Timothy Bishop brought some good news to Baker County’s Transient Lodging Tax Committee meeting Thursday morning.
Better news than he expected, anyway.
Occupancy at local motels and other lodging establishments plunged early in the coronavirus pandemic this spring, but not quite as far as Bishop, the county’s contracted tourism marketing director, anticipated.
And the numbers have been rising recently, he said.
A county ordinance requires owners of motels, bed-and-breakfasts and other lodging businesses in most of Baker County, including Baker City, to collect a 7% tax on each room rate and give that money to the county.
The ordinance requires that 70% of the tax revenue be spent for tourism promotion, 25% for economic development and 5% for administrative expenses the county incurs in collecting the tax.
The 7-member Lodging Tax Committee recommends how to spend the 70% of the tax revenue for tourism promotion.
“The good news is, our initial projections were pretty dire and I think really clearly in early April particularly we did see our numbers plummet,” Bishop said Thursday. “Those numbers are starting to creep up and inch forward. We are still down significantly, both in occupancy and in average daily rate, both of which will impact our TLT revenue but we are seeing more travelers starting to travel.”
“We have had some good news there in terms of the bottom not being quite as low as we perhaps thought it was going to be,” Bishop said.
Bishop said lodging tax collections for January and February numbers were similar to the previous year.
Baker City Mayor Loran Joseph, who is a member of the committee, said January’s revenue was up by about $2,500 over the same month in 2019, while February was down about $2,500 and March down about $4,500 — a drop of about 20% from the previous March.
Lodging businesses turn over tax collections quarterly, and Bishop told the committee he had only projections for the spring.
He said he expected collections for April and May to both be down about 90% from the previous year, but he now he expects a drop of between 70% and 80%.
He initially estimated an 80% decline for June, but he believes the actual revenue will be down by about 75%.
“I’m happy that, while we are certainly not back to normal, things are beginning to look a little more familiar,” Bishop said.
With most of Baker City’s major summer events canceled, including the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally, Miners Jubilee and the East-West Shrine All-Star Football Game, Bishop expects lodging tax revenue will continue to fall far behind last year’s figures.
He estimates about a 50% decline for July, August and September, based on what he’s hearing from lodging operators.
“We’ve been happy to hear from a lot of our lodging partners, even with cancellations of events like Miners Jubilee, the Sumpter flea markets, the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally, a lot of folks are just holding those reservations, they are still going to try to come,” Bishop said.
He expects the 50% drop, compared to last year, will continue through the fall as well.
In looking at 2021, Bishop said he expects January and February will still have lower than usual occupancies, down by 20% to 25% for the first half of the year.
He’s optimistic that visitor numbers, and thus lodging tax revenue, will return to a more normal range starting in the summer of 2021.
Bishop told committee members that Travel Oregon has put together a cooperative marketing program with Expedia.com and its online market platforms. Travel Oregon is investing $175,000 in the campaign. Bishop said he felt there was a huge opportunity for the county.
“This is a six-month campaign that will run on Expedia and all of their online platforms featuring basically a landing page with Travel Oregon’s Landing page, which will include all of the six participating regions, and then in lieu of Eastern Oregon, Baker County would be featured then on that landing page,” Bishop said.
He said it is one of the first opportunities for the county to partner with Travel Oregon in a way that is “really linked directly to that booking engagement with Travelocity (part of Expedia).”
Bishop said the county’s proposed share of $25,000 for the campaign, slated to run from July 15 to Dec. 31, would allow the county to target specific areas. He recommended the Boise and Seattle areas.
Bishop said that based on concerns from lodging businesses, the marketing would emphasize safe travel, asking people to follow social distancing.
“A lot of our focus again is focusing on those low group activity kind of events. A lot more on outdoor recreation,” Bishop said.
The Committee voted to recommend the Baker County Board of Commissioners approve the $25,000 in lodging tax revenue.