Our Voice: Tri-Cities' identity crisis difficult problem to solve

The Tri-Cities has had a long-standing identity crisis.

Golf? Sunshine? Wine? Water? Wind?

We're all those things and more. But none of those components sets us apart from other Eastern Washington destinations.

And that's exactly the point a consultant raised at the recent Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau's annual meeting.

"What do you have that sets you apart from everyone else?" Roger Brooks, CEO of Roger Brooks International, asked a large audience filled with smart folks familiar with the Tri-Cities. But no one answered that question.

It was much easier to identify the brands of towns like Leavenworth and Westport.

Brand identity is something we have long struggled with in the Tri-Cities. We're a sea of four cities that flow together save for a river or two that cut though them. Each city has its own name. None has a clear-cut identity. We're a community of many great things but not one of particular distinction.

There is Hanford, of course, but take a minute to ponder that. The connotations are not exactly conducive to an enticing marketing campaign. While it's true that we have several interesting Manhattan-era venues, public access remains limited and they appeal to a fragment of the tourism market.

Like it or not, nuclear brings negative reactions from some people. Think about it: How many times have you been asked if you glow in the dark once someone puts the pieces together for the location of the Tri-Cities? The fact that one of the mainstays in our economy is cleaning up radioactive waste hardly makes people want to book a plane ticket.

We've all been asked where we are from in our travels, and then had to run through the list of towns in the "Tri-Cities" to see if one rings a bell with the inquisitor. And if it doesn't, we start in with the distance from Seattle, Portland or even Walla Walla to try to put our hometown in geographical perspective.

Brooks, a tourism expert who has helped brand communities across the country, is a Washington native with some innate idea of the challenges he faces as he starts a project to create a regional brand for the Tri-Cities.

A brand is something that has long been talked about but has been too difficult to define for those who have tried before. But Brooks may just be the man. He has helped other communities, branding some with significant identity crises and others that were easier to define. If the topic interests you, take some time to read through the case histories of clients he has worked for in the past at bit.ly/rogerbrooks for a snapshot of what may be possible here.

A brand is key for tourism efforts and economic development. It's much easier to recruit visitors and new businesses with branded marketing materials that excite and create visions for a location.

The Tri-Cities is not the only entity suffering when it comes to identity and tourism marketing. Our state is the "other Washington" in many minds across the nation. Our state's leaders in their infinite wisdom decided to make Washington the only state in the nation without a state-supported tourism marketing effort. It was a cost savings, they said. When the office closed in July 2011, it had been operating on a budget of $1.8 million. In terms of our state's spending that was budget dust and is a cut that had little consequence to the state's bottom line. But it has had a huge affect on the ability to market our state to visitors and bring in those almighty dollars.

Tourism was our state's No. 4 industry at the time the office was shuttered. That hardly seems like a place to start making cuts. Especially when we're surrounded by states and a Canadian province with tourism marketing budgets from $8 million to $50 million.

Competition is fierce for tourists because of the money they spend when they visit. Tourism is a $16.4 billion industry that supports nearly 150,900 jobs and contributes $1.8 billion in local and state taxes. The Washington Tourism Alliance, an industry group, formed when the state gave up on tourism. It's doing its part to promote Washington but it can't pull together the resources available to the state-funded operations they are competing against from our neighbors. The WTA had operated on a budget of less than $500,000 a year. This year's state budget provides $1 million to the organization, but we're still woefully outgunned by other states that comprehend the importance of tourism and go after that market with the necessary dollars.

Our local organizations get it. The convention bureau, the Tri-City Development Council and the Tri-Cities Regional Chamber of Commerce are stepping up with $87,000 to pay Brooks to solve our community's identity crisis. We're excited by the prospect of a brand for our region. If done right, it should help invigorate our state's tourism industry as well as our own, and finally give us an answer to the question: Where are you from?