Is Ashland using inflated tourism numbers?

BY  David Runkel February 03, 2019

How many tourists visit Ashland each year?

Is it the 450,000 claimed last summer in a city budget update document?

Is it the 400,000 cited in the city’s 2017 official budget message?

Is it the 300,000 the Chamber of Commerce’s Visitor and Convention Bureau reported in 2016?

Or is it really much lower?

Why is this important? Because the city has based major policy and spending decisions on this one statistic.

TravelOregon, the state’s tourism agency, describes a tourist as someone who travels more than 50 miles to reach a site and therefore will probably spend the night there, instead of driving home.

So where do all these tourists sleep? As 17-year veterans of the innkeeping business, my wife and I have fed, entertained and made beds for thousands of visitors. We’ve competed with motels, hotels, other legal bed and breakfasts inns, illegal bed and breakfast properties and traveler’s accommodation locations.

To come up with a ballpark estimate of the number of available rooms for overnight stays in Ashland today, the properties listed in the Ashland phone book yellow pages under motels were contacted. Most but not all are within the city limits. Some 1,186 rooms are available at these motels and the Ashland Springs Hotel. Adding an estimated 150 rooms at bed and breakfast inns, 300 rooms in AirBNB and VRBO short-term rental properties and 40 hostel beds brings the room total to 1,700.

Assuming two people per room would result in 3,400 tourists staying in Ashland each night, with an average three-night stay, our experience and OSF’s.

For the purposes of this exercise, I’ve also assumed the following:

  • All 1,700 available rooms are booked six nights of the week, Monday excepted, during the 18 high season tourism weeks of the year, June thru mid-October.
  • 850 of these rooms are fully occupied six days a week for another 25 weeks of the so-called shoulder season — mid to late October, November, February, March, April and May.
  • 340 rooms are fully occupied six days a week in December and January.

So, here’s the math: 3,400 tourists staying three nights in the high season in 1,700 rooms is 122,400; 1,700 tourists staying three nights in the shoulder season months is another 85,000; and another 12,000 tourists in December and January. Rounding up, that tops out at 220,000.

And this would be the high number in smoke-free years when OSF is having a great season with many hit productions.

Why the difference between my conclusion with generous assumptions and the higher estimates? It’s unsure. A Council member last year said the city’s numbers are based on a formula developed years ago by a city economist. The number of OSF ticket buyers has also been cited as evidence for tourism numbers. My number could be a little low because it does not include visitors staying with friends or relatives, or those who seek out less expensive rooms in Talent, Phoenix or Medford, but attend plays, eat and shop in Ashland. It’s unlikely, however, these are in the hundreds of thousands.

Calculating the right number is important because the city needs to make informed decisions in the upcoming 2019-21 budget process based on real numbers, not inflated ones or hopeful ones.

“The tourism industry is a large portion of the local economy and the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) is an indicator in the tourist economy,” Finance Director Mark Welch said last summer. The city’s official forecast was for a 12 percent growth in TOT tax revenues in the current budget and a 7 percent increase in future years.

The city’s TOT revenue, however, was down last summer despite a more than 10 percent increase in the tax rate. And, I’m told the 2019-21 budget proposal will forecast no increase in TOT revenue the next two years.

These predictions may not come true. The city’s TOT revenue was down last summer despite a more than 10 percent increase in the tax rate.

Since 77 percent of the TOT tax income goes into the city’s general fund to pay for regular city services, the city may need to find ways to save money or look other places for revenue. The other 23 percent is allocated for tourism promotion, some going in small grants to local arts groups and larger amounts given to OSF and the Chamber’s VCB. How this money is being spent has not been reviewed recently by the Citizens Budget Committee. It should be before the City Council decides on 2019-2021 budget allocations.

David Runkel and his wife, Deedie, own Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. He’s been a member of the Ashland Citizens Budget Committee for eight years and chairman for the past four. Submitted by author.