If Portland is to shake off the negative media perception, it will need its local residents more than ever to convince the public that it's still a great tourist destination.
Portland’s tourism recovery is being hurt by negative local sentiment: The city’s suburbanites don’t want to recommend the Rose City as a tourist destination.
The share of Portlanders who would recommend the city to out-of-town friends and family has fallen from 88 percent in 2017 to 61 percent in 2023, said Portland Travel Chief Strategy Officer Megan Conway in a presentation to the city council. The share that said they wouldn’t encourage out-of-towners to visit has risen from 9 percent to 24 percent.
The drop in Portland’s resident approval was concentrated more outside of Portland in Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties, said Conway. Portland sits in Multnomah County. In contrast, Portland’s urban dwellers and residents between the ages of 25 and 44 were more likely to recommend the city.
The city is still dealing with its association with crime and violence. In February, the LA Times published a piece titled “What’s the matter with Portland? Shootings, theft and other crime test the city’s progress strain.”
“What the press has reported on Portland has changed dramatically,” said Travel Portland CEO and President Jeff Miller. “Now, if we can just get them to stop using pictures from three years ago, we will be fine.”
Next year, hotel revenue will be 15 percent off from 2019’s total, he said.
One of the ways suburbanites influence travel is that friends and family will crash with them and then hangout in the city. They often account for large shares of out-of-towners. In some destinations, they have been found to make up 70 percent of visitors.
One reason it’s tough to shift the image is that suburbanites aren’t going to the city as much. “It’s just frankly because they haven’t been here and when I see the [Oregon] Symphony has something going on, downtown is packed,” Miller said. Travel Portland found people who had visited the city recently were more likely to recommend it.
As in other metropolitan areas during the pandemic, those in the suburbs opted to work remotely instead of commuting to offices in downtown Portland, a trend that continues to this day among major cities. More than a fifth of the office space in downtown was vacant in the first quarter of 2023, more than double what it was in 2019, Oregon Live reported.
While at home during the pandemic, residents outside Portland were bombarded with negative media coverage of protests in downtown.
“The reputational damage that Portland suffered certainly extended locally and Portlanders have always been very, very proud of their city,” said Miller. “I think it’s taken a bit of time to get people back into the core to see what’s going on.”
Portland isn’t the only one still dealing with reputational damage. San Francisco’s tourism board recently launched a $6 million advertising campaign to combat the negative media perceptions.
To change minds, Travel Portland has been actively promoting large events downtown. “There’s a lot of energy going into trying to get people to see what’s happening on the streets,” said Miller.
The city has hosted events like the Winter Lights Festivals and just finished the Portland Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade, the second largest floral parade in the country and one of the largest events in Oregon. One of its marketing partners has been creating Wednesday downtown events to attract workers outside of the weekends.
Portland’s urban dweller fan base will play a big role in the city’s tourism promotion efforts. A key focus of Travel Portland is to turn its younger local fans into more vocal ambassadors, Conway told the city council. The tourism board has assembled a task force to figure out how to encourage urban dwellers to share their fun experiences at the city’s events and attractions.
Turning locals into louder ambassadors can be effective. Discover St. Louis, for example, has been advertising to get locals to spread the word about the destination. The advertising paid off with strong visitation numbers at local attractions during the holiday season.
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Photo credit: Photo Credit: Zack Spear on Unplash