News

Tourism means money and map presence

By AILEEN CHARLESTON, The Mirror

Since the city’s incorporation 18 years ago, Federal Way has rarely been considered a tourist destination despite continuous efforts to reduce crime and attract visitors.

Even some of Federal Way’s own residents think that what brings people to the city is simply a detour from Interstate 5.

Tom Rodaway, who grew up in Federal Way, said that most of the time it’s the city’s crime stories that seem to stick with outsiders more than anything else. In order to promote tourism, there needs to be a bigger attraction other than the Wild Waves Theme Park, he said.

“The reason I continue to come to Federal Way is because I have family here. Otherwise, to me it’s just one more suburb,” Rodaway said.

Lillian Yeh, economic development assistant for Federal Way, said that two years ago, the city did not even appear on major tourism maps of the Puget Sound area. Yeh said the city had to contact the map companies and ask them to include Federal Way.

Dollars and sense:

In 2002, the Federal Way Lodging Tax Committee began collecting 1 percent from hotels’ income in the area to use for promotion of tourism in the city.

The committee has been working to stimulate the city’s service sector by offering what is called a Tourism Enhancement Grant twice a year to nonprofit organizations whose events encourage overnight stays in Federal Way.

Last year, the number of organizations that applied for the grant decreased due to a change on the eligibility rules. However, this year the rules were revised, and the amount of the grant increased from $40,000 to $50,000.

In the past, events such as the Federal Way Symphony New Year’s Eve concert and the Pacific Northwest Association of Master Swimming have been funded by this grant.

Gerry Lamontagne, general manager of Federal Way’s Courtyard Marriot, said that most people who come to the city for pleasure are brought in by a specific event, whether it’s a softball tournament, a swimming competition or an event at the nearby Tacoma Dome.

However, most of the city’s visitors are here to work. From Monday to Thursday, the main hotels reach almost full capacity from people who come to Federal Way for business trips.

“During weekdays, we get people from all around the country, and during the weekends it’s usually people from around the state and some parts of Oregon,” Lamontagne said.

Lamontagne said 65 percent of the people who visit his hotel on a weekly basis are brought into the city for business encounters, while 35 percent visit the city for other purposes, including leisure travel.

“July and August are the busiest months, but also February and March, since a lot of people travel here for competitions at the King County Aquatic Center,” Lamontagne said. “The slowest months are April and December.”

“Our hotel occupancy rate is in the high 70 percent range, but our revenues have increased because our room prices have increased,” Lamontagne added.

Large companies like Weyerhaeuser and World Vision, whose headquarters are based in Federal Way, are two major draws for business visitors in the area throughout the year, said city council member Linda Kochmar. Wild Waves Theme Park continues to be the number one leisure destination in the city, Kochmar said.

This month, however, the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center will host the 2008 NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships from March 27-29. The event will feature the leading contenders for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

The city benefits strongly from business travelers and its proximity to the airport, said Tom Pierson, Federal Way Chamber of Commerce CEO. Pierson also mentioned that the city is also looking to expand amenities for leisure travel.

“With the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, a lot of people will be coming through this area, and we are working on how to capitalize this and attract people to our city,” Pierson said.

For more than six years, the city has been working on marketing strategies that have helped raise annual revenue from tourism.

Federal Way requires its new employees to get a tour of the city’s main attractions so they can serve as future ambassadors of the area — and eventually bring in more people.

Places like the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden and Dash Point State Park are some of Federal Way’s primary attractions that in previous years filled the pages of national magazines. But despite being considered natural gems, their existence remains undiscovered by a lot of people in the area.

“Everyone knows the city for Wild Waves, but they don’t know about these places,” Yeh said, referring to the amusement park off I-5. “Even Federal Way residents have never been to these places, and we want to get people educated about what our city has to offer.”

Visitors bureau:

The city’s relatively recent founding, and its lack of an active visitors bureau, are some of the obstacles Federal Way faces when it comes to getting noticed.

Some cities like Issaquah, which boast a much smaller population than Federal Way, have had an active visitors bureau for more than 20 years.

Shari Carter, CEO for the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce, said that the visitors bureau has served as a great tool to bring people into the city.

“Just seeing a sign on the highway that says ‘visitors center’ encourages people to stop and sometimes stay,” Carter said.

“I think Federal Way would really benefit from a visitors bureau, since it has many wonderful facilities like the natatorium,” she said.

Federal Way Chamber CEO Tom Pierson said that the building of a visitors center in the downtown area is something that has been proposed — but that the right place is yet to be found.

“I’d love to get a visitors bureau by the time of the Vancouver Winter Games so we can be a stop on the road to the Olympics,” he said. “It’s something that will happen, but it’s just a matter of when.”

With spring on its way, Federal Way continues to work on revitalizing its image among outsiders, and the promotion of touristic attractions serves as an influential formula not only for gaining the respect of the community, but also for increasing the city’s revenues.

“Our target audiences are families and retirees from surrounding cities, especially those to the east and south of us, and those who are interested in outdoor activities,” said Lillian Yeh, economic development assistant.

“This is a terrific centrally well-located city to call it a home base, and then go off and do other things,” she added.

Contact Aileen Charleston: acharleston@fedwaymirror.com

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The application deadline for the Tourism Enhancement Grant is on March 31. For more information, visit www.cityoffederalway.com or call (253) 835-2501.

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