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More tourists put Portland at top of travel plans

City's culture, food, 'feel' draw record visitors in 2013


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Annemarie Slaven and David Riott munch on Voodoo doughnuts after waiting in line on a chilly day to visit the popular shop. Tres Shannon never set out to create a tourist attraction when he opened his quirky doughnut shop in a seedy part of downtown 11 years ago.

Now lines of customers form outside Voodoo Doughnut around the clock, and tourists carrying pink boxes of doughnuts are a common airport sighting. Voodoo’s two funky shops are among Portland attractions that lured a record number of tourists here last year — shattering prior levels.

The record number of tourists in Portland are all the more impressive considering 2013 was a lukewarm year for conventions here, and the local economy continued its slow-motion recovery act. All those tourists helped make downtown feel more vibrant, and pump more money into the economy.

“No question about it, it was a gangbuster year,” says David Schargel, founder of Portland Walking Tours. His business was up 20 percent, enabling him to operate tours year-round for the first time.

Industry experts say the best gauge of tourism comes from hotel business in the central city, where most visitors stay. Proprietary hotel industry data compiled by Smith Travel Research shows Portland’s central city broke records in 2013 for number of overnight guests, occupancy level, average room prices and total rental income.

“It will be the highest occupancy we’ve seen in the central city since 1999,” when such data was first made available, says Brian McCartin, Travel Portland executive vice president for convention and tourism sales.

It’s been several years since The New York Times and Travel + Leisure discovered Portland and began showering accolades on the city as a hip destination.

Those and other factors helped elevate Portland as a travel destination, not just a stopover between San Francisco and Seattle. Many 2013 customers on Portland Walking Tours said they’d already been to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Las Vegas and wanted to come here because they’ve never been before, Schargel says. “My best guess is that Portland’s more on the map than it ever has been.”

Part of Portland’s continuing lure has been the outpouring of creativity by restaurant chefs, wineries and other entrepreneurs, says Megan Conway, Travel Portland vice president for communications and public relations. “Portland has this interesting staying power in the media,” she says. Travel reporters from national and international media often call her office to find out what’s new and cutting-edge here.

European feel

Nationally, Portland ranks as the nation’s 43rd-largest hotel market, McCartin says. That may not sound so high, but it was good enough to attract an estimated 8.1 million visitors to the metro area in 2012, spending an estimated $4.1 billion..

Portland Walking Tours grew from 42 employees in 2012 to 51 last year, Schargel says. In the summer, the company operates 44 tours a week. On the strength of surging business last year, Schargel decided to open a promotional kiosk at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

About four out of every five of his customers come from out of town now, an increase from past years. Schargel doesn’t exactly know why, but there was a huge increase last year in tourists from Australia and New Zealand. People like the small-city nature of Portland, Schargel says. “They talk about the European feel of the city.”

Voodoo Doughnut has grown every year, Shannon says, and now employs 130 to 140 people at its two Portland stores and headquarters. During a phone interview last Friday, Shannon popped outside his downtown store at Southwest Third Avenue and Burnside Street and asked where people were from. One group was from Idaho and another was from Seattle. Before he finished talking, the line grew from five people to 25. Shannon estimates that 60 to 70 percent of his summertime customers are tourists.

He doesn’t exactly know why, but it works. “It is just fried dough,” he says. But for as little as 95 cents, people soak in the Portland experience. “Who knows who you’re going to meet in line?” Shannon says.

Smith Travel Research gets data from most central city hotels, and makes its findings available to Travel Portland, a nonprofit established to promote tourism and convention business.

For the first time last year, central-city hotels topped the 2 million mark for rooms rented, up a hefty 8.6 percent from 2012, according to data provided to Travel Portland. A decade earlier, central city hotels booked about 1.3 million nights of lodging.

Total room revenue at central city hotels hit $296 million last year, up 15.4 percent from 2012. A decade ago, room revenue was $134 million.

Raking in lodging taxes

Hotels, restaurants and retailers aren’t the only ones raking in money from tourism. Portland, Multnomah County and other local governments earn tidy revenue by levying taxes on lodging and car rentals.

Portland collected nearly $46 million from lodging taxes in the 2012-13 fiscal year, a whopping 15.6 percent increase from the prior year.

Effective in July 2012, central city hotels formed a Tourism Improvement District, agreeing to an additional 2 percent tax on room rates to promote tourism. Travel Portland is using that to pay for hitherto unaffordable ad and marketing campaigns. Its marketing staff fans out to Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and New York to schmooze with travel writers. Travel Portland recently launched a marketing campaign to boost tourism this winter, the traditional slow season.

Portland compares its central city hotel market to 13 peer cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, Denver and others. Among those, Portland hotels had the third-highest occupancy rate for the first 11 months of 2013, McCartin says. Portland also remains among the most affordable places to stay, with the ninth-highest room prices among those 14 cities.

It’s not clear how much Portland-based TV shows such as “Portlandia,” “Leverage” and “Grimm” have boosted tourism here. But there’s no doubt they’ve had their effect, with some tourists setting out to visit sites they saw on “Portlandia” and “Grimm,” Conway says.

Portland lacks the iconic tourist attractions of its bigger urban competitors, such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Space Needle of Seattle. But that isn’t holding people from coming here any more.

“It’s less about the icon,” Conway says, “and more about the people, the culture and the feel.”

Steve Law can be reached at 503-546-5139 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or on Twitter at twitter.com/SteveLawTrib


Tourism's best ambassadors are visitors themselves

Bay Area residents David Riott and Annemarie Slaven spent Sunday night at Portland’s Ace Hotel and then headed for Voodoo Doughnut Monday morning.

It was their first time in Portland, but probably not their last.

“Several of my family and friends told me I need to see Portland,” Riott said, while munching on doughnuts after waiting in line in the cold.

Portland was one of the couple’s destinations during a six-day road trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, and back, and they hope to spend another long afternoon here on the way back.

They still want to visit the Pearl District, Powell's Books, Forest Park, independent record shops, and movie theaters that sell microbrews. “We both like beer,” Riott said.

They also want to drive around to get the feel of the city, and try to find an abandoned bathroom they read about on the outskirts of town that was haunted by ghosts.

Riott, a 23-year-old from Oakland, liked what he's seen so far of the city.

“You can’t capture a place like Voodoo Doughnut in a picture on Google Images,” he said. “There’s something special about a small, locally owned unique business. It’s personable and a lot of character in a place like that. It’s kind of like finding a hidden gem.”

That’s music to the ears of Portland tourism promoters.

2013 accolades for Portland

No. 1, America’s Best Cities (Movoto)

No. 1, Most Liked U.S. Cities (Money Journal)

No. 1, Best Beer Towns in America (CNN Travel)

No. 1, Most Bikeable Large U.S. Cities (Walk Score)

PDX rated America’s Best Airport (Travel + Leisure)

Portland a Traveler’s Choice U.S. Destination (TripAdvisor)

No. 2, Best Cities for Families

to Visit (Parents magazine)

No. 3, America’s Best Cities for Hipsters (Travel + Leisure)

Division Street rated one of

10 Best Foodie Streets in America (Food & Wine)

One of 10 Great Places for Affordable Spring Breaks

(USA Today)

Source: Travel Portland

Portland’s Top Year-Round Visitor Attractions

Powell’s City of Books

Lan Su Chinese Garden

Portland Saturday Market

Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Oregon Zoo

Pittock Mansion

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry

Portland Farmers Market

Voodoo Doughnut

International Rose Test Garden

Portland Art Museum

Portland Japanese Garden

Source: Travel Portland