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Santa Barbara Tourism On the Upswing

Travel Outlook Conference Presenters Optimistic


Speakers at the 2012 Travel Outlook Conference, an annual event organized by the Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau and Film Commission, expressed cautious optimism about the tourism industry in Santa Barbara.

Bureau member were provided wide swaths of information and statistics that officials thought served to justify their hopeful forecast. The first speaker, Dan Mishell, director of research for the California Travel & Tourism Commission, explained how factors like international exchange rates and gas prices impact tourism in markets like Santa Barbara (beachside, close to a major metropolitan area, West Coast).

The data is rather encouraging: After a dramatic three-year decline, lodging occupancy numbers look to be rebounding statewide at an almost equally dramatic pace. And, even though this could be attributed to the rise of “bargain sites,” Bruce Baltin of Colliers PKF Consulting assured members that occupancy rates inevitably lead to profits.

On a less tangible level, Baltin pointed out that most Westerners (meaning Europeans, Americans, and even Canadians) view travel as a right, not a privilege. So rather than forcing them to abstain from traveling altogether, the economic climate has caused most travelers to look closer to home for their vacation destinations. Santa Barbara fits the bill as a getaway that’s not so far away.

Relentless in his optimism, Baltin continued illustrating how the current state of the economy benefits local tourism. For example, the lack of available debt financing means that expansion has been kept to minimal levels. Therefore, existing rooms are being filled while new rooms aren’t being created, keeping demand high. Plus, the high rate of unemployment keeps the cost of labor down, and companies eager to grow are sure to travel more, and that’s also good for the hotel business. Making business travel a higher priority would also help local business owners weather the seasonal “valleys” — like late summer and winter — that plague the tourism industry. The bulk of travelers to Santa Barbara remain tourists who visit for a relatively short period of time, though.

The conference’s keynote speaker, David Bratton, explained that the city’s tourism Web site (www.SantaBarbaraCA.com) has been particularly successful in developing business for the whole county. Bratton is the founder of Destination Analysis, a consulting firm that conducted a study on the effectiveness of the bureau’s Web site. Using a survey to gauge visitors’ opinions pre- and post-visit, Bratton determined that approximately $49.18 worth of business was generated for every visitor to the site over the period of his study, February 18 to September 30, 2011. This means that about $14 million worth of business was generated by the Web site, nearly double the average for a city that fits Santa Barbara’s profile, examples being San Francisco and Laguna Beach. Bratton remains optimistic that that figure can continue to grow in different sectors like business and international markets.

But who are these tourists that spend all this money? The results of the survey allowed Bratton to lay out a demographic profile that he calls a “sophisticated, high profile” individual. The median age of a visitor to Santa Barbara is 49.2, which is higher than the statewide average. Additionally, the 78.8 percent employment rate and 69.4 percent college graduation rate are exceptionally high figures for any city. An average annual income of $104,000 combined with a relatively low parenthood rate indicates that they’re a demographic that enjoy the finer things in life and aren’t concerned with typical “budget-reliant” trips.

What does this all mean? Well, for starters, things look to be getting better. We’re in a period of “recovery,” according to Bratton, and the growth looks to be sustainable. Even better, our average visitor isn’t someone who is susceptible to the peaks and valleys of the daily marketplace.

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