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Tourism expert imparts industry advice

Tourism accounts for a significant number of Jackson County jobs and income as well as local government revenue.

As a result, it makes sense to give travelers reason to stay longer and plan a return trip, said Eric Aebi, president of Portland-based Ethos International, a hospitality industry consulting firm.

Aebi, who collaborates with the Oregon Tourism Commission, spoke Monday at a Chamber of Medford/Jackson County Forum at the Rogue Valley Country Club.

Worldwide, tourism produced $3 trillion of activity in 2001, and $6 billion was spent in Oregon, with $252 million spent in Jackson County, accounting for 4,300 jobs here, Aebi said.

But that doesn't include money dropped on gas, shirts, lattes, doughnuts or maps.

"These are discretionary expenditures that we cannot track," Aebi said. "That may represent as much as 20 percent of the visitor's overall spending."

However, state tourism officials uncovered bothersome facts in researching the likelihood of repeat visits.

"We found 8 percent of visitors get their information on site from front-line employees - service station attendants, waiters, shop clerks, police officers as well as visitor information centers," Aebi said. "We also found out 87 percent of the time that we asked these front-line people for visitor information that would lead to a visitor purchase that we get incorrect information, a hostile response, or an 'I don't know.'

"To me there's an economic impact that is dramatic. We boil it down to a simple goal ... that is to get every visitor to stay four hours longer in each community. That four hours translates into an extra $20 per visitor per stay. That can mean a dramatic increase in expenditures and tax revenue."

He illustrated the point by recounting a conversation with a convenience store clerk.

"I approached a gentleman in a 7-Eleven here in Medford and I said, 'Hey, I heard there's something called Crater Lake around here,' and he said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'Well, can you tell me how to get there?' And his response was 'Go to Eugene and turn right.'

"I guess that would've kept (somebody) here longer, but I'm not sure that's the way we're trying to reach our goal."

He pointed out that most of Oregon's tourism industry amounts to Oregonians traveling around the state.

"I'm bringing my Portland dollars to Medford, and you're bringing your Medford dollars to Portland," he said. "What we need to do is to get foreign exchange. We need to get people from California, Idaho and Utah - other states bringing their dollars to Oregon to grow that pie bigger."

Aebi said tourism isn't a single industry but a system of industries tied together. The Internet has turned virtually any community into a tourist destination. But it's necessary to be proactive in managing tourism's future to keep it sustainable.

Tourism commission research, he said, gives Medford a passable grade for friendliness but shows it struggles when it comes to helpfulness. He pointed out that nine out of 10 Medford residents, when asked about restaurants, send people to Ashland or Jacksonville.

Ultimately, it's important to learn how to stroke visitors and give them a reason to return.

He said Disney World spends less money on tourism advertising than the state of Texas, instead focusing its efforts on repeat business.

"Disney realized something a long time ago and that is that it costs six times more money to attract a new customer than to keep the one you've already got," Aebi said.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail