Oregon Businesses Gear Up for the Return of International Travel

By Kerry Newberry

May 9, 2023

When Holly Roberson, the co-founder of Sip Savor Explore Oregon received an email about an educational program on how to work with the international travel trade, she immediately signed up, interested in new ways to grow her business. “We found the workshop super illuminating because international travelers weren’t on our radar,” she says.

Hosted by Travel Oregon’s international team during the first week of February, Steps to Success,  a program developed by International Inbound Travel Association (IITA), was held in five regions over the course of four days with a total of six workshops. Each 90-minute program catered to 25-30 participants ranging from resort teams and boutique hotels to restaurants and tour operators.

One of Roberson’s key takeaways was learning how most international travelers plan. “We never knew they use travel agencies to book packages,” she says. In markets from Europe to Japan, travelers can walk into a corner store and purchase a complete trip from a tour operator that includes hotel, transportation and a few attractions and activities or tours along the way.

“In the U.S., we don’t really think about using travel agents or third-party booking agencies,” says Laurel McMillan with Visit Central Oregon, who helped organize the workshop held in her region. “But in the U.K. or Australia, it’s very common to buy a vacation package.”

How these packages are pieced together is a somewhat hidden aspect of the tourism industry that McMillan and other destination marketing organizations (DMOs) help local businesses decode. Travel Oregon’s recent workshop tapped industry leaders like ALON Marketing Group and America’s Hub World Tours to share their expertise on the process.

In the workshop, businesses were coached on how to frame their hospitality offerings as a sellable “product,” creating a focused one-pager, along with tips on how to pitch wholesalers (also called receptive operators). “When people think about online travel agents, it’s places like Expedia,” says McMillan. “But there’s a network of wholesalers and hundreds of tour operators who buy from them.”

For example, Rocky Mountain Holiday Tours (RMHT), one of the largest regional receptive operators, has considerable access to the European market. RMHT is one of many tour liaisons Travel Oregon works with to showcase inspiring itineraries for the state that any tour operator can then purchase. These bookable experiences range from cycling with the Portland-based Pedal Bike Tours to caving with Bend’s Wanderlust Tours.

“One of our biggest takeaways from the workshop was the reminder of how beneficial it is to work with third-party booking agencies,” says Courtney Braun of Wanderlust Tours. “Even in the mix of the busy season when it can feel like too much legwork, the benefits are always worth the time investment.” Many tour operators create a catalog of curated activities and places to stay, which makes it easy for them to build a compelling package to sell to consumers — again and again.

The state and regional DMOs continuously build connections with tour operators that focus on different markets – from Japan and China to India – when they attend trade shows, like the recent Go West Summit. The receptive operators then sell Oregon’s hotels, attractions and tours to hundreds of tour operators, who then sell it to travel agents, who sell it to consumers.

Leo Rosen-Fischer, the founder of Tree Climbing at Silver Falls, also attended the recent workshop and found the experience revealed a whole new market. “I’d never really thought about connecting with my local DMOs,” he says. He quickly honed in on the one-pager for his business. “It really took off,” he says. “After a few tradeshows I had people reaching out to me directly. I think it’s because climbing old-growth trees is so unique to Oregon.”

Rosen-Fischer was so inspired, he booked a trip to Asia to meet with more travel agencies. In his research, he discovered there’s a direct flight from the Philippines to Seattle. “Portland makes sense as a side trip and tree climbing is that ideal attraction,” he says. Another fine point that resonated with many participants is that international travelers book longer stays, ranging from four to eight weeks at a time.

“On that longer trip, if someone is traveling to San Francisco and Seattle, we’re in the middle and we are really well positioned to capture some of some of that traffic,” says Roberson.

“We also learned that 20% of visitors are joining guided tours.” Roberson and her husband offer tours primarily through wine-tasting experiences. But now she’s working with Travel Lane County to build out more itineraries that include historical landmarks, museums and even the Cascade Raptor Center.

Whether the receptive tour operator is working with a boutique business or a regional DMO, it’s a mutually beneficial partnership. Sunriver is a hotspot for summer and spring break and prominent in the domestic market. “But we’ve been working hard to grow the global aspect and diversify for our shoulder seasons,” says McMillan. And the operators can look to sell specifically in that time frame.

“I also thought it was interesting to learn from America’s Hub World Tours that we’ll start to see more inbound travel from India and Mexico,” says Roberson. She’s already planning on how that will play into some of their future initiatives. “It’s really important to me that people can see themselves reflected in the photos we share, so ensuring that our marketing features a diverse array of individuals is a priority.”

Overall, many participants found the workshop exceeded expectations in unexpected ways. Yes, there were invaluable insights on partnering with the international travel trade. But this first in-person version reignited the collective community. “It is so helpful to meet face-to-face and brainstorm and fuel ideas for future projects. The energy that everyone came with is hard to capture over Zoom,” says Braun.

“We were motivated by all the support that exists. We are a small business and feel like we’re on a little island doing this little thing,” says Roberson. “It was exciting to discover there are partners with a lot of reach. It’s not just my Google ads and social media posts. We can tap into a much broader network.” For McMillan, the event reinforced the importance of the tourism ecosystem — from hotels and restaurants to activities that all unite to shape the visitor experience. “Often tour operators are heads down, working in a silo, and it’s easy to forget that there’s a network of partners from the chamber to the DMO and RDMO,” she says. “We’re all in this together.”