Conventions keep coming to the Tri-Cities

Planning fastpitch tournaments for April in Western Washington can be risky business because of wet weather. So Steve Jensen, state director for National Softball Association’s girls fastpitch, decided to bring some of his games to the Tri-Cities.

“I wanted to go to a place that could accommodate me for the fields and the weather,” he said. “It’s a great venue.”

About 110 teams played on 24 fields in April, and an additional 125 teams descended on the area at the end of June for the NSA Fastpitch State Tournament, the events were here for the third and second years, respectively, Jensen said, adding that both will be back next year.

Sporting events such as the NSA Tournaments and convention groups are important pieces of the tourism pie in the Tri-Cities area. And while the down economy continues to leave its negative footprint on local hotels and event spaces, officials say the effect isn’t as bad as it is in other parts of the country.

Bookings for conventions and sporting events were down slightly during the first six months of the year, said Kim Shugart, vice president of operations for the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau. The bureau tracks the number of group events booked each month, not necessarily when the event is happening.

Through June, 53 conventions had been booked this year, compared with 57 during the same time last year, Shugart said. And 19 sporting events had been scheduled through June, compared with 23 during the first six months of 2008.

Convention planners are scaling back and often have a “wait-and-see” attitude, Shugart said. Overall hotel occupancy is down just more than 3 percent through April, the latest information available.

Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the bureau, added, “Where we’re feeling the bite of the economy is you may have the same number of conventions, but you have less delegates.”

At the Courtyard by Marriott in Richland, general manager Kathy Moore said her hotel’s group business travel is down “pretty significantly” from last year. “I think groups are smaller and I think more and more companies, they’re just not traveling this year,” she said.

The hotel has had a good returning business from sports groups, though, a category that’s holding strong for the year along with tour travel, she said.

But 2008 was a banner year and a tough one to measure up to, Moore said. Overall the hotel has seen less business than it did last year, but “it’s not significant,” Moore said.

Corporate events, which make up 20 percent to 25 percent of business at TRAC, are down dramatically this year at the Pasco facility, said Troy Woody, general manager.

“The corporate meeting market has fallen off the face of the earth,” he said, adding the facility has half the amount of corporate business scheduled for the rest of the year that it had at the same time last year.

Much to Woody’s surprise, events such as the Home & Garden Show, Hanford’s Health and Safety Expo and other audience-based events have held steady, he said.

New events at the facility, such as a series of community garage sales, are one way TRAC officials have tried to bolster business, Woody said.  About 1,200 people came to the June 27 sales, which featured more than 70 booths.

“It was pretty successful,” Woody said. “That’s definitely going to grow.” Another sale was schedule for Saturday July 25, and the final one is set for August 15.

TRAC is likely to see a 20 percent drop in revenue this year, Woody said, following four years of 10 percent growth or more. He also had to lay off eight staff members, mostly superiors, at the beginning of July.

The hope is to bring them back when business picks up again, Woody said.

Compounding the challenges of bringing group travelers to the Tri-Cities in a slumping economy is an increase in competition. More cities are vying for a shrinking amount of business, Watkins said.

Cities such as Seattle and Bellevue are more “cost conscious”, and therefore have become competitors of the Tri-Cities, she said.

On top of that, an increasing number of venue have become available in recent years.

A new sports venue in Wenatchee and a bigger convention center in Spokane are just a few examples, Watkins said. “So you have more competition in a down market,” Watkins said.

To stay competitive, the bureau has focused on maintaining relationships with clients. “There’s no business like repeat business,” Watkins said.

The bureau has recently implemented a program called MeetingMax, which allows convention delegates to book rooms at the hotel of their choice after meeting planners have reserved blocks.

It’s designed for bigger groups that require rooms at more than one hotel, Shugart said. The Public School Employees of Washington, in town this weekend, is the first group to use the service.

Competition isn’t likely to lessen anytime soon, so tourism officials say they’ll continue to recruit new and returning groups to hold their events in the Tri-Cities.

“It’s a united industry in the Tri-Cities,” Watkins said.

Source: Tri-City Herald

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