UPDATE: Town of Friday Harbor Grants Tourism Bureau Request for $20,000 Campaign to Combat Ferry-reliability Perceptions

In its most recent meeting (May 2), the Friday Harbor Town Council voted unanimously to grant a request for $20,000 in incremental funding to the Tourism Commission for a special springtime media campaign aimed at feeder markets. It’s the “Getting Here is Half the Fun” campaign (described below).

In brief remarks, Bureau Executive Director Deborah Hoskinson stated the Bureau has 213 members, 135 of which are located on San Juan Island, and 69 are in Friday Harbor. Then Hoskinson repeated her request from the previous meeting:

  • To re-alocate seasonal funding percentages (allowing for some funds budgeted for Autumn or the holidays to be spent now)
  • To grant an additional $20,000 to boost spring and summer ad campaigns

Council member Steve Hushebeck spoke before the vote, stating, “I want to emphasize that tourism is a really important part of our economy. And our local businesses within town and outside of town as well, on the island. So let’s keep that in mind. Every dollar that is spent by a visitor is not just about lodging tax, not just about the sales tax of 8-1/2 percent.

“It’s about where the rest of that money goes to supporting the economy. The people that need to pay rent. People that earn wages. People that need to live in town, and housing. It’s a very expansive… I call it the velocity of money, okay? It’s a pretty important thing to remember. It’s not just about lodging tax. It’s not just about sales tax. It’s much bigger than that.”

Council Member Anna Maria de Freitas said, “There’s so many colleagues that say ‘I’m not in the tourism business, my business doesn’t rely on tourists. They may not rely on tourists, but they rely on the folks that work in the tourism industry to frequent the coffee shop, or to frequent the shop that you’re going to buy a sandwich from. So, I think that interconnected web is really important to think about. So, it’s not just the hotels and the restaurants, or the T-shirt shop, it’s the other restaurants that are synergistically connected that we need to worry about.”

Asked if tourism is down everywhere, Hoskinson answered yes, tourism is down some across the region. She said, “We are just trying to do the best we can for our small businesses here.”

Mayor Ray Jackson and Administrator Denice Kulseth both reiterated their expectation that the campaign messaging would be weighted toward Friday Harbor because to date Friday Harbor will be the only source of incremental funds for the special ad campaign.

The motion to grant the Bureau’s two requests passed unanimously.

Deborah Hoskinson, Executive Director of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, speaks from the podium in Friday Harbor Town Council chambers. Source: still frame from Zoom recording operated by Town of Friday Harbor.

ORIGINAL STORY: Thursday, April 25, 2024

Weak 2024 Tourism ‘Pacing’ Spawns Media Campaign Stressing Bright Side of WSF

Last week, San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau Executive Director Deborah Hoskinson returned to the podium to address the Friday Harbor Town Council. She had been at the same podium four months prior, to alert the Town government of a “distressing” reduction in tourism metrics starting in August 2023.

She ended the presentation with a request for an additional $20,000 from the Town government to boost the Spring marketing program. That request was tabled until the next Town Council meeting pending additional information to be provided by Hoskinson.

In her appearance last Thursday, she alluded to 1st quarter 2024 data that showed reductions in “unique visitors,” “visitor days,” and “average length of stay.”

It is not ideal for CNL2 to read too much into one dataset without corroborating data from other sources, but the downturn is consistent overall with a downward trend that began in August of 2023. Tourism data in early 2023 was fabulous. April, May, June, and July of 2023 each set records for the six-year period from 2018 to 2023. But that abruptly changed in August of last year. And in every month since, “monthly volume by visitor days” has been down — closer to 2021 pandemic-recovery-period levels.

Some observers believe the sharp change in fortune was a delayed effect of the Memorial Day 2023 stranding of more than 100 cars worth of visitors when WSF canceled the last boat of the night. Horror stories were splayed across Seattle news media.

Then a drumbeat of bad news about the ferries reverberated across the region the rest of the year, including the fact that the plurality of canceled trips across the entire 10-route system fell hardest on the San Juans route.

Tourism officials here feel an unusual public alert last November titled “Nearly 300,000 stuffing onto ferries for Thanksgiving” that was sprayed to all subscribers for alerts from WSF — and posted to the WSDOT website — threw a wet blanket over ferry travel over the Thanksgiving 2023 holiday weekend. The WSF/WSDOT messaging drew vocal blowback from San Juan business owners. The content of the WSF passenger information alert included some unusual political spin, including, “Sailings may be delayed or canceled with short notice due to WSF’s current lack of relief crewing or an unexpected mechanical issue within the system’s aging fleet.”

WSF’s woes were thrust back onto front pages across the state again from November to early March, as lawmakers debated fixes in the 2024 “supplemental session” of the Washington State legislature. As senators and representatives jockeyed for dollars in the transportation appropriations bill, the failings of WSF were debated in the context of funding and policy changes. And in January another layer of debate over WSF reforms began that will carry all the way through November: election season. Candidates are publicly calling the ferry situation “a crisis.”

The state of the Washington State Ferries has been front and center across the state and the region — even in British Columbia and other out-of-state feeder markets — for a long time now.

Based on multiple, sustained, overlapping anecdotal reports from hoteliers, guest house operators, whale-watching services, and other tourism businesses in the San Juans, one factor stands out in the reversal that started last August and continues to this day: concerns over the reliability of Washington State Ferry (WSF) service in the San Juans. These businesses and their reservations desks are in a unique position to hear potential visitors’ concerns, and they relay them to the Visitors Bureau.

In last week’s meeting, Hoskinson shared proprietary data furnished to her by two lodging properties and two whale-watching franchises. She withheld the identities of the properties for their privacy.

Lodging Property One (in Friday Harbor):

  • April revenue is down 16%
  • June pacing is down 19%
  • July pacing is down 8%
  • August pacing is down 19%

Lodging Property Two (in Friday Harbor):

  • March lodging was down 26%
  • April is down 36%
  • June pacing is down 39%
  • July pacing is down 15%
  • September pacing is down 57%

Whale-watching Business One (in Friday Harbor):

  • April business is down 25%, which is 40% under 2019 “pre Covid” levels
  • May, June, July, and August are pacing 10% to 20% down from 2023
  • No whale-watching operators had enough business to operate every day by mid-April, which is the norm

Whale-watching Business Two (in Friday Harbor):

  • January to April bookings are down approximately 20% from the same period last year
  • Kayaking tours are down approximately 35%
  • This operator has slimmed its staffing in anticipation of a downward trend in bookings

While July, August and September seem far away to some, longtime Friday Harbor Town Council Member Anna Maria de Freitas, who also happens to be President of the Board of Directors of the Visitors Bureau and operator of Harrison House Suites, Tucker House Inn, and Coho Restaurant in Friday Harbor, created a sense of urgency when she told her colleagues on the Town Council, “I think when Deborah says time is of the essence, guests book an average of 62 days in advance. So the window for summer is very, very close. And if we want to make sure we can still have that June through September season, which we all know… that’s where we make our money for the year, and we can pay off our line of credits. This is really critical.”

One factor is not yet known, but which is still being studied closely by Hoskinson: Is this downturn unique to the San Juans, or has it spread across comparable rural tourism destinations and Salish seaports? The need for an answer to this question was the primary reason given when the Council tabled Hoskinson’s $20,000 request until their next meeting.

What is the $20,000 for?
While data from comparable communities is being actively sought by the Bureau, there is virtually no doubt that perceptions in Seattle and throughout the region about WSF are playing a factor. So Hoskinson and her team have created a marketing campaign designed to address the ferry experience head on, and put it in the best possible light.

Headlined “Getting Here is Half the Fun,” the campaign is already being deployed as a social media campaign being pushed by Bureau members. If the Town Council decides to authorize supplemental funding of $20,000, that money would buy paid advertising or underwriting on digital platforms including Facebook, on KCTS-TV, on KUOW-FM radio, in The Seattle Times Summer Guide, and in front of the audiences of the Food Network, HGTV, and Hulu TV. Seattle is a prime target for tourism marketing, as research shows approximately 70 percent of visitors live in metro Seattle.

The advertising campaign seeks to change perceptions of the WSF experience and conjure romantic and exhilarating images of the past for the nation’s largest ferry system, when it was more thrilling and when defaults in service were so rare as to be barely remembered. Not so long ago, and perhaps still in many newcomers’ minds, the ferry ride itself is thought of as one of the state’s top tourist attractions.

The San Juans ad campaign is also planting many images of air travel options for San Juan visitors.

In asking for the $20,000 from the Town, Hoskinson reminded the Council that this is the first time in a decade the Bureau has asked for incremental money like this. The last time was in May 2013, when an accident involving an oversized load that collapsed a section of the I-5 Skagit River bridge and there was widespread concern that it could impact vacation plans to the San Juans. In that case, the Town government supplied a one-time incremental budget of $10,000 for marketing to encourage potential visitors.

Hoskinson is attempting to present a similar request to San Juan County government, but a meeting date has not yet been set.

In last Thursday’s meeting, since the County has not yet been asked to assist with incremental campaign funding, Town Administrator Denice Kulseth asked Hoskinson if it would be possible for the Bureau to tailor campaign messaging around Friday Harbor tourism businesses in the event the Town decides to fund the campaign but the County does not. Hoskinson said yes, that could be accomplished.

Economic impact data presented by Hoskinson in the December 2023 Town Council meeting suggested the overall economic impact of tourism in San Juan County is approximately $289 million per year, with $23 million in sales tax revenues flowing to government annually. In addition to the domino effect of $289 million churning through the local economy in a single year, seasonal tourism jobs provide crucial supplemental income for many waged workers here.

One Comment

  1. As a tourist who enjoys my visits to Friday harbor, Ferry cancelations are a concern. Just last week there was a cancellation. I live locally and see the issues with the Ferry system. We just stayed a few days at Friday Harbor this week. When i asked the hotel if i would be charged for my room if my Ferry reservation was canceled, i was told i would be charged. She said there were other ways i could arrive. That is just not good policy, and i was somewhat reluctant to book my stay, but hoped for the best! We had a good time! But i can see why this would be a deterrent for others considering the cost of lodging.

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