an increase in revenues of about 6 percent, Watkins said – and this region was one of the few areas in the state to have growth.

“That’s very encouraging, because we’re still seeing people visit here,” Watkins said. She said that cheaper hotels and cheaper land- and building-use costs-due to more open space-are encouraging budget-conscious groups to try out the Tri-Cities.

Smaller communities haven’t been as hard-hit as the big cities when it comes to business travel, she said.

“We’re holding our own,” she said. “We haven’t lost as much as cities like Seattle or Portland. We may be flat, but we’re hanging in there.”

Another lure for groups is the activities they can pursue in their off time – like wineries, shopping and restaurants, Watkins said.

“We have a lot of attractions that we didn’t have a decade ago,” she said. “A lot of that does have to do with the wine industry and the reputation it has internationally. That’s helped tremendously.”

And tourists, who spent more than $347 million here in 2007, have an impact long after they go home.

“Both small and large retailers feel that impact,” she said. “A lot of that money is circulated throughout the community over and over again.”

That money circulation makes shopping in the Tri-Cities more fun, she said. “That helps in the diversity of retailers and restaurants,” Watkins said. “It helps small business increase their traffic — areas with a higher volume of tourists have great restaurants, retail and museums. It’s helping to increase the quality of life for all citizens in the region.”

Through the summer months, parks and fields in the Tri-Cities stay busy with lacrosse sticks, soccer balls and baseball bats.

“It seems like every weekend there’s something going on,” Watkins said. “It’s surprising to me, even now, when I see the numbers of groups in the Tri-Cities region. They come in, spend their money with retailers, gas stations and restaurants and leave – and their money is still circulating through the community.”

Source: Tri-City Journal of Business




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