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MailTribune.com
  • Region's tourism takes hit from fires, smoke

    But sports events may have softened the blow for some of the area's hotels
  • The region's tourism industry will not escape financial loss from wildfires and the ubiquitous smoke that has filled Southern Oregon skies for three weeks.
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  • The region's tourism industry will not escape financial loss from wildfires and the ubiquitous smoke that has filled Southern Oregon skies for three weeks.
    "We've already had measurable negative effects on tourism, from the outfitters in Galice to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival," said Carolyn Hill, chief executive officer for the Southern Oregon Visitors Association. "Everyone expects to be hurt, in some cases a lot."
    SOVA's territory takes in five counties, where 10,000 people's paychecks from the Pacific to the Klamath Basin depend on tourism. In 2012, visitor spending hit $916 million, up 34 percent over 2002, Hill said. Tax receipts for 2012 hit $36.1 million, up 47 percent from $24.6 million in 2002.
    The timing of the wildfires has been no friend to the industry, because August is the biggest month of the year for tourism.
    "It's not like it's just one-twelfth of the business," Hill said. "The outfitters and suppliers talk about August being their Christmas month; that's true of everyone here unless you're a ski resort."
    Through the first seven months of the year, Hill said, the region's tourist industry was performing well.
    "We were tracking ahead (of 2012), year-over-year, pretty consistently, and we felt successful in driving demand," Hill said. "We had lots of visitors. A lot of our tourism products are nature-based, so we are vulnerable to things affecting nature, like fires, floods or snow."
    Until lodging receipts are reported, the overall picture won't be quantified. But raft trip and jetboat operators can't make up the lost trips down the Rogue, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival won't be able to make up the prime-season performances it lost on its Elizabethan Stage.
    "The last I heard is that we lost approximately $200,000 due to four canceled performances," said OSF spokeswoman Amy Richard. "It's not just the canceling of a performance; some people simply decided not to take their trips."
    She said the festival plans to file an insurance claim, but there is no guarantee it will be able to collect.
    "It wasn't like something caught on fire, so we're unsure," Richard said. "We canceled because of unhealthy conditions for our actors, crew and audiences. Some people exchanged their tickets for other performances, but for others, maybe it was their one performance while they were here."
    The ripple effect, she said, was felt at Ashland hotels, where reservations were canceled.
    After meeting with hotel managers on Wednesday, however, Travel Medford Senior Vice President Anne Jenkins reported local hospitality spots have held their own, primarily because baseball and softball tournaments scheduled during the first week of the fires in Douglas and Josephine counties played on, as did a junior golf tournament at Centennial Golf Club.
    "When we get the reports at the end of September, it might be a different story," Jenkins said.
    One positive byproduct for hotels, she added, was the impact of firefighters staying overnight.
    "The indoor businesses, including Lava Lanes and Roxy Ann Lanes, are doing much better than what they typically do," Jenkins said. "That's where we are sending people because of the smoke."
    Quick thinking and creativity saved the day a time or two as well.
    "We had one hotelier call and say they were about to lose a group — 'Can you help us save them?' " Jenkins said. "They were planning to raft down the river and we directed them to wine-tasting and indoor activities."
    Katharine Flanagan, Ashland Visitor and Convention Bureau spokeswoman, said her organization suggested travelers take in local art galleries, spas, wellness packages, boutiques, the ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum and Schneider Museum of Art.
    "We wanted to make them aware of their options," Flanagan said.
    Hill said she remains bullish on the region's long-term tourism outlook and had seen some good come from the fires.
    "One positive legacy is that it has reinforced the pervasive collegiality of the industry," Hill said. "One outfitter got a federal contract to provide fire supplies and crews and immediately went out and split it up with eight other outfitters. Regardless of what happens, we're all in this together."
    Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness.
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