Think Out Loud

Oregon tourism industry facing inflation and other challenges

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Aug. 2, 2022 5:38 p.m. Updated: Aug. 8, 2022 4:35 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Aug. 2

File photo of a large lounge chair in Seaside. Oregon.

File photo of a large lounge chair in Seaside. Oregon.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB


In the last couple of years, the city of Seaside saw record-breaking numbers of visitors. During COVID-19 restrictions, Oregonians flocked to the coastal city. At the same time, Bend saw heightened numbers of visitors as well. Now, as coronavirus restrictions have eased, both Oregon cities have seen visitations mellow. Plus, other factors like inflation and worker shortages remain a concern. Joshua Heineman is the director of tourism marketing for the City of Seaside. Kevney Dugan is the president and CEO of Visit Bend. They join us with more on how the tourism industry has fared this summer.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  It has been a tumultuous 2.5 years for the tourism and hospitality industries with shutdowns and then reopenings and plenty of scuttled travel plans that lead to closer to home vacations. Given that we are now in the last full month of summer we were curious what tourism looks like right now in two of Oregon’s popular destinations ,the North Coast and Central Oregon. Joshua Heineman is the Director of tourism marketing for the City of Seaside. Kevney Dugan is the president and CEO of Visit Bend. They both join me now.  Joshua Heineman first, what has the summer been like in Seaside this year?

Joshua Heineman:  Well first off, I resent that it’s August already, so thanks for bringing that up.

Miller: I resent it too. But time marches on. I was flabbergasted to learn that it was August but sorry that’s just the truth.

Heineman:  It is indeed August and you know this summer has been busy on the North Coast and in Seaside. But given how strange the pandemic summers have been and really all year, it’s actually a bit more mellow this year than it has been, the heat wave the last week or so has ratcheted things back up.

Miller:  Because people from the Willamette Valley or the Portland area, when it hits in the nineties or hundreds, they head to the coast, correct?

Heineman:  Yeah it’s been much cooler out here. Almost Bay Area-like, with some fog in the morning, but the afternoons and evenings are just gorgeous, so people come out here from Seattle, from Portland and try to cool off when it gets hot.

Miller:  Well, how do the numbers compare to the last two summers?

Heineman:  The way that we look at numbers, we don’t actually have numbers yet for this summer. But you kind of get a sense, just based on what the hoteliers are saying and what the streets are like. But the last two summers of COVID were record breaking summers. People have felt like they could come out to the coast. So it’s been my sense that, given the gas prices, given the cold spring and start to summer, that this will kind of moderate out a little bit this year.

Miller:  Kevney Dugan, what about you in Central Oregon and Bend? I mean, what has this year looked like in terms of the number of visitors?

Kevney Dugan:  Yeah, it’s not dissimilar from what you’re hearing in Seaside. The last two years have been record breaking numbers in terms of number of visitors coming over the summer months. And this year, so far, preliminary data shows us down about 10% from where we were this time last year. So summer, in our case as well, has been a little bit off and, I think what we’re all feeling, that stability, is not necessarily a bad thing. And I think the industry is trying to find that ground, after two years of up and down, a cycle that was hard to trust.

Miller:  Kevney, what did you assume was the reason? Or maybe it’s not an assumption. Maybe you’ve actually dug into the data. But how do you explain the record breaking years, two years in a row? What exactly went from the pandemic to more people going to Bend.


Dugan:  Yeah, I think you hit it when you started this segment about people wanting to stay closer to home. Obviously, airline travel was extremely difficult. Places like Bend and the coast really thrive on outdoor recreation and being outside. And that was a space where people felt safe. So I think those were really the big drivers over the last two years, especially in the summer where international travel was not available. And I think that’s part of what, when we look at the research right now or the data. What we’re seeing this year is two things - people who maybe didn’t travel internationally over the last couple of years are now doing so, those that have the means to do so. And then the other part of this, on the lower end, things like rising gas prices and inflation are having an impact on people who maybe don’t have the ability to travel as freely. And so, this is not uncommon in the conversation we’ve had with other, let’s call them mountain towns. Flagstaff, Boulder, other places throughout the west, are also seeing a softening and are trending about 10% down. And the assumption is it’s the same things - people getting back to international travel or feeling a little tightening of the wallet because of things like gas prices or other economic indicators.

Miller:  Joshua Heineman, do you have a sense for the places that you’re competing with? I mean if potential visitors are not going to Seaside or to the North Coast, where do you know that they’re going instead? Or is the thinking that some of them just aren’t going anywhere?

Heineman:  Well, that’s a good question. I feel like during the pandemic we’ve had a new visitor. You know, we saw lots of new faces out who maybe weren’t the historic visitor to the North Coast. Seaside has been having people who come out every single year for many generations and maybe they didn’t feel comfortable traveling yet. So the people who were here, in large part, I think, were new travelers and hopefully they will come back in the future. But according to my Facebook feed, they’re all in Europe right now. That’s what it seems like.

Miller: Although, I mean Kevney, as you were saying, this cuts different ways. I mean airline tickets are quite expensive right now. And so even if the dollar is strong, you need to have a lot of money to go to Europe. And then once you get there, I guess, from what I’ve read, the plate of pasta in Italy is going to be a little bit cheaper. But that’s assuming you can get there in the first place.

Dugan:  Yeah, exactly and that’s where I think we’re seeing that segment of people who maybe weren’t as financially impacted in the last couple of years, there. Now they’re off doing those things and they’re prioritizing travel and they’re prioritizing family experiences and those sorts of efforts and they’re willing to make that decision. So again, I think what Josh was saying is very similar to what we’re seeing. It is a different consumer over the last couple of years and now, how does this all shake out and what does stability look like moving forward?

Miller: It’s interesting to call this stability. But Kevney, to stick with you for a second. It actually sounds like I’m almost hearing a little bit of relief in your voice, or that people in Bend, after record breaking years, meaning more people than ever were coming to visit. But also the stress of having a lot of people visit, there’s some relief that it’s not like that right now, even if it means that fewer dollars are going into cash registers. Is that a fair way to put it?

Dugan:  Yeah. And I think there’s multiple angles here. It’s not even just the community and how it feels after these record breaking years. But it’s also that we could spend a whole another hour talking about the labor issues within the industry. And I think even on that side, there’s still plenty of money being spent, being 10% down in the summer for Bend. There’s still plenty of money being spent in the community and maybe having to clean a few less rooms at the end of the weekend is a welcome reprieve on the labor side. And I think what the industry is really grasping for is again, growth at 3 to 5% a year. Not these years where we’re 20-30% up year over year. That’s where it’s hard to manage and control. And so I think getting back to a more stable understanding of where the industry is going and all that, from labor to revenue or all things that we’re all trying to find a little bit more common ground on.

Miller:  We can’t spend this whole hour on labor, but I do want to turn to it because it’s a hugely important piece. What does hiring and labor availability look like in Seaside right now?

Heineman:  It’s been really difficult. Everyone’s really short staffed. Hours are curtailed, supply chains are affected and it’s historically been kind of a tight labor market. And the pandemic has really just made that tighter. I’d love to put in a point on the tourism and dollars. You know, we’re in a new era of tourism. Growth is a good thing, but we’re really not looking to this unsustainable model. The whole industry was always pretty tight knit and we get together and talk about it a lot. And we’ve been waiting for the shoe to drop. We’ve had seven consecutive quarters of record or near record hotel receipts and it’s still very busy. Even if this summer ends up flat that’s okay because we need the people who are here to be having a good time as well. And we need the people who live here to be happy with things. And of course that’s not even to touch the police and the public works and fire and all those services that are required of heavy visitation in small regions like ours.

Miller: So it sounds like you’re even more feeling a sense of relief that this this flattening this plateau of interest has actually given the region a chance to catch a breath and to figure out how to make tourism sustainable on the North Coast ‚a place that, I think it’s fair to say, is way more dependent on tourist dollars than Bend is certainly than the Portland area is?

Heineman:  And what we’ve seen is the tourism economy expand to full year and that’s really what we want. We’re not spending our time trying to get more people to come out in the summer. We would love them to come out and experience what it’s like to watch a fall sunset, be out here in the spring or watch the storms come in in the winter. The summer is always going to have tons of energy and lots of great events and everything. But we’re not looking to grow at 20%. We’re looking to have a good experience for the people who are here and increase the shoulders or even the full offseason.

Miller:  Kevney Dugan, what about you? I mean, how much emphasis are you putting in getting people to visit Bend in any month, but the summer?

Dugan:  Yeah, I mean my comments are the same as Joshua’s, that shoulder season, winter months is where we want to see growth and we want to see more people visiting again to give local businesses more stability of who’s coming through the door throughout the year. And if we are communicating and all in the summer, it’s responsible recreation messaging or respect of the opportunity and the destination when you do show up. And so I think Joshua more or less said this. But what COVID did do was open the door to rethink how tourism should play out in communities. And I feel very proud that the State of Oregon, Seaside, Visit Bend, numerous organizations are taking that seriously and thinking about all the elements of tourism and how it plays out in the community and resident sentiment and just doing a better job understanding and not just looking at economic development figures as the end-all-be-all benchmark. But looking at other metrics to truly understand how these industries interact and impact the community and making sure that they’re still viable, successful parts of our industries in 10, 15, 20 years.

Miller:  Joshua, you’re the Director of tourism marketing for the City of Seaside. If you just had to quickly come up with a slogan to get people to visit Seaside in January, what would it be?

Heineman:  Seaside is a surprise. The nice thing about a visit in January is things are slower. And so you can notice for instance, when you come out to the coast for a week, you’re gonna catch seven or eight amazing sunbreaks and you’re going to see whales out in the water and you’re going to see the different tides and the different restaurants and the shops and the locals who are out here that give it a character. So it really is a surprise. You come out in January, you’re gonna love it.

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