by Alexa Peters
Though a comprehensive report detailing the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Seattle economy has yet to be published, preliminary data shows that 2020 has been nothing short of horrific for the local travel and tourism industry.
According to a Visit Seattle Annual Report from February, the tourism industry generated $11.7 billion in total economic impact and 80,317 jobs in 2019. But this year, practically every event that usually brought tourists into the area was cancelled — and cancellations at the Washington State Convention Center alone account for a $379 million loss to the local economy.
These cancellations and postponements are not only catastrophic for the tourism industry, but for the city economy at large too. Even though King County is in the State’s Safe Start Phase 2, which allows for certain businesses to reopen their doors, this year’s massive drop in tourism also impacts restaurants, bars, bakeries, museums, retail, and other types of businesses that normally rely heavily on an influx of new consumers to the area.
“[When the pandemic hit,] Visit Seattle stopped all promotion, restaurants shut down, people saw what was coming and so I think our economy and our industry really suspended services as long as they could. And some [businesses], unfortunately, won’t be coming back,” said Ali Daniels, senior vice president for (and chief marketing officer of) Visit Seattle. “But, we want to do everything in our power to maintain the rest and hopefully grow and be able to bring vibrancy back to the city and back to the county.”
That’s why Visit Seattle and Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority (RTA), in partnership with the King County Council, have started a new outreach program in King County — the “Do Something!” promotional campaign dedicated to stimulating the county economy by encouraging area residents to safely explore locally again and patronize small businesses that are operating in adherence to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and King County coronavirus guidelines.
“For some people, it’s getting takeout. That’s a big step but that helps the restaurants,” said Daniels. “For some people, it’s renting a kayak and getting out on the water. You’re giving back to your community and to your neighbors so that we can put our money into our economy first before taking it and putting in someone else’s. So let’s take care of our own.”
The campaign, funded by King County with money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, has been in the works since March. That said, the last thing Visit Seattle, RTA, and King County want is for this campaign to thwart the containment of COVID-19 — even as the state’s situation seems to be improving.
For that reason, they waited to launch the campaign until the county entered Phase 2 of the state reopening plan — which allows increased indoor occupancy at restaurants, bars, and retail stores, and for museums and movie theaters to open at 25% capacity. As well, they are keeping the campaign strictly local and have asked every business that is involved to take the “All Clear King County Safety Pledge,” which certifies they are doing their absolute best to make shopping safe for visitors by adhering to widely-accepted CDC and Governor Inslee’s recommended coronavirus protocols.
“We’re not asking people from Florida or from Texas or from New York to come visit us right now, we’re just talking internally. We know there’s a reason why the governor has the restrictions he has in place,” Daniels said. “We said within Phase 2 we would just be talking to locals and then probably the neighboring counties next, and just slowly grow it so that we can easily turn it off should something wild and crazy happen.”
The King County Council has also worked with Visit Seattle and RTA to make sure that the campaign is geographically balanced and beneficial to historically-disadvantaged communities. In fact, Visit Seattle and RTA worked closely with councilmembers to discern which areas within their districts would benefit the most from the extra promotional push. So, while Visit Seattle typically focuses its energies on businesses in Seattle proper, and RTA typically focuses on businesses in South Seattle, SeaTac, Tukwila, and Des Moines, this campaign was designed to be a lifeline for small, minority-owned businesses throughout the county.
“What we’re really looking for too in addition to spotlighting our own businesses is to reach out to the smaller areas of King County, from say, Enumclaw to Federal Way, Shoreline to North Bend. We’re looking all throughout the county. We want to find these businesses who would really value a promotional campaign like this,” said Nick Tolley, communications manager at RTA.
Visit Seattle and RTA have already started advertising the campaign on the radio, and they have plans for bus wraps, billboards, and are looking to create a brand toolkit for their partners to help spread the message further. As things get off the ground, they’re also looking for more businesses to get involved — and the first step is to take the safety pledge.
“[That] would help us build a directory for the website we’re creating,” said Tolley. “We’re looking for any business in King County like this so if we find them we’ll help promote them. It just makes it much easier if they could come to us and say yes they’re interested.”
KJ’s Cakery Bakery Sweet Shop in Kent, which just opened in October 2019, is one small business that got involved early on. Though owner Kathy Jo Miller Taylor started off 2020 strong by doing pop-ups at local malls with her confections — which range from cotton candy and ice cream to cupcakes and macarons — quarantine quickly shut all that down, creating a downturn in profit and making extra promotion all the more appealing.
“I literally went from making money to making no money for about three, four weeks. And so, we had to figure out something to do,” said Miller Taylor. “A saying I have right now is: You don’t panic, you pivot.”
As a result, KJ’s Cakery Bakery began initially focusing more on delivery services and online sales, and now that the county has moved into Phase 2, they are also focused on making in-person visits as safe as possible. Miller Taylor says it’s really important to her that people know that they can still come to her to celebrate right now — and that she’s here to safely support those celebrations.
“One [of my] daughters turned 18, one daughter turned 21, my husband and I, it’s our 20th anniversary, and you couldn’t do all of those celebrations,” said Miller Taylor. “Well, I want to make sure my customers know you still can have a celebration, that I’m going to do my best to put together a dessert package or an online class, something that still will allow the community to have birthday celebrations, to have anniversary celebrations. And I think that is why, for me, it’s important.”
In order to promise this to customers and be a part of the Do Something! campaign, Miller Taylor and her staff had to prove to Visit Seattle and RTA that their safety protocol was up to snuff — that they are sanitizing, requiring masks, enforcing social distancing, and more.
“We just stepped them through our processes so they could see that yes, you know, if a tourist were looking for places to visit, mine would be a safe place based on our operations and following the COVID standards and whatnot,” said Miller Taylor.
The campaign has just begun, so KJ Cakery Bakery hasn’t seen any direct increase in business from their involvement yet. But, Miller Taylor says she’s optimistic about being involved.
Daniels and Tolley are similarly optimistic about how this campaign could help small businesses throughout the county as well as residents who feel bored and cooped up.
“My hopes and dreams for this is that the community embraces it. [There’s a chance] you fall in love with your county all over again,” said Daniels. “Try that new park, try a different pumpkin patch, try the restaurant across town versus the one down your street. Have a staycation! While the term drives me crazy, I think as a working mom of two small children, when I snuck away and stayed at a local hotel overnight it recharged me more than anything ever could. This [campaign] is about taking care of your community and of yourself too.”
Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based writer.
Featured image: Kathy Jo Miller Taylor of KJ Cakery (photo courtesy of Addie Davis).