SB Profiles

‘It’s Not About the Visitors’

Visit Seattle CEO Tammy Blount-Canavan reveals some secrets about tourism

By Rob Smith October 20, 2023

There are many things to do in Seattle

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Tammy Blount-Canavan calls herself a “travel evangelist.” Visit Seattle calls her its CEO.

Blount-Canavan had big shoes to fill when she took over the regional destination marketing organization last year from Tom Norwalk, who served as CEO for almost 14 years. Blount-Canavan, who lives in downtown Seattle just blocks from her office, has a long career in destination marketing, beginning with a decade-plus-long stint at Tourism Vancouver in 1989.

She also served as president and CEO of the Tacoma Regional Convention + Visitor Bureau as well as at the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

She calls her Visit Seattle post “her dream job,” adding that “this is a business that gets in your blood.” Her chief focus is returning Seattle-area tourism to pre-pandemic levels. King County recorded 33.9 million visitors last year with a $7.4 billion economic impact, a significant hike from previous years but still well below pre-pandemic levels.

I don’t think we want to go back to where we were (with tourism). We want to see where the next level takes us.

We’re still rebuilding, frankly, from Covid. Not just the industry, but our organization. It was decimated.

Downtown Seattle is different compared to pre-pandemic, obviously, and I don’t know that downtowns come back. I think they just evolve. It’ll look very different as we move forward.

There’s some reality to (questions of downtown safety). I walk around downtown all the time. I feel quite safe. Part of what we fight is our residents’ perception.

It takes only one random thing for people to say something’s really terrible. I don’t think it is. Like any other city, we have some issues we have to deal with.

Our business is highly competitive. Cutthroat is not a word I would use. We are a fraternity or sorority. We help each other get stronger and better. I solidly believe there’s enough business for all of us.

We’re not Tampa and we are not Phoenix and we are not Fort Lauderdale. We are Seattle. And that means we think differently, do things differently.

One of the important distinctions is we have destination stewardship. Taking care of our resources is in our DNA. It’s easy for us to talk about our inclusivity and taking care of the environment and each other. It’s not really a marketing thing. It’s just being authentically Seattle.

The taxes that come from visitors are bills that we as residents don’t have to pay. That’s a big deal.

The big secret is that tourism is not about the visitors. Tourism is a force for good. It is about those of us that live in a community. The whole purpose of inviting people here is to enrich our quality of life, whether economically, socially, or culturally.

Tourism enhances quality of life. Your property values are going to go up. In addition to that, the busy sidewalks and critical mass that make a community vibrant are part of that innovation that comes when visitors think they have opportunities here.

I live a block away from the (new Summit addition) to the Convention Center. The tenants in my building tell me how excited they are about this asset in downtown. You don’t hear very many residents going, “Woohoo! We got a new convention center.” Here, they do. It’s another point of community pride.

Pre-pandemic, China was our largest international visitation market after Canada. It’s not right now, and we don’t anticipate that coming back very soon because of all the other restrictions that are going on. Geopolitical stuff we cannot control.

International travelers are important. They stay longer, spend more, and tend to contribute to that stewardship piece. South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and clearly Canada and Mexico are important markets that we’ll continue to invest in.

In most markets, we work with an operator. They are embedded in what we call the travel trade. They’re the people packaging and selling travel to Seattle. They do a lot of work on the ground for us when we are there to do a sales mission.

We don’t do a lot of direct-to-consumer in those markets. That (costs) a lot of money.

We have a tracking service that tells us where mentions of Seattle (across the country) come from. We talk a lot about economics and jobs for our neighbors. I would like to see us talk more about the impacts.

We’re on Instagram, Facebook, you know, the usual places. We just started on TikTok. It depends on the demographic. I’m 55. I’m more on Facebook. LinkedIn is more planners and business oriented. Every platform has its audience.

This is our special place, and I think every community feels that way, right? We like to share it. The cultural exchange, hearing different languages at Pike Place Market, and all over the city. You don’t get that everywhere. There’s an intangible benefit to just breaking down the barriers of cultural understanding.

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