Move to attract more visitors to Bainbridge gains momentum

Kayaking and other water activities are popular attractions to the shorelines of Bainbridge Island.

Slowly and sporadically, Bainbridge Island has been moving toward being more welcoming to tourists, or visitors, as marketing professionals prefer to characterize people who come here.

More and more downtown Winslow shops cater to visitors these days, though there are still enough core stores that it remains a shopping center for locals. And there is a growing number of community events and venues whose futures are dependent somewhat on attracting visitors to the island.

And, of course, these days the island’s economy could use all of the outside dollars it can amass since its manufacturing and retail industries are small and real estate has taken a dive recnetly.

So it’s not surprising that there is a move under way to bring more visitors to Bainbridge. A group calling itself the Tourism Alliance has formed with that goal in mind. It consists of the Bainbridge Island’s Arts and Humanities Council, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Association and Lodging Association.

The group’s first order of business was to hire consultants Marian Holt McLain and Fred Burrow, both of whom have extensive experience in the business, to put together a comprehensive strategic plan that will serve as a guideline to elevate the island’s tourism activity. The report was officially released Wednesday at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

McLain and Burrow focused on two tasks: researching similar and neighboring communities that are heavily involved in tourism; and conducting four focus group meetings (10 people in each) with a broad cross-section of community members and stakeholders. The goal of the latter was to understand islanders’ views of visitors and visitor development.

McLain said residents involved in the meetings were straightforward about their opinions and feelings.

“One caveat was that this has been done twice before and they hoped something would come of it this time,” she said.

“Many of them made it clear that some degree of tourism is welcome here, but they don’t want it to dominate. They want it to be done in a thoughtful way. That can be done, but we’ll need to attract visitors who respect our island values and don’t want to disturb it. Like, ‘Come share what we prize, and then leave only footprints.’”

It won’t be easy, most people admit.

“Tourism is pretty much a dirty word around here,” said Zon Eastes, executive director of BIAHC. “I’ve only been here two and a half years, but it’s clear people are torn about this. But visitors will put more money into the economy than people who live here. So it depends a lot on how we do this so that we encourage people who visit to do so in a way that it doesn’t change us.”

There are many reasons why Bainbridge is ripe for tourists, beginning with the fact it’s only 35 minutes by boat from the Northwest’s largest metropolitan area. It also serves as a gateway to the Kitsap Penisula and has several charming attributes, including a “quaint, small-town environment downtown” and a rural beauty that features an extensive park and trail system from shoreline to forest. When people “find” it, they often return again and again.

Besides citizens who have been resistant to opening up their home to visitors, the consultants said tourism has been hindered for several reasons, including the lack of marketing basics such as: an all-inclusive website; a coordinated marketing plan organized by one source; adequate funding; a branding campaign; effective signage; and limited transportation and parking.

And, of course, “a perceived lack of willingness by islanders to share their island “treasures.”

The Tourism Alliance hasn’t publicly responded to the report yet, but there’s it’s likely it will accept the recommended 2009 strategic goals, which are relatively modest considering the amount of money available for the project. It includes:

– Develop a consistent brand for $8,000. While “Come, Spend and Leave” is direct and to the point, something more provocative probably will be chosen;

– Put together a cutting-edge website for $12,000;

– Develop a visitor friendly rack brochure for $15,000;

– Gather and track reliable visitor data, beginning at $1,000;

– Cooperative and collaborative advertising with other tourist groups, costing about $16,000.

Most of the expenses will come from $50,000 the group says the city has promised them, and from Lodging Tax Advisory Committee funds.

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