Outdoor opportunities bring younger travelers

Allayana Darrow, Ashland Daily Tidings, Ore.
·4 min read

Feb. 23—Tourism remains a solid economic driver in Ashland, which became an attractive destination for younger travelers interested in its outdoor recreation and culinary scene during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, according to the Ashland Chamber of Commerce 1/4/Travel Ashland city grant annual report.

The pandemic, fires and a decline in lodging revenues presented challenges over the past year, but Katherine Cato, director of Travel Ashland, said a stifled demand for travel and tourism offers Ashland a chance to become a "key West Coast drive market" in the coming year.

During a Feb. 16 presentation, Cato asked Ashland City Council to keep the organization's funding "as whole as possible" during the next biennium.

In a typical year, 350,000 visitors bring about $3 million into the city through the transient and occupancy tax, according to the report.

City Finance Director Melanie Purcell reported a 60% drop in transient and occupancy tax revenues citywide as of September 2020, predicted to decline overall compared to previous years, but remain static through 2023, she said.

Cato said most people engaging with Travel Ashland during the past year through social media and its website are residents of Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Sacramento, Eugene and Los Angeles.

According to a revenue and expense report, the chamber was budgeted to spend $1.17 million in 2019-2020. A decrease of $277,230 in advertising revenue, nearly 40% decrease in sponsorships and a slight decrease in membership dues during the fiscal year — offset slightly by donations and COVID-19 relief — decreased revenue to less than $1 million. A city grant accounts for about half of total revenue.

The organization ended the fiscal year with about $25,000 after increasing expenditures on website 1/4/social media and cutting spending on regional marketing and events, business conferences and workshops, travel and marketing shows, and office maintenance.

Roughly half of the budget was spent on payroll costs, taxes and benefits. Ashland Chamber of Commerce Director Sandra Slattery said relationships built between staff, industry professionals and travel writers offer exposure to broader audience reach without direct advertising costs.

A 2019 summer campaign targeted adults 21 and older who are interested in outdoor activities, wine tasting and travel, with a household income around $150,000, according to the report.

A visitor research analysis study is underway to analyze new and potential visitors and direct Travel Ashland's strategy and rebranding in 2021, Cato said. The analysis will explore who potential visitors are, what perceptions they hold about Ashland and what is attractive and engaging in a destination that may become their city of residence or the site for a new business. Cato said findings will be in by early April.

Mt. Ashland Ski Area General Manager Hiram Towle said more people are visiting the mountain from outside the Rogue Valley — increasing from 10% of their patrons to more than 30% over the past seven years.

Slattery said a financial literacy program is in development to help businesses prepare to access money through grants and loans, and to better prepare their businesses for disasters.

"If this town has any hope, which it does, of pulling out of this COVID nosedive, it's going to be through increased heads in beds and meals in mouths, and you do a lot to make that happen," Councilor Stephen Jensen said, addressing Cato, Towle and Slattery. "Now is not the time to cut back on success."

Cato said despite losing one-third of Ashland's typical visitor base, the playgoer, with the closure of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the profile of a "highly educated visitor with expendable income" has translated to the outdoor adventurer coming mid-pandemic.

However, many visitors spent roughly the same amount of money.

"We're seeing some escapism from major metropolitan areas that are coming to discover the rural elements. ... We're seeing a diversification of markets, but also new visitors from those markets," Cato said.

Tourism research and analysis will provide a more comprehensive view of how Ashland visitors spend their money, and inform business support for understanding those trends, Slattery said.

Towle said as Ashland continues to draw outdoor recreationists, an outdoor recreation subcommittee is keeping an eye on capacity and what future developments could be most useful for travelers, such as trailheads, restrooms and signage.

Most people he encounters on local mountain biking trails have a similar motive: "We come here for the trails, we come here for the dirt," Towle said.

"We just need to find more of that dirt," he added. "What can happen is you bring all these people in and then you can't service them, or you bring these people in and they have a poor experience and then they're going to move on to the next destination."

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.