|By Audrey Dutton, The Idaho Statesman,
BoiseMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 16, 2012--When the recession hit, Idaho didn't lose the rushing rivers, craggy cliffs and white-powdered hills that make it a magnetic destination. Boise didn't lose its cultural attractions, historical buildings and inventive restaurants.
They just lost some people -- tourists and business travelers who, in a good year, inject billions of dollars into the economies of Idaho and the Treasure Valley.
But that is changing. In Boise and around the U.S., a slow economic recovery is melting the ice that gripped leisure and business travel.
One group of Boise business leaders -- a new travel advisory board for the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce -- hopes to do the improving economy one better.
The board has 21 voices from segments of the travel and tourism industry, including air travel, rental cars, skiing and recreation, hotels, travel agents, corporate housing and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. The board will propose plans of attack for the problems facing Boise's travel industry.
IMPROVEMENT? YES. CONTENTMENT? NOT QUITE
Idaho hotel room sales, tourism worker earnings and even requests for Idaho travel guides are trending upward, with more than $3 billion spent each year by tourists and travelers.
"Our sales revenues are up, our number of passengers are up, our call volumes are up, and that's after the downturn that lasted way too long," says Bob Harmon, president of the Harmon Travel Inc. agency at 1529 W. Washington St. in Boise. "We've got more 2013 reservations on the books than we've ever had this early, in 53 years."
The Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau says that in 2012, Boise will host 97 large groups in sports events, like Ironman, and conventions, like the American Dairy Goat Association meeting. That's more than 36,000 people and 42,000 nights in local lodging for the year.
The city's and region's marketing "speed dater," Melissa Cleland, does brief back-to-back meetings with international tour operators, trying to get them to include Boise and the Southwest Idaho region. She represented the visitors bureau and the Southwest Idaho Travel Association at two recent events in Los Angeles and Buffalo, Wyo.
"I've been doing this for eight years, and at [the Wyoming event, geared at European tour operators] this year was the first time I had six or seven appointments in a row that, when I first sat down ... they opened their brochure ... and there was Boise as a stayover in their itinerary," Cleland says. "This is huge."
Cleland says she was told that tour bookings in Southwest Idaho for 2011 were 79 percent higher than in 2010.
But how can Boise turn these promising signs into long-term economic development?
That's something on the mind of John Cunningham, chief executive officer of Block 22 LLC and chairman of the chamber's new advisory board.
As leader of the company that owns the Grove Hotel, CenturyLink Arena and the Idaho Steelheads, Cunningham is immersed in three segments of the travel and tourism industry.
He hopes the board can produce "some high-level, 40,000-feet identifications and discussions" around Boise travel. "For selfish reasons, I can kind of, possibly, help not only our own company, but the industry," he says.
The chamber's board isn't trying to take on the role of tourism ambassador, says spokesman Adam Bartelmay. It isn't another Convention and Visitors Bureau, which gets lodging tax money to market Boise to outsiders. "We're not here to supplant [CVB Executive Director] Bobbie Patterson or the CVB," Bartelmay says.
"Our business is improving" at the Grove Hotel, Cunningham says. "Through this advisory board, and through some other agencies, our hope is that we can continue that growth for everybody."
What's helping drive the growth? Corporate travel. Conferences that don't cancel. Events that people can now afford to attend.
John May, owner of Owyhee Plaza Hotel and a member of the Idaho Travel Council, says the Owyhee's business has increased in 2012 for those reasons. He expects this summer to be about 10 percent better than last summer. Room rates plummeted to their lowest in recent years in early 2011, he says.
As demand went up last year, hoteliers in Ada County could start charging more for rooms. Because of that, the county's lodging sales in 2011 rose about twice as much as the rest of the state.
"I think we've kind of come out of the bottom," May says.
When it comes to air travel, though, Boise is still in decline. Local industry leaders said that has a vicious effect on the local economy. Business travelers get frustrated by the inability to fly to Reno or take direct flights from Silicon Valley when they need to. Sold-out flights and limited service might stifle some recreational tourism, but most people take cars to Idaho and Boise for fun.
When trying to sell convention planners on Boise, Kupp says, "one of our biggest obstacles is that they think we're hard to get to."
Making Boise easier to get to is the No. 1 priority for the new advisory board.
"One of the first things companies will look at, if they're thinking of relocating here, is the air service," Bartelmay says. "We'll be looking at how we can re-establish some of the [service] we lost, and maybe establish more."
To start tackling this, the board set up a meeting May 15 with a national aviation futurist.
Members have spitballed ideas to address the air-service conundrum, such as guaranteeing the airlines a minimum revenue even if planes don't fill up, or pushing for a cut on fuel sales taxes for airlines.
The Boise Airport's new director, Rebecca Hupp, says there is pent-up demand in Boise for air service. But it won't be enough to significantly change things in the next several months.
The airport likely will apply this year for a federal grant that supports air service at airports that are underserved or have unreasonably high fares. The grants are highly competitive. A few dozen airports win an average of $450,000 each.
THE BOARD'S BUCKET LIST
Bartelmay says the board also might advise the chamber on trying to change the one-way travel grid on Downtown Boise streets; advocating for a new stadium and a major league soccer team; promoting Idaho wines to aficionados who frequent the Napa Valley; and other lobbying goals.
Among the board's members is Pat Rice, executive director of the Boise Centre. He says business is up a smidge this year. The convention center is on pace to do 32 conventions in 2012, compared with the usual 25 to 30. Many groups are mainstays, booking every year and never canceling because of low attendance.
Though some events, like the recent Idaho Writers and Readers Rendezvous, are local or regional, some national groups still pick the Boise Centre for small -- under 500 people -- meetups.
It isn't always easy to persuade those national groups to come to Boise, a place they had envisioned as a one-horse town.
But "once they're here ... there's a much better price value than other cities," he says.
Hotel rooms smack in the middle of Downtown are affordable, fine dining and cocktail hours are affordable, and free recreation abounds in the city's vast backyard.
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448
(c)2012 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)
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