Travel Oregon’s CEO on why cannabis isn’t a huge destination driver, and why being the biggest isn’t best

VIP events allowing visiting Oregon delegation to meet, network and share in an evening with top Australia media and trade partners in an environment that is also inspired by Oregon Slightly Exaggerated with our venue itself.

Travel Weekly recently went one-on-one with Travel Oregon chief executive Todd Davidson to chat about the destination’s challenges and opportunities, its rapport with Aussie agents, and more.

TW: What’s the biggest challenge for Oregon as a destination going forward? And what is its biggest opportunity?

TD: I think one of the biggest challenges for us as we go forward is wanting to make sure that we’re maintaining the quality of the experience for our visitors that are visiting Oregon from around the world. We want to make sure the experience is personalised, because the reason you may come to Oregon may be different to the reason your father comes to Oregon.

At the same time, while we’re using the tourism industry to create great jobs for Oregonians, we want to make sure that we’re preserving this place that we have the privilege of promoting. It really isn’t about being the biggest – it’s about being the best.

We’ve seen tremendous benefit in focusing on our international markets and the way that plays into trying to be the best is international visitors stay longer and spend more money per trip. If we had visitors from Australia, they spend on average 10 days to two weeks in Oregon, whereas the average domestic traveller spends four days, so you can see there is a tremendous opportunity and we focus hard on the international markets, and we’re seeing the benefits of that.

For example, our international spending has grown at five times the rate of what it’s grown nationally. In 2018, international spending to the US grew one per cent and in Oregon it grew fiver per cent. Eight years ago, we wouldn’t have even been talking about New Zealand and Australia as markets, and now Australia is our fifth-largest overseas market, spending roughly US$42 million per year in Oregon. Overall, Australia is our second-fastest growing international market.

TW: The exchange rate isn’t to flash for Aussies at the moment, and if you couple that with a weakening local economy, it would appear most US destinations have a battle on their hands to woo Aussie tourists. Do you agree, and if so, how is Travel Oregon tackling this?

TD: First of all, there’s no doubt that the exchange rate has not been an incentive for international visitors coming to Oregon – it’s made the US far more expensive.

One of the benefits of Oregon as a destination is we have no sales tax, so all the shopping that Australian visitors love to do on their holiday is going to be five to 10 per cent cheaper. The industry in Oregon is sophisticated enough to understand they are battling that exchange rate, so they’re going to make sure the price they’re offering is good value.

Oregon generally is a good-value destination – it’s not seen as being overpriced to begin with, so there is quality for the dollar and we’ve got no sales tax on top of that. So, that’s how we’re combatting it.

TW: Cannabis-themed tours appear to be on the rise in places where possession and recreational usage of marijuana is legal. Is that true for Oregon? Is it an area of focus for the state?

TD: What we’ve seen, and most of this research has been domestic (not necessarily on international visitation), is that it has not been a huge destination driver for us. Part of that is we were the second or third state to legalise, and many of states have legalised it – the entire West Coast is legal.

However, the restrictions on legal consumption of marijuana are strict. For example, you can’t smoke in public, you can’t smoke it in your hotel room, so if a traveller bought it, where would they smoke it?

We don’t necessarily have the social clubs yet either, like a cannabis bar where you can buy something and smoke it there. It’s not a thing in any of the states where it is currently legal, and that becomes the challenge.

The restrictions have made it less of an incentive for people to make it a reason to travel to Oregon. That said, we do have people who are very curious about it, and we do have companies that have set up tours so you can go see grow operations or get a behind-the-scenes look of a dispensary to understand the different kinds of cannabis. So, there are tours you can take and they seem to be getting legs, but we have not seen it really pop as a huge driver of travel to Oregon yet.

TW: How would you rate Travel Oregon’s relationship with Aussie travel agents? How is it looking to improve the relationship?

TD: We had over 100 people attend our event in Sydney last month, and there are a lot of people that are excited to learn about what Oregon has to offer. You hear things like “Oregon feels like home” and they feel a kinship with Oregonians. There’s a beautiful similarity between the state of Oregon and the country of Australia.

And once we bring members of the Aussie travel trade to Oregon, they become lifelong fans. They have formed relationships with members of our industry and truly fallen in love with Oregon.

TW: What are some of the misconceptions Australian agents have around selling Oregon?

TD: There are still some members of the trade who aren’t completely sure why Oregon. They know a lot of places that may be more well-known from movies or wherever else.

Oregon has become this place often visited by repeat travellers to the United States – we’re that second or third or fourth trip to the US. So, there’s a small segment that still wants to better understand how to package it, how clients would move around, and what there is to see and do.

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