An estimated 2 million people visit the Snoqualmie Falls every year, but how many spend time and money in the city itself?
That is a question the city of Snoqualmie is beginning to examine in order to shape thee city’s future in tourism promotion. The city’s Community Development Department and Community Development Committee are beginning work on a new tourism plan to implement in 2020.
Tourism is one of the Snoqualmie Valley’s biggest industries, helping drive the local economy year-round, but especially in the summer months. With attractions ranging from the Snoqualmie Falls to the open spaces, trails and recreation opportunities, Snoqualmie has become a popular destination on the Eastside. Despite the visitors the city receives, there has been a desire to see more growth in the amount of revenue captured by businesses and the city.
The city is quickly realizing that it is in need of an updated plan to address the needs of tourists in the city. Not only to provide easy access to all the available options, but to keep people in Snoqualmie longer.
The city hopes to change that by beginning work on a tourism plan update that will result in steps to increase outreach in 2020.
Councilmember Jim Mayhew said the Community Development Department will work on collecting information from previous studies the city has done, as well as what tourism projects have and have not been completed. Based on that report, the city will develop projects and policies. The work is expected to take approximately six months, ending in late 2019, with hopes of implementing new projects in 2020 to build tourism even further.
The city doesn’t know how many visitors of the falls come into downtown Snoqualmie, but believe the number is low. Mayhew said the city’s second biggest attraction, the Train Depot, brings in about 120,000 people per year, and could possibly bring more of an economic boost than the falls.
“Everyone catches the train at the depot, cars parked downtown, people are shopping at the stores. Right about when it’s about to leave or people come back, we get a flood of business. It’s absolutely fantastic for our businesses,” he said. “I wonder if we don’t get more tourist activity from the railway than we do from Snoqualmie Falls.”
People come to the falls, but turn around and leave the way they came, he said. Efforts are necessary to tie that location to the rest of the city.
More economic activity not only benefits the local businesses, but the city will collect more sales tax, Mayhew said.
The vision for the future of the city’s tourism industry has started with conversations around the information people have access to. Specifically, if a physical location serving as a visitor’s center is necessary in an era when people have easy access to information with smartphones. Part of the city’s new plan is to examine how visitors learn and plan their trips, as well as working to get information in front of more people.
Mayhew also noted that it is important that the city consider both the business centers in downtown Snoqualmie and up on the Ridge as target areas to boost commercial success in the city.
The concept of a Visitor Information Center (VIC) has been debated in the city since the Chamber of Commerce moved out of the historic bank building on the corner of Southeast River Street and Falls Avenue Southeast in 2016. The chamber once served that purpose from its own location, but after the move it no longer continued its visitor center service. Instead, the Art Gallery of SnoValley has received Lodging Tax Advisory Committee funding to serve as the interim VIC for several years while the need to develop a long-term plan lingered in the background.
In the vote to award the art gallery funding for VIC services in 2019, Councilmember Katherine Ross said she would prefer the money to invest in a more modern method of serving visitors.
“That art gallery is a huge resource and valuable asset for community,” she said. “But they are projecting they are going to see maybe 6,700 people this year. To me that doesn’t reflect the number of visitors that come to our town.”
Ross wants to see online solutions people can access using their smartphones, and she was supportive of the Chamber of Commerce’s project to implement interactive kiosks in the city.
Kelly Coughlin, executive director of the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce, described the kiosk program as a new way to engage visitors. The interactive kiosks would connect to a mobile app and would feature businesses, recreation opportunities, and other things to do in the city.
A handful of kiosks are planned for installation in key locations around the city, including the falls, and the new hotel on the Ridge.
The idea for the kiosks was borne out of the responses the chamber received from its ambassador program at the Snoqualmie Falls. Visitors often don’t talk to people to get information, Coughlin said, citing the experience of the ambassadors in previous years.
The majority of visitors come to the falls and leave without spending money at other city businesses. With merchants dependent on the summer rush of tourism, capturing an additional 1 percent of visitors would make a big difference, she said.
By giving direct access to information, Coughlin hopes tourists will be more willing to plan their day around the city since they can see the full breadth of activities in the city. The chamber is still looking for funding for the kiosk program, but they could be installed quickly once funded.
Mayhew said the chamber’s project is not a part of the city’s plan, but it does represent the core conversations being held.
“How do people do those activities? How do they find out what is in a city and decide how to book those things and which ones to go do?” he said.
Sally Rackets, a member of the Mount Si Artists Guild Collective and one of the volunteers at the art gallery who has helped run the VIC, said she believes having information at a location in downtown. In her experience, visitors who come by for information also share aspects of who they are, giving the city access to information about the demographics that visit.
While more people are looking for information online, Rackets said the gallery gets visitors from a wide range of demographics. A personal encounter is invaluable, she said.
“It’s also been the case that people come through and are considering living here,” Rackets said. “Anyone who wants to live here is going to want to talk to people. Is it as nice as it looks? What are the schools like and what appeals to them? To get a first-hand report is important.”
The divide between a traditional visitor center and pursuing an online and mobile friendly information service will be one of the biggest aspects for the future of tourism that the Community Development Committee will look at in planning.
The committee will report back to council on the continuing discussions surrounding the tourism plan throughout 2019.