Skift Take

Portland's indie spirit is paying dividends to help position the city in the global travel market as a place where creativity and innovation is valued and fostered to help connect visitors and locals.

Portland might not actually be a first-tier city in terms of population and urban infrastructure, but Travel Portland CEO Jeff Miller says the destination marketing organization acts like it anyway.

Part of that includes developing the city’s international visitor base. Portland is the smallest U.S. gateway with direct flights to Tokyo and Amsterdam, via Delta Air Lines. This year, it secured direct routes to Frankfurt aboard Condor Airlines and Reykjavik with Iceland Air.

The DMO is projecting a 21 percent increase in international arrivals for 2015.

Japan is especially enamored with Oregon. If you’re using Google Chrome, for translating purposes, check out these media outlets in Tokyo with Portland travel stories: Popeye, Brutus, Delta Sky Japan and Sotokoto.

According to Travel Portland, the city generated 194 placements in international media last year with a combined circulation of 178,963,423 and $6.1 million ad value.

Portland is also contracting Airbnb to create destination guides with local neighborhood content supplied by Airbnb hosts, which will be translated into Japanese and distributed throughout Japan. Portland is one of the few cities where Airbnb charges a local occupancy tax, and because of that, it’s more politically appropriate for the DMO to collaborate with the sharing platform than destinations that don’t.

“We’re not a Las Vegas or Chicago, and we don’t have their infrastructure, and we don’t want that, but we look at how they promote themselves,” says Miller. “We’re getting ready to do a huge activation in Japan because they love all things Portland. It’s a very big investment, where we’re talking about the authenticity of Portland, so we’re acting like a first-tier destination. But I wouldn’t say we’re competing with them because we always want to be who were are. I think that’s really, really important.”

How do you put a dollar figure on the cool factor of a city and the ability of that to drive tourism, both leisure and group? Portland’s groovy Northwest Pacific hipster appeal is why the Asians and Europeans want to visit. Likewise, Miller says Australia and New Zealand are “huge growing markets” as well.

From a tourism standpoint, Portland is one of those emerging U.S. cities hitting above its weight with a very distinct identity and hip character, which in this case embraces the iconic American Western spirit of individualism and self reliance, updated with a Millennial mindset. Part of that is rooted in the city’s relationship with nature.

According to Miller, he says Portland was decades ahead of the curve in establishing a balance between nature and the built environment by developing strict urban growth boundaries. Those are designed to control urban sprawl by mandating that real estate within the boundaries have higher density urban development, while the areas beyond them are dedicated for low environmental impact investments.

That does a number of things. It creates a lot of rich farmland near a metro region for sourcing local food, and more parkland for recreational purposes. It makes it much easier to build citywide public transportation. It makes it easier to attract investment for public solar and wind energy systems. It also demands more intelligent mixed-use development designed around communities of people and not their cars.

Continuing that earth-friendly ethos, the Tilikum Crossing bridge opened last month as the first new span across Willamette River in 42 years. Only public buses and bikes are permitted.

All of that new urbanist thinking is a big demand generator today for visitors, and cities are investing billions of dollars trying to rework their mobility systems and rebuild their downtowns. While they do, Portland is reaping the benefits of its legacy that has always prioritized the individual citizen and urban livability. That’s not to say that Portland has completely avoided the Walmartization of America. Just less so.

“It’s interesting, you know, as we talk about our culture, Oregonians are very independent so there’s always this spirit about how we’re going to do it our way,” explains Miller. “We were farm-to-table before it was called that. We’ve been making microbrews forever. We built amazing public transportation. It’s really in the DNA of Portland. People always talk about how we’re going to do things differently here.”


The Maker Movement Is The New Local

The problem, explains Miller, is that every city is now promoting a local food, craft beer, public transit, independent business, Millennial-embracing culture.

“So what’s next?” he asks. “We think it’s going to be our ‘maker’ culture that continues to differentiate us.”

Portland’s independent gestalt has always attracted a lot of “do it yourself” (DIY) types who value the ability to create something new using raw, often discarded material. It’s a very Millennial thing, emerging as a response to America’s soul-deadening mass consumer culture, the precipitous drop in national pride for U.S. manufacturing, and a re-enlightenment of Calvinist principles that values the craft of something and the process that went into its development. Also very Millennial.

That’s pushed Portland toward the leading fringe of the blossoming Maker Movement, which Adweek defines as:

The maker movement is the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers. A convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans, the niche is established enough to have its own magazine, Make, as well as hands-on Maker Faires that are catnip for DIYers who used to toil in solitude. Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in-China merchandise.

There’s precedent for this. Nike, Inc. began in nearby Eugene where the founder made the first shoe prototypes with a waffle iron. Columbia Sportswear developed out of a garage near Beaverton into a global clothing company.

Today in Portland, the local Blue Star Donuts company is expanding globally, including a new store in Japan, for people who like blueberry bourbon basil donuts made using a classic French brioche recipe. One hundred more stores are in the development pipeline.

Junk to Funk hosts fashion shows with models wearing clothing made out of recycled garbage, and Portland’s popular Salt & Straw Ice Cream shop ships raspberry balsamic ice cream nationwide.

“Salt & Straw is amazing, and again they have that spirit of ‘Let’s just do it,’” says Miller. “We celebrate people who want to start a business. We really try and help fund those kinds of ideas that people here love, and then we remind people all over the world about them.”

Necessity breeds invention in Portland because there’s nothing really exceptional about the area from a tourism standpoint. The city doesn’t have the coastal splendor of Seattle, the heightened lifestyle pursuits of California, or the alpine sports in many other Rocky Mountain destinations.

Rather, Portland’s independent DIY mindset and counter-culture environment is driving the city’s reputation as an anti-corporate creative community, which keeps propagating with new converts.

According to a study by United Van Lines, which tracked 128,000 moves in 2014, more people moved to Oregon than any other state last year.

“We always talk a lot about how Portland was built for Portlanders, for locals,” says Miller. “We don’t really have any tourism infrastructure that’s specific just for tourists. It’s not like there’s this official list of things to do in Portland. You kind of have to look at everything and decide what you want to do, so you can curate your own experience here.”

Regarding the “travel like a local” megatrend, Miller says that’s about the only way you can travel in Portland.

“We’re working very hard on the James Beard Public Market,” he explains, as an example. “There’s a lot of public markets in the country but this one will be built for locals. We’re really good about that. So when people say, ‘I want to go where the locals go,’ in Portland, that’s pretty much everywhere.”

Promoting Portland’s Indie Personality Is Expensive

But how do you brand that spirit of individualism, and sell it? It’s one thing for the city’s unique mindset to have developed organically into a hip outpost of originality over the years, but how do you get people from Japan to Germany to hop on a plane to experience it?

A serious marketing budget is a good start, but Portland doesn’t have a sizeable hotel inventory to cultivate enough bed tax revenues to fund seasonal series of large domestic and international promotional campaigns. Up until the 2011 fiscal, the total DMO budget was only $8.7 million, which makes it difficult for anyone to act like a first-tier DMO.

So in 2012, the City of Portland passed legislation to pave the way for a new Tourism Improvement District (TID), allowing hotels with over 50 rooms to charge an additional two percent bed tax on guest room revenue. Travel Portland and the Civitas agency, which specializes in TIDs, worked with the hotels to develop the new fee structure and marketing strategies moving forward.

Today, Travel Portland has a $21 million annual budget in total among all funding sources, with the TID providing about 40 percent of that. TID revenue increased 14.8 percent year-over-year from 2013 to 2014.

“It takes a pretty strenuous effort to corral the lodging community at the beginning, but then it’s just a matter of picking your number, picking your spot, and getting it done,” explains Miller. “I’ve seen a lot more of these [TIDs] recently because they work.”

With those funds available, Travel Portland and the hotels decided on developing promotional campaigns to drive off-season arrivals from larger markets in the Pacific Northwest.

A result of that starting two years ago, the $4 million “Portland is Happening Now” initiative included an enormous 25-foot cuckoo clock carved out of Oregon maple that the DMO placed in public places in cities such as Seattle and Vancouver. On every hour, a Portland influencer like Steven Smith, cofounder of Tazo Teas, would emerge from a door in the base of the clock to talk about the city.

“We did poetry readings and other quirky Portland things,” says Miller. “It really became a manifestation of the really good work and thinking you’ll see with a tier-one city. That need period campaign saw great increases in occupancy and ADR (average daily rate) during that time period.”

To track the impact of the DMO’s promotional efforts, the MMGY marketing agency developed an Intent to Travel study to test West Coast audiences’ interest in visiting Portland.

From 2013 to 2015, the survey participants who responded that they were “very or extremely likely to visit” Portland jumped from 19 to 29 percent. Those who responded “not very likely or not at all” fell from 63 to 48 percent.

“So we feel like we’re changing the hearts and minds of people here,” says Miller.


The Daily Newsletter

Our daily coverage of the global travel industry. Written by editors and analysts from across Skift’s brands.

Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch

Tags: ceo interviews, DMO, oregon, portland, skift cities

Photo credit: Japanese media are showing a ton of love for Portland. Popeye Magazine

Up Next

Loading next stories