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Spreading the word about all Kitsap has to offer

By Tim Kelly - KPBJ editor

China is the world’s most populous country, and millions of its citizens who travel abroad are affluent tourists who love coming to America. A recent CNN Money article noted that Chinese visitors to the United States jumped from under 400,000 in 2007 to almost 1.5 million in 2012, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. And in 2012 those travelers spent almost $9 billion in the U.S.

Well-known destinations such as Disneyland, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Yellowstone are top attractions, of course. 

But this spring, passengers on China Airlines perusing the in-flight travel magazine Dynasty saw an article about a lesser-known but enticing coastal area on the this side of the Pacific — a place called the Kitsap Peninsula.

How did Kitsap get such desirable exposure in the travel magazine of China’s national airline?

“We get these calls from travel writers,” explained Patty Graf-Hoke, executive director of Visit Kitsap Peninsula (VKP). “We are the go-to contact for people wanting to know about the Kitsap Peninsula in general.

“We maintain relationships, and try to cultivate relationships with freelance travel writers, and those people often write for multiple publications.”

A tourist is defined simply as “a person who travels to a place for pleasure” — whether they come from across the ocean, across the Canadian border, or just across Puget Sound on a ferry from the Seattle metro area.

And the Kitsap Peninsula is a place that offers an abundance of pleasures for those travelers, especially folks who like to be physically active in their leisure pursuits. 

Boaters, paddlers, bikers, hikers, antique browsers, art aficionados, stoked skateboarders, microbrew lovers, golfers, gamblers, garden admirers, gourmet diners, military and tribal history buffs — Kitsap has something to appeal to all of them.

That’s all encompassed in tourism, which is the business of providing lodging, food and drink, recreation and entertainment for leisure travelers. Getting those visitors here, however — to spend their money at hotels, restaurants and myriad local spots — requires tourism promotion.

That takes money to fund an effective marketing strategy,

because lots of other places around Puget Sound, the Pacific Northwest and far beyond are vying to make their destinations desirable in the eyes of tourists.

The strategy part has been VKP’s focus since Graf-Hoke was hired five years ago.

The funding part, well, … there’s the rub. 

Graf-Hoke, a career professional in marketing and communications, points to a key strategic goal achieved over the last few years — even with VKP’s limited budget and staff — that some local tourism stakeholders may not fully appreciate or may take for granted.

“We are often asked to provide statistics that demonstrate that the branding strategy and marketing programs the VKP uses actually generate results,” she said. “We have a wide range of statistics we can reference, but the most important one as far as we are concerned is the fact in the past five years the VKP has successfully branded the ‘Kitsap Peninsula’ as its own unique destination.”

Now, she notes, the peninsula is a recognized location used in news and weather reports and on travel sites such as Expedia and Travelocity.

Kitsap used to be considered — if travelers considered it at all — as a gateway to the huge Olympic Peninsula and its mountainous national park. Graf-Hoke worked with VKP board member John Kuntz, who owns Olympic Outdoor Center locations in Port Gamble, Poulsbo and Silverdale, and other supporters to establish a separate identity for Kitsap.

“We achieved that result by initiating a branding campaign in 2009 to position the Kitsap Peninsula as the ‘Natural Side of Puget Sound,’” Graf-Hoke said. 

That approach promotes the whole region and everything it has to offer collectively. Visit Kitsap often places co-op ads in media such as Seattle Magazine or travel publications, that highlight one theme in Kitsap’s attractions — all the farmers markets, or wedding venues, or summer community festivals. The Brews & Bites feature on the organization’s visitkitsap.com website provides a listing and map of the area’s popular craft breweries and brewpubs.

One of the most significant, and inclusive, marketing successes for VKP is the creation of the Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails, which earlier this year was designated part of the National Water Trails System by the National Park Service. Maps of the water trails — showing every community along Kitsap’s 371 miles of shoreline from Point No Point to Yukon Harbor — are widely distributed through tourism information centers and outdoor retailers all around Puget Sound.

“I would suggest every business should have a copy of the Kitsap Water Trails map; it’s an awesome map,” Jon Rose said during a panel discussion of tourism at the July session of the Kitsap Business Forum. Rose is president of Olympic Property Group, which is seeking approval for an ambitious commercial development plan in Port Gamble, and he is a key figure in the North Kitsap Tourism Consortium.

The VKP’s regionwide marketing approach — funded primarily by local lodging taxes — has yielded far-reaching publicity for the Kitsap Peninsula, such as the article in the Chinese in-flight magazine and another this summer in Western Living, an upscale lifestyle magazine published in Vancouver, B.C.

However, in the last year or two, some tourism advocates in Kitsap have undertaken more narrowly focused marketing campaigns, seeking to promote their own communities, events or attractions. 

Notable examples are the website findpoulsbo.com, which was paid for with lodging tax funds, and the privately funded North Kitsap Tourism Consortium.

Both are following, to some extent, the model VKP has used successfully.

“The idea is if you’re going to visit here, … this is one place to find everything you need,” Poulsbo Chamber of Commerce executive director Jan Harrison said of the website created by local public relations firm Rockfish Group.

The North Kitsap Tourism Consortium — funded primarily by Port Madison Enterprises, which owns Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort, and Olympic Property Group — paid $15,000 for consultant Roger Brooks to develop a branding campaign that came up with “Washington’s Sanctuary Shore” as the theme for marketing the area. 

 “Our mission is to joint market the North Kitsap Peninsula,” coalition chair Nancy Langwith said. “This provides us with an umbrella brand to put over our communities. Each community will have its own brand under the umbrella brand.”

That’s the approach VKP has maintained in marketing the entire peninsula as The Natural Side of Puget Sound. 

An article on the Kitsap Economic Development Alliance website plugging the Find Poulsbo effort said before that new website popped up to offer “one-stop shopping,” visitors planning a Poulsbo trip had to check several different online sites to find information about activities, hotels, local attractions, etc. There’s no mention or acknowledgment of Visit Kitsap Peninsula as an all-inclusive source for such information.

The consortium formed three years ago but ramped up its plans over the past year with the Brooks study. It’s preparing to launch a new website — wasanctuaryshore.com — that will supplant its current site, experiencenorthkitsap.com.

Langwith said the consortium, which is in the process of registering with the state as a nonprofit, is run by community partner volunteers like herself, with additional help from Olympic Property Group employees. The consortium has contracted out for website services with local videographer Mike Barnet, who’s working on creating video and audio content for the site.

Whether the new tourism websites can come close to matching the online reach of VKP remains to be seen.  Google Analytics data shows findpoulsbo.com had a total of 836 visits during the first six months of this year. VKP’s extensive website visitkitsap.com averaged about 75,000 visits a month during the same time period, peaking at 87,843 in June. VKP also sends an e-newsletter to 15,000 online subscribers.

Graf-Hoke makes the case that VKP delivers a lot of high-quality marketing that promotes the whole region, even though its $258,000 annual budget is significantly less than for agencies in comparable counties.

Moreover, some beneficiaries of the regional marketing are getting a free ride. Neither the city of Bremerton nor Bainbridge Island contributed any of their local lodging tax funds to support VKP in 2014, although some hotels and other businesses in both cities are dues-paying members in VKP.

Bainbridge has done its own tourism marketing for some time, although the downtown association maintains a good working relationship with VKP. 

Bremerton’s City Council withheld a recommended $20,000 lodging tax allocation for 2014 because a few council members expressed concerns last year about misspellings in VKP’s promotional materials and insufficient focus on Bremerton in its marketing.

The difficult funding situation isn’t changing VKP’s approach. For example, travel writers inquiring about Kitsap get comprehensive information, Graf-Hoke said.

“If they’re really into gardens, we have to send them to Bloedel (Reserve); we can’t not send them just because we don’t get any money from the city of Bainbridge Island,” she said. “If we don’t get funded from golf courses, or from a city, we’re still going to provide information to a travel writer, because it’s critical that a writer sees this is a great place for visitors to come.

“Marketing the Kitsap Peninsula and its assets is not contingent on who pays us and who doesn’t.”

However the various marketing efforts proceed, it appears Kitsap tourism is increasing, at least judging by the lodging taxes that local hotels, motels and inns collect, and the total revenue for lodging establishments. The total amount of lodging taxes collected in Kitsap County in the first six months of 2014 was $407,000, compared with $388,000 in the first half of 2013.

According to a Smith Travel Research report, year-to-date hotel revenue in the county through May topped $10 million, up from $9.5 million in the same period last year. Clearwater and some of the area’s smaller hotels are not part of the Smith survey, which  covers national chain hotels.

As far as collaboration among tourism groups, the North Kitsap consortium did ask VKP to be a “fiscal sponsor,” an arrangement that would have brought the consortium under VKP’s nonprofit status, rather than registering on its own.

“We requested that, and at this time they declined our offer,” Langwith said. “But they did offer to cooperate on a project-by-project basis.”

 

 
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