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Business Q&A -- Eric Aebi

Q: What is your perception of the Southern Oregon hotel and motel industry's strengths and weaknesses?

The weaknesses are the same that most people are having right now around the country with travel being down in general. I think the strength is that over the years I've seen the profile of properties increase; there's a broader range of types of accommodations here than there used to be. That's real important to the visitor industry because we have different types of visitors. If you can offer a bed and breakfast, a roadside motel, a five-star hotel, a guest-ranch sort of experience, certainly you have a greater chance of attracting more visitors.

Q: Is this area perceived as a good value for the tourist dollar?

I think Oregon in general is because we don't have a sales tax. We are perceived as a place where you can have a great affordable family experience. To me it's all driven by what you get for that dollar; that's where we're competitive in Oregon and Southern Oregon as well. We can provide an experience in Southern Oregon that's unique. Our folks are charismatic and friendly, and our properties have different styles based on the personality of people who have a tendency to move to Oregon. Not only are we a more affordable destination, but I think the value we deliver is matched by no one.

Q: How has the landscape of hospitality properties changed in recent years?

Our lives have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. In the travel area, we're seeing different consumer trends; we're seeing people looking for a family experience. We have time-poverty, and we feel disconnected from our loved ones. So people are seeking a family experience; people are seeking rejuvenation through contact with nature and the outdoors and an involvement with animals and plants. Birding, for example, is a growing hobby. All of those changes in our personal lives really make us, when we're seeking a vacation experience, want to get away from all of that. I think you'll see hotels without phones for people who really want to get away from that. That all plays into the hands of Oregon, because what we have is natural beauty.

We can give you all the amenities you need, if you want to check e-mail while you're on vacation you can do that. But if you don't you can get out on a river where you can stay in a treehouse or camp in our state parks or a bed and breakfast or a guest ranch. I think we're well positioned in the travel market to meet those unique experiences people are looking for.

Q: What do visitors do the second time they come to Oregon?

It really depends on what they did the first time. I try to coach people to talk not only about different regions of the state but how beautiful it can be in the off-season as well. When people are in Bend in the summer, let's talk about Bend in the winter. When people are in Medford in the summer, let's talk about children's festivals, the arts and events that go on year-round. There are a lot of outdoor experiences. People have a tendency to come here for one experience. They get it; they're satisfied with it, and then they learn how diverse we are as a state in terms of geography and culture, people and experiences. That makes them want to come back and try something different.

Q: What are the transportation improvements needed to better serve tourists?

I can remember as a kid going to see my grandparents in Eastern Oregon on Amtrak. There are issues such as rail travel that need to be increased. Portland has made great strides in public transportation, and in general, Oregon cities do better at public transportation than most cities. We need to fix roads and bridges, and we need to widen traffic lanes and know those are things the Legislature would love to do if we had money. I see the rental car business remaining strong. Let's face it, most of the things in Oregon that are unique and worthwhile to visit, you have to get there in a car. I would like to see more information incorporated into the transportation process. When people travel they think of the entire experience.

Transportation, particularly with increased security at airports, is becoming a negative part of the experience. So when somebody is sitting in Pennsylvania saying 'Let's go to Oregon on vacation.' They're saying 'Yeah, but we have to go on an airplane.' That's one of the challenges we need to overcome. We need to improve the diversity of transportation - more light rail, more passenger rail - but also focus on how beautiful driving in Oregon is. It's not like driving in other states, it's a treat.

I think I'm seeing a shift from advertising destinations to branding destinations. By that I mean creating a personality for your destination that's unique, using public relations to reach out and tell stories about how people spend their time here.

At the state level, our award-winning travel guide changed to meet this trend. It's now an editorial-based magazine that talks about people's adventures while they're here. If I were a community here in Southern Oregon, on my Web site I would have visitor testimonials about what they saw and did here.

To suggest a subject for this column, please contact business reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail