It’s happy hour on a sunny spring afternoon in Lebanon, and people are starting to arrive at the 1847 Bar & Grill at the mid-valley’s newest hotel, Boulder Falls Inn. Later that evening, the Miss Rodeo Oregon coronation will convene inside the Boulder Falls Center.
The Best Western Premier location marks one year since it opened in May. In addition to creating 120 local jobs, 13,000 guests have stayed at the hotel this past year, said Boulder Falls Inn Manager Nia Ridley.
“When our guests come to town, they buy gas, eat at our restaurants. That impact is definitely being felt by businesses in town,” said Ridley.
The lodging tax also generates revenue for the city of Lebanon, as well as the state.
Business activity and in-state visits make up the bulk of Oregon’s travel scene, but overnight spending by out-of-state visitors is on the rise, and the mid-valley’s hospitality industry is growing along with the state.
A new 176-room hotel is under construction in downtown Corvallis. The Courtyard by Marriott on First Street is expected to open in summer 2017. And the same developer has plans to build a Fairfield Inn and Suites on Ninth Street after completion of the Riverfront hotel.
The biggest market
While Oregonians remain the biggest market for travel and tourism in the state, visitors from beyond the state's borders spend more. New estimates of spending by out-of-state travelers on overnight stays to Oregon destinations account for 75 percent of the total, according to Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism bureau.
“Oregonians are still a big part of the equation, and they are staying and vacationing here,” said Linea Gagliano, director of global communications with Travel Oregon. “But international travelers spend a lot more when they stay here, and that’s also true with out-of-state travelers.”
Boulder Falls has seen a broad mix of guests from the conference center, medical college and veterans' home nearby. Leisure travel peaks during the summer months, July through September, but the travel season spans April through October. People come to participate in sports and concerts, and the hotel has picked up overflow from university activities in Corvallis and Eugene. The hotel is even expecting its first international tour group in October. About 50 people from the U.K. will stay at the hotel to see its Japanese garden as part of a U.S. tour.
Marketing efforts also bring new travelers in from Interstate 5, said hotel management, and favorable reviews on the travel rating website Trip Advisor are attracting people who’ve never been to Lebanon before.
“Growth has been steady,” said Ridley. “It’s an ongoing process for us to let people know that we’re here ... and what we have to offer.”
An export economy
The state’s tourism promotion efforts are driving an increase in the number of out-of-state visitors. The most recent figures from the 2013 Oregon Visitor Report found that just under half of overnight stays were by out-of-staters, including 16 percent from Washington and 11 percent from California.
Travel Oregon, as well as the local and regional marketing organizations, actively encourages out-of-state residents to vacation here, said Jason Brandt, president and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association.
“The innovative and creative approaches being taken in Oregon to lure people to our great state are efforts we should all be proud of,” Brandt said. “The Seven Wonders of Oregon campaign, as an example, has been incredibly successful.”
The average Oregonian may not think of tourism as an export economy, but it is, said Brandt.
“The industry is bringing dollars that otherwise would not enter the state here in a way that benefits our statewide economy,” Brandt said. “As a state, we are making smart choices about investments in advertising that are exported out of the state to bring new dollars into Oregon."
Brandt’s organization has a watchdog role in making sure that lodging taxes collected are used for marketing tourism.
“We’re involved at the advocacy level when elected officials can sometimes be tempted to take tourism dollars and backfill a shortfall in another government program,” Brandt said.
Icing on the cake
Alcohol and recreation tourism generate some trips to the mid-valley, but the biggest draw to the area is conferences and events at Oregon State University. Vern McDonald, partner with Corvallis River Run, LLC, the developer behind the Courtyard by Marriott, said business travelers are the target audience for the new hotel.
“Corvallis, with OSU, has developed into something of a mini-regional convention center,” McDonald said. “OSU is doing a good job of attracting academic conferences given the tools that it has to work with.”
With the addition of the downtown hotel, McDonald predicts that Corvallis and the university will be able to host multiple large events simultaneously. Right now, the limited supply of available rooms hinders the ability to host more than one big event at a time.
“We’re hoping that we can help the community be more than a one-trick pony,” McDonald said.
Nationally, revenue per available room, a calculation used by the hotel industry to measure performance, has increased for 71 months straight, a trend that’s expected to continue. That’s one factor River Run developers look at to determine when to build new properties. They opened Holiday Inn Express in Corvallis in 2001, and the Hilton Garden Inn in 2003.
Business and commercial travel is the cake, McDonald said, and leisure travel is the icing.
“I’m happy to sell rooms to anybody,” he said. “But that’s a really thin layer of icing.”