The city of Redmond wants you to visit. So bad that tourism officials there will pay you $100 to do so.

Got your shots and itching for a “vaxication”? Or just can’t stand being a shut-in anymore following our long winter of COVID-19? Starting Sunday, by booking two nights at a participating hotel in the town that Microsoft made famous, you can use the $100 travel bonus to pay for meals, spa visits, clothing or anything else at more than three dozen eligible local businesses.

“The Redmond-area businesses, just like in every other small community in our country and our world, they’re hurting,” said Peter Klauser, tourism manager of Experience Redmond, the city of 75,000’s visitor development program. “The pandemic has definitely affected business and we’ve had a few businesses close, and we’ve certainly had a lot of businesses that are way down in their numbers. So we’re trying to do everything we can to support the small-business community here. With the rising tide, all ships will lift.”

The pandemic has wiped out almost all tourism in Western Washington. Save a slow trickle of brave (or foolhardy) souls, visitors are staying home by the millions. In 2019, nearly 42 million people visited King County in some way or another, with nearly 22 million staying the night.

Just a fraction of those visitors came in 2020 (initial estimates say less than 50%), and it was even worse in Redmond, where tourism dollars are largely dependent on corporate travelers visiting the headquarters of Microsoft, Nintendo of America and others. SpaceX, for instance, has a major operation building satellites in Redmond.

“Most of those businesses told their employees to just work remotely and use Teams and Zoom and to stay home,” Klauser said. “And so the industry that’s really felt this the hardest, to me, that may have the hardest time recovering, is the tourism industry.”

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Chances are those corporate travelers won’t be returning anytime soon. So Klauser and his colleagues are betting $50,000 in hotel tax money can help fill the void.

The program — dubbed “Geek Out Gold” — works pretty simply. The first 500 parties who book a two-night stay at a participating hotel in Redmond can earn $100 worth of virtual gift certificates provided by the software company Conpoto and redeem them at participating local businesses. Can’t make it two nights? They’ll give you a $25 gift certificate for a one-night stay.

The program is funded with money that was earmarked for events and marketing that promote local tourism. Most of the city’s tourism-related events were canceled last year, so Experience Redmond had to get creative with the money.

They took their cues from a similar program in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, that was successful in drawing visitors back to a Rocky Mountain town that struggled under a one-two punch of tough luck in 2020. First, COVID-19 took down tourism season, so officials there launched the “Glenwood Gold” incentive program, giving 1,000 visitors $100 in gift certificates with a two-night stay. Then, a fire in nearby Glenwood Canyon cut off businesses from the vital Interstate 70 corridor in late summer, and the city doubled down on the program in what became a very busy October.

“It just really picked up after the fire because of this promotion,” said Lisa Langer, director of tourism promotion for Visit Glenwood Springs. “I really believe without the promotion, we would have been really soft, and with the promotion, it went like gangbusters. Everybody was busy through the fall. It was a win-win.”

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News of the program went viral and made its way to the Pacific Northwest, where tourism leaders and business owners were fretting about a second straight summer of COVID-19 restrictions.

“I actually read about the program in Colorado,” said Dan Angellar, general manager of Seattle Marriott Redmond. “It actually caught my eye. And it’s funny because I reached out to Peter [Klauser] and he was like, ‘You’re not going to believe this. I read the same article and we’re thinking this might work for Redmond.’”

Five months later, participating Redmond businesses are about to find out. The hotels have been hit particularly hard due to their corporate orientation, with occupancy as low as 5% at times over the winter and staffs reduced accordingly. An infusion of visitors — even if most come from just 15 miles down Highway 520 — would be a welcome start to the 2021 tourist season.

“This is open to travelers, people that are coming in from out of state, but it’s also open to people right here in town,” Klauser said. “If you want to get away for a couple of nights, you know, mix up your Zoom background for a couple of days or get some pampering, tuck into those high-thread-count hotel sheets, those down pillows for a couple of days, it’s kind of a staycation. You feel like you’re getting away without going far.”

Angellar believes stir-crazy wanderers will quickly snap up the allotment of 500.

“And I think it’s going to put the pressure on us to say, ‘Hey, can we do a secondary campaign?’” Angellar said. “That would be a great thing. That would be a really cool thing. I mean, downtown is devastated, and with no cruises … they’re going to have to think differently for the next 12 to 24 months. If they don’t, our local economies are going to continue to struggle. We’ve got to do something to have people get out of the house.”

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Other Western Washington communities have been looking at similar incentive models as well to help spur visitors. Greg Urban, president and CEO of the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce, said the small city north of Seattle used a similar $25 community cash incentive that was not tied to hotel stays but that benefited local businesses.

The “Edmonds Cash” program launched just before Urban saw news of Glenwood Springs’ efforts. He thinks adding the hotel component to the community cash model was brilliant.

“It’s a beautiful kind of twofer,” Urban said. “You’re putting funds back into the lodging tax through the stays, and the merchants that are able to accept or redeem those certificates have the potential for a quick influx. I think it’s a fantastic thing.”

With mostly small businesses and restaurants driving its economy, Edmonds doesn’t have the same kind of hotel tax revenues as some of its larger neighboring towns. While prominent tourism destinations will likely have no trouble drawing visitors in the coming months, Urban hopes smaller communities in the area will be able to leverage money now available through the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

“Local municipalities are going to have to do more to garner not only the people from outside of the community, but to garner back the people within their own community, to get them out of that space of where they’re still wary,” Urban said. “If too many people do that and spending stays restricted or stays purely online, it’s going to be even harder for these merchants to come back, which then extends out how long it is for people to get jobs back.”

Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle, has been watching the way incentives have been used this spring around the country. Some areas, like Florida and Texas, are essentially wide-open and there are all kinds of way to save money. But Seattle and much of Western Washington isn’t there yet, though Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week that the state will move into Phase 3 of its reopening plan on March 22.

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“Part of our issue, which we’re hoping to clarify here fairly soon, is that here in Seattle, King County and a lot of the state, nonessential travel is not really encouraged,” Norwalk said. “And so we are trying to be very careful and not get too far out of the marketplace in terms of how we’re encouraging people to come in. So we’re trying to do a lot of things to encourage people to come into the city, buy your food, do an overnight stay if you’re local. So we’re just being careful.”

Norwalk has been peeking ahead, though. One potential program in the works would be to move the city’s annual Museum Month from February (when most museums were closed) to the summer and provide visitors who stay in a hotel with an incentive they can redeem at one of more than three dozen museums in the region.

“We’re just trying to figure out the timing, if that’s going to work for the museum partners, if that’s going to work with the nonessential travel restrictions,” Norwalk said. “So that’s the way we would probably do it. I don’t think we would offer outright any discount, but I think it’s a great idea for a community that has the resources and ability. I think it’s wonderful.”

For more information on Redmond’s travel incentive program, go to geekoutinredmond.com.

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