Exit Interview: Marsha Massey, Outgoing Tourism Director for Washington State

This marks the final week for the state's tourism office, which has fallen victim to budget cuts going into effect July 1. As of that date, Washington will be the only state in the nation without a publicly funded office to promote tourism. How does that sit with the state's outgoing tourism czar? We caught up with Marsha Massey to find out.

SW: Your doors close for good on Thursday. What have you been doing today?

Massey: We are very intensely engaged with the Washington Tourism Alliance in crafting a working agreement to help transition our assets over to it.

[NOTE: The Washington Tourism Alliance is a newly formed, industry-run and funded entity that will take over many of the tourism's office duties, including eventually the running of the state's official tourism website.]

We're wrapping up a number of projects we've been doing. We finished our last campaign, called "Share your Washington." It was a grassroots social-marketing campaign with its own website. We felt like it was a real success. There's a lot of contractual details we're working out, vendors that we have to conclude our relationships with. And we're packing boxes.

Without a state tourism office, will tourists will stop coming here?

I don't have a crystal ball. But this is not without precedent. Colorado in the mid-'90s closed its state tourism office. They went from $12 million to zero [in annual state funding for tourism marketing]. And they saw, over the course of two years, a 30 percent drop in market share. That represented a loss of $1.5 billion. And it continued to drop $2 billion a year. It really plummeted. It took Colorado seven years to right the ship and get back to where they were.

We're not going to see it this year. Or maybe not even next year. The biggest challenge will be in rural areas, in smaller communities who don't have the budget that Seattle has to market itself. Yakima and Spokane and Walla Walla and the Olympics will keep marketing their areas. The piece that will be missing will be the overarching messaging of "Why come to Washington?" If people aren't thinking of coming to Washington, great regional marketing doesn't matter.

Was this a very bad decision on the part of the legislature and the governor?

[Long pause.] It might not be the decision I would have made. But I recognize this is the worst recession we've been in. The legislators were really struggling. It's difficult when having to compromise on health care and education. You have to put everything on the table. But it's important to remind people that tourism is a revenue generator. Even with the current state of the economy, tourism spending in Washington was $15.2 billion in 2010, generating just under a billion dollars in state and local taxes.

By this point, don't people already know that Washington has a lot of cool stuff worth visiting? What is the argument for continuing to pump public money into tourism marketing, even in fat times?

Have you looked around Seattle lately? I know Montana is a great place to go. And they tell me every day why I might want to go there. California has a $55 million budget to continuously keep people top-of-mind aware. Sure, a lot of people know about Washington and we might be on their bucket lists. But if we're not reminding them what's new and fresh here, we could stay on their bucket lists while they go somewhere else on their next vacation. If our friendly competitors are out marketing and talking to people and keeping that top-of-mind awareness, and we aren't? Because lots of other states have pretty mountains and nice beaches, too.

Some people think that marketing tourism is something best left to the private sector. Is this an opportunity for a new model?

Yes, that's well said. There is an opportunity for a new model. The lemonade that will come from this lemon is that our tourism industry will come together and find a unified message and build toward a plan that works. That said, I don't think a total divorce from the public sector is the answer.

What's next for you personally?

I will take a little break. It's been a fantastic four years. I have loved the opportunity to represent this great state. I'm going to take a little short break, but I will resurface within the tourism industry.

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