Diving trials mean tourism dollars for Federal Way

The 2012 United States Olympic Diving Trials run this week at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.

The 2012 United States Olympic Diving Trials run this week at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.

The 2,500-seat facility on SW Campus Drive houses more than just a world-class swimming pool. It acts as an economic engine and tourism magnet for the region.

Events such as the diving trials and the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships help the aquatic center attract thousands of visitors, who inject an estimated $8 million into the region’s economy annually.

This week’s trials feature about 120 of the nation’s best divers competing for a spot in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The event is expected to bring $3.5 million to the county.

The athletes and visitors do more than just pump money into Federal Way’s hotels, restaurants and businesses.

“This is a great marketing opportunity for you as a city to have your name attached to the aquatic center,” said Suzanne Fletcher, executive director of the Washington Tourism Alliance. “If Federal Way wants to be in the tourism business, they have to make themselves a destination. … Frankly, I don’t think Federal Way has ever marketed itself.”

Fletcher, a former resident of Federal Way, understands the constraints of a limited marketing budget. In 2011, Washington closed its tourism office, becoming the only state in the country without one.

To fill the void, the non-profit Washington Tourism Alliance was formed last July with a budget of $300,000. The alliance produced the 2012 state visitors’ guide and launched the website Experience Washington.

Despite this lack of state-backed marketing, tourism is Washington’s fourth-largest industry. In 2011, visitors spent $16.4 billion, and almost $1 billion was collected in local and state taxes, according to the alliance. Travel and tourism supported about 150,000 jobs.

In comparison, recession-plagued Michigan budgets $27.4 million a year to promote tourism, the sixth-highest nationwide. Hawaii leads all states with a tourism budget of $75 million, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Michigan has seen a return on its investment. The state saw the number of tourism-related jobs grow by 10,000 in 2010, the second year of the Pure Michigan Tourism Campaign. Spending by out-of-state visitors grew 21 percent that year. In 2011, the campaign generated $1 billion for state businesses. The campaign itself cost the state about $14.3 million.

Last year, a spokesman for Colorado’s tourism office said Washington was foolish for closing its tourism office. When Colorado’s tourism office shut down from 1993 to 2000, the state lost one-third of overnight visitors in that time, creating what the spokesman called an “economic travesty.”

Considering that Washington spent nothing on tourism in 2011, yet matched Michigan in terms of revenue, does it make sense to conclude Washington sells itself?

“To say people would just come here because we’re beautiful is very wrong,” said Fletcher, noting that foreigners visualize the District of Columbia and the White House when they hear the name Washington. “Internationally, people don’t even know there is a state of Washington.”

Marketing is key to educating residents here and abroad about lesser-known aspects of Washington outside of Seattle’s tourist traps: the culinary scene, the wine industry, outdoor adventures in both the desert and rainforest.

“We need to be the driver of our own bus and be able to really be strategic in how we market the state,” she said, adding that the tourism alliance’s goal is to stay private and self-sufficient. “It would be nice to be the driver our own destiny. You really can’t depend on the state.”

Federal Way has invested $140,000 into securing, hosting and promoting the diving trials. The city is contracting with the Seattle Sports Commission for event staging and management.

The city estimates the trials will bring at least $1 million to Federal Way’s economy in direct and indirect spending.

“The Olympic diving trials are a direct reflection of the successful investment of city lodging tax funds, and a product of the ongoing work of our Lodging Tax Advisory Committee to promote tourism in the community,” said Chris Carrel, city spokesman.

Facts and figures

According to a study by Dean Runyan Associates in Portland, Ore., Washington collected about $1 billion in local and state taxes in 2011. That figure is comprised of:

• $458 million in state sales tax

• $179 million in local sales tax

• $136 million in lodging tax

• $106 million from motor fuel tax

To see a breakdown of tourism dollars by county, click here or visit www.deanrunyan.com.