Tourism was a growing industry in Salem and Oregon. Then the COVID-19 outbreak hit

Visitors have increasingly traveled to Oregon for places like Willamette Valley Vineyards. (Courtesy/ Andrea Johnson)

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When Jim Bernau founded Willamette Valley Vineyards in 1983, he was one of just a handful of people making wine in Oregon.

Since then, hundreds of other vineyards have sprung up as the Oregon wine industry became the strongest selling in the country. He described how visitors from all over the globe have visited his vineyard, located just south of Salem, and signed up to have bottles of his wine sent to them throughout the year.

As Bernau’s business grew so have others catering to visitors flocking to Oregon for its beaches, bike trails, camping, craft breweries, food and other offerings.

Until recently, travel and tourism in Oregon was a $12 billion industry that employed 115,400, according to Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism promotion agency. Just last year, 2.5 million people visited Salem and the mid-Willamette Valley, leaving behind an estimated $603 million in economic activity.

But the COVID-19 outbreak has brought all that to a halt as vineyards and campsites have closed and hotels are no longer taking reservations. Last week, Salem’s hospitality industry saw one of its biggest jolts when the owner of the Grand Hotel and operator of the Salem Convention Center laid off 227 employees in Salem and its other Willamette Valley operations.

Bernau credits the rise of Oregon’s travel industry to help from marketing efforts funded by taxes on hotel guests. With that money drying up, Oregon’s tourism industry faces uncertainty.

But those in the industry are already looking past the public health crisis and see new opportunities once it subsides.

“Oregon already has a powerful brand,” said Bernau. “And we need to protect that brand.”

In 2003, the Oregon Legislature created a room tax to fund Travel Oregon to bring in even more tourists. More visitors meant more hotel taxes and more money to promote tourism. 

It seemed to be working. According to a consultant’s report, travel spending in Oregon increased from $8.2 billion to $12.2 billion between 2006 and 2018.

Legislators four years ago increased the state motel tax and required Travel Oregon to dedicate 20% of its budget to seven regional tourism promotion agencies, such as the Willamette Valley Visitors Association.

Becca Barnhart, marketing and public relations manager for the Willamette Valley operation, said that her group works with local businesses and governments on what to promote, such as bicycling.

She said the association has taken media writers on tours of local flower farms and Benedictine Brewery at Mt. Angel Abbey, where monks brew beer. She pointed to write-ups in national publications, including Sunset magazine.

Recently the association was promoting the Willamette Valley to Seattle residents.

“Twenty miles south of Portland is a really different experience and they should come and experience it,” said Barnhart.

But with the outbreak that’s on hold, she said.

Dawnielle Tehama, the association’s executive director, said that her organization relies on lodging taxes for its current $907,000 budget. She said she’s anticipating a 30% cut for the new budget year that starts July 1 – typically at the heart of the tourism season.

The decline in tourism is already having immediate effects.

The city of Salem collects a 9% motel tax goes into the cultural and tourism fund. According to the city’s most recent figures, the fund was expected to have $4.6 million for the 2020 fiscal year.

The city in turn uses that money to support 10 local cultural and historical organizations, including TEDxSalem, Bush House Museum, Elsinore Theatre and Willamette Heritage Center.

Michelle Cordova, Willamette Heritage Center executive director, said that organizations supported by the fund normally see a check once every three months. She said the amount for her operation varies depending on well the fund is doing and that it adds up to $38,000 to $45,000 annually. With the fund down, she said the city didn’t have money for a check in April.

She said that the center, which has been closed since March, rents space for meetings and weddings. Those have all been canceled, which has meant less money, she said. The museum, the core of its mission, is closed. About 60,000 people visit the center annually. But not now.

“We are missing them,” she said. “We’re missing them a lot.”

The Willamette Valley Visitors Association is governed by six smaller marketing agencies, including Travel Salem.

Travel Salem promotes businesses in Salem and helps put on conventions. It’s primarily funded through the city’s motel tax, accounting for most of its $1.6 million in revenue last year.

The organization declined requests for an interview but said in a statement that it forecasts a 60% to 80% loss in revenues over the next few months.

The Salem area’s tourism industry is already anticipating the outbreak’s end and is optimistic that it will be well-positioned for pent-up demand for travel.

Travel Salem has launched its its“Miss You Already” campaign to lure visitors back. The group pointed to a survey showing that travelers will choose locations perceived as safe and Oregon, where the outbreak has been relatively less severe, could attract visitors.

“We are trying to position ourselves to receive people back,” said Tehama.

She said that her organization is working on its messaging for when the outbreak subsides and that rural areas could be positioned to recover faster as travelers seek to avoid urban areas.

Bernau said that with more people cooped up at home he’s seen one saving grace: online sales of his wine soared. When the outbreak ends, he said he expects people to skip cruise ships and Disney World and opt instead for an enriching experience, like seeing where their wine was made.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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