By Don Nelson
Above the roar of flames and crack of lightning strikes, the Methow Valley continues to get its message out: We are open for business and ready for visitors.
But the toll on seasonal income for the valley’s tourism-dependent economy is mounting as fires, power outages and road closures continue to discourage many visitors.
In some cases, the losses attributable to fewer tourists can be calculated, such as with hotel-motel tax revenues, canceled reservations, or year-to-year comparisons of anticipated revenues. The cumulative impact for this year may be more difficult to assess, and the long-term consequences are practically unknowable.
At a meeting of local business owners last week, Winthrop Chamber of Commerce Marketing Director Kristen Smith offered advice for those in the tourism industry and outlined some efforts to draw visitors back.
Smith listed some things that valley business owners can do:
• Prepare yourself and your staff to answer questions from people who are deciding whether or not to visit the valley. Share information about specific activities and experiences.
• Ask customers to share their photos and experiences with their friends and family members.
• Update your website with an “open for business” message.
• Use social media channels to share positive messages and photos.
• Send out an email to your customers with information about specific activities and experiences that they can enjoy.
Winthrop’s marketing efforts include constant sharing of photos and messages on the Winthrop Facebook page, Smith said, adding that the site had over 250,000 views during the recent fires.
The town’s marketing efforts will also include prime-time radio spots in the Seattle market, Smith said, and working with other tourism organizations in the region and state.
Smith said in an interview that economic recovery will depend on getting separate messages out to the business community to come back strong, and to potential tourists who want to come and need reassurance.
Julie Muyllaert, president of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, said that “the biggest thing we can do is be resilient and keep as many people as possible employed … be resourceful, keep moving.”
“We can all be ambassadors for the community,” Muyllaert added. “We can share the stories of resilience and recovery. We’re here, we’re alive.”
Roni Holder-Diefenbach, executive director of the Omak-based Economic Alliance, said her organization is conducting an impact survey of Okanogan County businesses to collect information to be shared with the county commmissioners.
“We want to make a case for small businesses,” she said.
Business owners remained upbeat in the face of fire-related challenges that included closing up shop for all or part of the eight-day, valley-wide power outage.
“The peace and serenity that people come to the valley for are still here,” said Steve Mitchell, co-owner of Rocking Horse Bakery in Winthrop, which re-opened near the end of the power outage. “You can’t hide from the devastation, but the valley is huge, and lots of trails will be open.”
“The best way people can help the valley is to come here and support us,” said Diane Childs of Winthrop Mountain Sports.
At Cascades Outdoor Store, which stayed open every day during the power outage, co-owner Amy Sweet said that traffic included “a lot of people just checking in” to communicate with each other, as well as a few tourists who were happy to find an open door or two.
If businesses don’t come back aggressively, she said, “it won’t just be a bad July … it will be a bad year for a lot of people.”
“I hope people come back with an image of helping the community,” Sweet added.