There are a couple of takeaways from the pandemic for the Grays Harbor County tourism economy.
One, “The beach is hot, it’s a hot place to go,” said John Shaw, Westport South Beach Historical Director.
Two, the cancellation of events and razor clam digs, and the shortening of the 2020 salmon season — the main focus of the tourism economy for decades — has put more emphasis on marketing the “shoulder seasons,” or the off-months, September through May.
At a recent Greater Grays Harbor tourism forum, the challenges of the county’s tourism promotion were discussed by Shaw, Ocean Shores Convention Center Marketing Manager Diane Solem and Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds, Tourism and Parks Director Mike Bruner.
When the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions took effect in the late spring and summer of 2020, a lot of people experiencing cabin fever headed for the beaches.
“It was very scary the first few months, then we realized immediately we were not only up, but up with a vengeance on the coast. Everybody realized people wanted to come to the beaches, so we started trying to figure out how to deal with that,” said Shaw. “It was the first time I heard the term ‘over-tourism,’ and that was used in the context of, how do we deal with the people we have now?”
To that end, Westport installed a number of banners in its marina district, urging visitors to “experience Westport responsibly” and illustrating proper social distancing — for example, one fishing rod’s distance apart. Advertising focused on Westport being a destination with a lot to offer, once it was safe to travel there.
In Ocean Shores, “Looking back on 2020, despite the fear for safety and the restrictions, we did pretty well,” said Solem. Traffic was down about 5% for the year, and hotels and motels were closed in April and May, but at the end of the year the lodging tax revenue was up about 2% from the 2019 total, “and many businesses had record years,” while statewide the travel industry was down 44% and local taxes were down $128 million.
“It’s interesting how the shutdown affected the tourism industry,” said Bruner. “Some places did well, others really struggled to survive.” The places that did well were places with nature-related activities, not impacted by events and restaurant shutdowns, namely coastal communities. In the East County, where the fairgrounds events and the raceway shut down, the numbers were not as good.
The loss of razor clam digs due to domoic acid levels beginning in October provided a challenge for tourism promoters on the north and south beaches. Ocean Shores, as Solem pointed out, had the additional challenge of an ice storm in February that shut them down for a weekend.
Otherwise, with numbers of visitors up at the beaches, “the volume of trash was higher” in Ocean Shores, said Solem. Ditto for Westport, where the question remains, as Shaw put it, “How do we get people out here without trashing the place?”
Both cities have taken steps to address the beach trash. Along with marketing messages encouraging visitors to do the right thing and pick up after themselves, Westport has “upped our game with Pacific Seafoods with beach cleanups,” said Shaw. “That’s just the way of the world going forward.” At a cleanup in early April, Pacific Seafoods provided a truck to haul away the collected trash; other producers and organizations like the Surfrider Foundation, Twin Harbors Waterkeepers and Grays Harbor Stream Team have also partnered in cleanup efforts.
In Ocean Shores, a 12-foot fish designed to hold cans and plastic bottles will be placed at the Shiloh beach approach, said Solem, and plans are in the works for more.
Solem said Ocean Shores is looking at ways to attract “the right visitors” to the cities in the future. “If we can attract 100 people who spend $100 is better on the environment that 1,000 who spend $10,” she said.
Focusing on those “shoulder seasons” is important to a sustainable tourism economy. Westport had already begun focusing more on the off-season, with the working plan to “de-tune ourselves from events and working broadly on activities” that don’t center around events, said Shaw. Stormwatching is a natural, marketable activity, and last year’s storms that coincided with king tides made for some spectacular images that were shared widely across the state and beyond.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” admitted Shaw. “We’re having damage downtown and the whole world wants to watch.”
In Ocean Shores, the freshwater canals that slice through the area are getting more marketing push, for activities like kayaking. “A large part of our marketing will be on fresh waterways,” said Solem, who said more indoor activities are being explored for the winter months at the convention center.
Countywide, “During the shoulder season we have some outdoor activities and fishing, and we try to pick and choose all those attractions and promote all the hidden gems,” said Bruner. “Especially with the COVID situation, during this time a lot of people, their travel is focused to weekends away or getaways within driving distance. It’s a really good time for us to promote the hidden gem type attractions.”
Lodging tax funding distributed throughout the county for tourism and events favors the shoulder season activities, said Bruner. And the counties and cities have produced television spots and social media campaigns, and have updated their websites, to further promote the region as a year-round destination.
“We have seasonal ads (on television and digital media) and the shoulder season is weighted pretty heavily,” said Bruner. “We’re big on the stormwatching, big on the weekend kind of romantic getaway our area has,” said Bruner. “We’re really proud of our coastal culinary experiences, and have some fantastic wineries and breweries and distilleries, so that is something we can really promote and try to get people in during the shoulder season.”
At the end of the day, the ability to switch marketing focus away from events, combined with the area’s natural beauty kept the county from experiencing the dramatic drop in tourism dollars experienced by much of the rest of the state, even the rest of the Olympic Peninsula.
“We fared so much better than other collection areas on the Peninsula, and that really says something about Grays Harbor,” said Bruner.