Tom Norwalk’s office sits high above the Washington Convention Center and looks directly across the street to the guest rooms of the Seattle Sheraton. From another angle, Norwalk can see the two round towers of the Westin and the classic red brick Roosevelt then, just a bit to the left, the Hyatt. For the president and CEO of the city’s private nonprofit visitor marketing association, seeing those rooms in use every day is a good reminder of his job. Visit Seattle, supported by the convention center, hotel room surcharges, the mayor’s office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, and a number of other sources, draws new visitors to the region and enhances the experiences of those already planning to come.
Norwalk ’75 grew up in Seattle, attended Roosevelt High School, and chose WSU because of his interest in communications. After graduation, he went to work for the Washington Plaza Hotel, which soon became Westin Hotels. He moved over to the Four Seasons in 1981 when the luxury hotel company took over the Olympic Hotel. As a regional director of marketing for Four Seasons, he moved around the west for nearly two decades. He became general manager at the Newcastle Golf Club and then president and managing director of Seattle Hospitality Group.
In 2005 he moved to the Seattle Convention and Visitor’s Bureau as vice president for sales and marketing. He later became president and last year led the bureau in rebranding itself as Visit Seattle. And what a year it was. Seattle saw a 79.6 percent hotel occupancy rate, a remarkable feat considering the growth of hotel rooms in the area and the seasonality of the region, notes Norwalk. “Last year was a record year for the city.”
Give us a picture of tourism in Washington.
In Seattle and King County, it’s about a $6 billion industry with well over 10 million overnight visitors. Statewide, tourism is a $16.4 billion industry. That’s amazing since Washington has never ever been a big spender in terms of tourism promotion. Of the 50 states, we were always in the 40s in terms of what we spent. There’s the feeling in Olympia and somewhat in Seattle that people will come because of the natural beauty. And that is enough of a driver.
British Columbia spends about $60 million a year on marketing to visitors and California spends about $55 million a year. Oregon, Idaho, and Montana spend between $9 million and $15 million a year each.
When our state closed its tourism office in 2011, the industry immediately created the Washington Tourism Alliance to find and create a long-term funding model to support tourism in Washington state. And it has been a painful and slow process to get where we are. Right now, Washington’s office has an annual budget of $500,000, and that’s just to keep the Washington Tourism Alliance going.
In downtown Seattle we see Montana billboards. They’re a great lure. It is exactly what we should be doing in key markets to support our state. If we’re not competing for that business, we will eventually lose our market share.
What does that mean for Visit Seattle?
We’ve taken on a role to support all of the state. We have six market reps around the world and spend $2.5 million a year just on marketing and sales promotion in places like China, Japan, and Europe. We realize Seattle is the gateway. While our job is to promote the city and King County, we always include the San Juans or the Peninsula or wine country. From an international and overseas perspective, we are definitely selling Seattle and the state of Washington.
Where are our visitors coming from?
Our number one overseas market at this point is Japan. Our number two, and growing at an enormous rate, is China. Then, I would say, is the United Kingdom. We’re tracking now by credit card data from Visa. In 2012, for example, visitors from China spent $35 million in Seattle. We also know that 65 percent of that was on retail. Another 14 percent was for lodging, and 4 percent was for a cruise. Australians, on the other hand, spent 73 percent of their money on cruises.
I said overseas before because our biggest visitor group, by far, is Canada. Canadians spent $151.8 million here last year. And then there are the Californians, one of the biggest markets for our city.
So what are our biggest draws?
Universally, without a doubt, the magic of the Pacific Northwest. The natural beauty and the proximity of the natural resources. For a lot of our Asian visitors, particularly the Chinese, it’s the air quality, the cleanliness and the freshness. At the same time, Seattle’s a real city. It’s eclectic, it’s still gritty. We have a working waterfront. And it’s so walkable.
Absolutely. Just look at the number of James Beard award winners, the success of our startups, and the health of the industry here. People come here to eat. And we’re just getting started. I think you’re going to see more and more that one of our strongest selling points is really our food and wine. But we can’t overlook the arts. Seattle has more performing arts per capita than most cities in the United States Look at the 5th Avenue Theatre. It’s an incubator for Broadway-bound musicals. It’s really a unique claim to fame.
With the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl and Macklemore winning a Grammy, Seattle seems to have grabbed some of the national spotlight this year.
Yes. It’s a dream come true to have a highly valued and cherished national champion football team that really delivered on that promise. For us to go back to New York and to have Seattle on the news there every day and to be on every sports report, it has done an enormous amount for us. And for Macklemore to hit that rise at the same time is just incredible. He is an ambassador for Seattle.
Do you run across Cougs in the tourism and travel business?
Absolutely. I’m so thankful there is a core group, many of them Cougar alums, who are helping chart the course for Seattle’s future. (The Visit Seattle Board includes Steve Vissotzky ’79, General Manager of Seattle’s Hyatt Hotels; Craig Schafer ’76, who owns Hotel Ändra; and Darrell Bryan ’71, who owns Clipper Navigation.) There’s also Howard S. Wright III ’76, owner of Seattle Hospitality Group; Paul Ishii ’81, the general manager of the Mayflower Park Hotel; Joe Fugere ’84, owner of Tutta Bella; Brian McGinnis ’77 of the Alderbrook Resort; and Troy Longwith ’90, general manager of the Heathman Hotel in Kirkland. It’s so interesting when you look at key people in very influential roles in tourism, travel, and hospitality. Many of them end up being Cougar alumni.