As tourism-related businesses from all over Santa Barbara County gathered Tuesday, panelists at the 2010 Tourism Outlook discussed the industry’s recession recovery.
Dan Mishell, research director for the California Travel and Tourism Commission, said the industry expects to reach 2007 levels by 2011. Most businesses took a hard hit this year but expect some growth next year.
The CTTC — California’s marketing arm — has been researching travel trends in the new economic environment. Panelists stressed value, going green and using smart marketing tools as key factors in garnering customers.
Seventy-two percent of domestic travel is in-state, Mishell said, and there’s an increasing amount of driving instead of flying. Many people are taking day trips or staying with friends or family to save money, and some surveyed travelers voted that the winning attribute to a destination is the right price.
“Cheap is chic now,” said Rosemary McCormick, executive director of Shop America. She spoke about the shopping and cultural heritage travel aspects of tourism, especially considering international travelers, which is largely at play in California. Of the top 25 United States cities visited and shopped, Los Angeles is No. 2, and San Francisco and San Diego also make the list.
Food and beverages were the top expenditures of California visitors, according to CTTC.
In a study of international travelers regarding shopping behavior, shopping was found to be a key motivator in choosing travel destinations, and the most money was spent on apparel, footwear, accessories and electronics.
Culture and heritage travelers choose places because of their historical significance or perhaps uniqueness, and top activities for those visitors include festivals, visiting historical buildings and historic sites.
Hotel room rates are still declining, but the decrease of occupancy rates has been somewhat controlled, Mishell said. The most dramatic downturn locally has been in high-end hotels and beach resorts.
Limited accessibility and the “high-end” perception of Santa Barbara could hurt it in its quest to be viewed as good value, which is where smart marketing comes in, panelists said.
Good customer service, putting together package deals and cross-promoting could help improve business models, said Tim Bridwell, vice president of operations and new project development for Hilton Hotels Inc.
Hiltons have increased loyalty rates despite lower business, which Bridwell credits to the decreasing amount of customer service in other industries.
“The airline industry did so much for us,” he said, citing increased fees and long lines as causes of lowered expected customer satisfaction.
With many employees facing furlough Fridays or otherwise reduced schedules, people are not as time-starved as they were two years ago, said Bruce Baltin, vice president of PKF Consulting.
Allowing later check-out times and creating itineraries of things to do in the city could encourage travelers to spend more time and money in the area.
The idea of cross-promoting across the county also was briefly discussed, since many businesses are asked to refer travelers to nearby activities.
“Sustainability is cool,” Bridwell said. Having a hotel publicize its carbon footprint, put out recycling bins or bags, and other green measures can be a big hit to customers.
Being green certified or LEED certified is something the industry is headed toward, and many consumers would choose a sustainable hotel if given the choice, Bridwell said.
It can look good to customers and save the establishments some money on the way, he said.
The Green Business of Santa Barbara County organization and Santa Barbara Car Free embrace more environmentally friendly travel options, and one of the city’s biggest selling points is its pedestrian-friendly layout.
Despite low occupancy rates and the urge to cut back on expenditures, Bridwell warned not to cut from the marketing funds.
Instead, panelists urged finding smarter, less expensive ways to get the word out, including online tools such as social media and mass e-mails.
Surveys done on methods travelers use to decide a destination concluded that the Internet is leading the way for informing future customers. Web sites of the destination, word of mouth from family and friends, and travel sites were what most international travelers used to choose a locale.
Good signs that will be indicators of an improvement to the tourism industry will be an increase in employment, GDP, business conference levels and consumer confidence levels.
The panel and discussion was hosted by the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau and Film Commission at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort.
— Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.