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Ad campaign seeks to draw city dwellers to Whidbey getaways

As seen from Whidbey Island Wednesday morning, Hat Island looked almost snowy with a covering of fog. Scenes like this are what tourism promoters want Seattle-area residents to conjure up when they think of the island during an upcoming advertising campaign. - Matt Johnson
As seen from Whidbey Island Wednesday morning, Hat Island looked almost snowy with a covering of fog. Scenes like this are what tourism promoters want Seattle-area residents to conjure up when they think of the island during an upcoming advertising campaign.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Whidbey Island and Island County are suffering from an identity crisis. The crisis? People who don't live on Whidbey and Camano islands generally don't know where they are.

Ironically, this conclusion will be the genesis of a new ad campaign set to splash down in the Seattle area in January. Two weeks ago, marketing and advertising professionals hired by Island County's Tourism Promotion Committee laid out their ideas for putting the county at the forefront of city dwellers' minds just in time for the midwinter travel season.

With $85,000 in tax money generated by Island County lodgers, Big Bang Idea Engineering and CMS Marketing will be promoting island tourism on the pages of The Seattle Times, on billboards on the sides of Seattle city buses, on the area's most popular afternoon radio show and through direct-mail flyers.

Two and-a-half years after Island County and its cities agreed to levy a 1- to 2-percent tax on overnight lodging for a special tourism effort, the campaign is the first fruit of what is expected to be an ongoing effort to make Whidbey and Camano islands vacation destinations. Loretta Martin, director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce and a member of the tourism committee, said that while she and other committee members were shocked to learn 95 percent of respondents to a Big Bang survey showed them believing the San Juan Islands made up island county, this gave them a place to start. Tourism promotion will start in the metropolitan Puget Sound area, then in future years will target Northern Oregon and Eastern Washington.

Martin said she believes live advertising featured on The Mountain Attitude Adjustment Hour radio show will bring rush-hour interest to vacationing on the islands.

"People are going to be caught in their cars at the end of the day," she said.

The advertising comes at the right time, according to some. Martin said the 60-plus bed and breakfasts and inns that use the chamber's lodging hotline showed lower occupancy this year than in the past. Even for established inns, like the Eagle's Nest bed and breakfast outside Langely. Eagle's Nest owner Joanne Lechner said the same is true of the other members of the South Whidbey Bed and Breakfast Association, a group which she heads.

This doesn't mean they couldn't use a boost. Lechner, who wears yet another hat as a member of the tourism committee, said the pool of advertising money is essential if Island County hopes to build its tourism industry.

"There's nowhere to go but up," she said.

Island County is not the first area to use lodging taxes to promote tourism. In Leavenworth, the city collects about $600,000 a year on lodging in 625 rooms. Bill Taylor, director of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, said about $390,000 of that money went into television, print and radio advertising for the city this year.

Having done this since 1993, the city has a good track record of generating revenue for local business and tax revenue. This year, Taylor said, Leavenworth spent more on tourism promotion than the state of Washington.

"There's absolutely no question the money comes back," he said.

Island County does not have quite as much money to work with. In the past two and a half years, lodging tax receipts for the tourism committee total $439,000. That amount will grow as tourism grows, Martin said.

Print and bus billboard ads for the campaign will shoe people relaxing and enjoying themselves in island settings. Martin said the ads are designed to convince potential island visitors that Whidbey and Camano islands are places to "relax and do nothing."

The new ad campaign will kick off on Jan. 15, just after the holiday advertising blitz for retailers quiets. At about the same time, in a separate effort, the tourism committee will launch a Web site promoting tourism.

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