PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — No one has yet disentangled the factors that caused tourists and businesspeople to stop coming to Portland in 2020. 

At the Portland Business Alliance Breakfast Forum, Wednesday, Dec. 14 — billed as “Wish You Were Here! Rebuilding Portland’s Travel and Tourism Industry” — a panel discussed Portland’s destination image taking a “major hit” because of “COVID-19, wildfires, political violence and public safety concerns.” 

Speakers were Jeff Miller, boss of Travel Portland. He leads a team, funded by a part of the 16.3% lodging tax, which takes the Portland zeitgeist and uses it to market to the city worldwide. And Jim Etzel, CEO of Sport Oregon, the state’s sports economic development arm, which fills the gaps between teams, hotels and government bodies in trying to attract sporting events to the state. 

Neither of them offered an algorithm to address homeless camps, uncollected trash, random outbreaks of window smashing, dark office buildings, the desire to avoid other people’s COVID-19 spray, and the reluctance of people to travel for work when they can teleconference, all of which have changed the face of downtown Portland. But they tried.

PMG Photo: Joseph Gallivan – Tourist guides are again prominently displayed at Portland International Airport.

Shop local

The Oregon Employment Department says Oregon’s 23 rural counties have regained eight of 10 jobs that they lost a pandemic, while Multnomah County gained only four of 10 jobs as of November — because many of the jobs lost were in in hotels, bars and restaurants. The PBA’s leader, Andrew Hoan, pointed out that Wednesday’s event, held in the Hilton instead of on Zoom, was the PBA’s second in-person event since COVID-19 hit and urged everyone to spend locally. “We’re putting our money where our heart is, and I think all of us should” Hoan said. 

Miller spelled out how crucial hospitality is to Portland. In 2019, leisure and hospitality accounted for $5.6 billion in spending in Portland and resulted in 36,900 incremental jobs (defined as that additional worker, such as an extra waiter, brought on to help with a tourism rush). In 2020 it fell to $2.4 billion in spending, and 26,400 such jobs. 

Starting to like us again

Travel Portland started asking 1,200 anonymous people by phone, two years ago, how they felt about coming to the city, looking for snapshots of feeling rather than big data. 

Asked in 2019 how many had heard of Portland in the media in the last two months, 24% said yes, and 51% of them said it was a positive mention. By 2020, it peaked at 69% having seen recent media coverage, and all of it had been negative. This year is it back to 34%, and the negative was down to 51%. 

Travel Oregon also asked if Portland is an appealing vacation destination and a safe and welcoming destination. Both questions reveled that Portland’s image took a hit, although the negative perception has shrunk in 2021. In 2020, when they asked people who had been here before if they would come back, 57% said they would, and in 2021 it was back up to 64%.

“So we’re seeing a bit of an uptick there, we have turned a corner,” Miller said. “And we are seeing an uptick in conventions coming and delegates coming in the next couple of years.” 

That Portland feeling

For Jim Etzel of Sport Oregon, Portland is all about the people. Visitors come here not because the city has a famous theme park but for the vibe on the street. “Portlanders put that vibe on the street and it’s up to us to bring it back.” 

He said the Major League Soccer Cup Final, held Dec. 11, was a perfect example. Etzel said 6,000 visitors flew in, either fans of the New York franchise that faced the Timbers, or guests of Major League Soccer. The impression they take home with them will spread by word of mouth. (Judging by social media, many New York fans were impressed with the hospitality and the respect and sporting good grace they were shown by the home fans.) 

“We have to take advantage of the moments that are right in front of us, and really lean into them,” Etzel said. He said daily phone meetings with his team, the city of Portland and the Timbers began a week before the semi-final, giving them two weeks to prepare in case the final came to Portland. 

Etzel didn’t talk about any cleanups around the soccer game, but he did say that when IndyCar came to the Portland International Raceway in September 2021, the city and volunteers cleaned up trash around homeless camps. He said the community’s “front porch” starts at Portland International Airport, the Interstate Bridge, at Interstate 5 south and Interstate 84 east. “We’ve got to clean our front porch, because that is the first impression. There’s been some improvement but there’s a lot of work still to be done.”

He added that sports tourists are starting to report that downtown is not as messy as they expected. 

Suburban suspicions 

Conventions are big money earners for cities and Miller spends time courting people who choose where conventions go. He said such conventions have local groups, often in the suburbs of Portland, and they are warning people away. “They are our worst enemy right now. They are sitting in Tigard, saying ‘Don’t come to Portland, this is not the year to come to Portland.’ And we’ve got to change our own public perception and our neighbors’ public perception of what Portland is now. It’s not exactly what it was, but it has changed dramatically. When you’ve got locals telling the bad story, when it’s not that bad, we know we’ve got a problem.” 

Miller urged suburbanites to check out downtown Portland if they haven’t for a while. 

Etzel agreed. “Portland’s still got problems as well, the problems are going to continue until you come back downtown. And so, we just got to get our friends or family or neighbors back downtown.” 

Moving forward

Miller also praised the hotel industry for backing Portland’s Tourism Improvement District fee, an extra 1%. 

“Everyone needs to know that the hotel community is funding this,” Miller said. 

The city and Metro are collaborating with Travel Portland, which has close ties with elected officials. 

“We hosted a summit with (Multnomah County Chair Deborah) Kafoury, (City Councilor) Dan Ryan, and (Metro President Lynn) Peterson to talk about their investments and everything that we as taxpayers have all invested in. We said ‘Don’t tell us your five-year plan. What’s your three-month plan?’ They’re going to come back in February because they asked us to hold their feet to the fire.” 

Etzel stressed that college and prep sports tournaments can be lucrative, attracting families for days at a time. If Portland had another Delta Park with a suite of fields and basketball courts close together, it could cash in on the market of sports travel. Attracting a girls’ fastpitch softball tournament to Portland for four days in July 2021 delivered 3,700 hotel room nights. “That’s the heart of sports tourism. We all look at the big shiny objects … but that kind of day-to-day thing is a drive-in market, and now it’s also fly-in market,” he said, meaning it attracts people within driving distance of Portland. “We’re really seeing the pipeline start to fill back up going into ’22.” 

“When you live in a place like Portland and what we’ve been through for the last few years, you think everybody thinks about it the same way you do,” he said. “They don’t. As we’re talking to people at trade shows, they’re not asking us about what’s going on on the street. They’re asking about what to do.”

Miller said Travel Portland’s ad, in the form of a letter in the New York Times, was effective because it got people talking about Portland’s image again. There also is a winter campaign that says Portland is more “Portlandy” in winter (beer, books and beards). “In the last two months, there have been 30 articles published, and our team was responsible for about 15 of those bringing the travel writer here,” he said. There are great stories being told, there are great things going on.” 

A sporting year

Etzel said 2022 will be a big sports year, with the NCAA basketball first and second rounds at the Moda Center, NASCAR at Portland International Raceway, and more IndyCar. Even with the world track and field championships being in Eugene, many teams will land at Portland International Airport, stay in Portland and commute to Eugene. “At the Olympics in Rio, Brazil, track and field teams had a two-and-a-half-hour commute to the stadium, both ways. So, jumping on I-5 isn’t a big obstacle in these global event circles.” 

One thing they are both looking forward to is the Rose Festival coming back after a two-year absence. “I don’t think we realized the impact that delivers for our community until it’s gone,” Miller said. “A lot of us have been leaning in: How can we make Rose Festival the biggest, baddest Rose Festival ever this year? NASCAR falling in the Rose Festival time has given them a little bit of lift.” 

Etzel concluded, “We’ve been in a bubble and things are really bad here. But we only knew Portland because we were stuck here. And as I started to travel more this year, it is interesting that so many places are in the same spot we are. And so, we’re not alone in it, that doesn’t create any reason for us to shy away from confronting and dealing with it.” 

Portland Tribune and KOIN 6 News are media partners.