At the end of 2018, SpringHill Suites & TownePlace Suites General Manager Keith Coleman, with encouragement from Sandy Ward at Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, had an idea to unite all of Whatcom County’s hotels in a cooperative system. Collectively, they could improve communications within the industry and brainstorm ways to boost tourism in the area. In a little over a year, the Bellingham Whatcom County Lodging Association has done those things, and much more, even as they continue to grow.
Coleman, a graduate of Ferndale High School and the University of Washington, gained experience at Semiahmoo Resort and the Lakeway Inn (now Four Points by Sheraton), and then moved to Seattle for a time. But he moved back to Bellingham to help open the SpringHill Suites by Marriott and later the TownePlace Suites, and it wasn’t long before he started talking about the organization that could band together the local hotels.
“I remember Keith telling me about this, and I thought it was a great idea,” says Dana Weber, General Manager for Best Western Plus Bellingham Airport. “There’s the Washington hospitality association, which is for the whole state, but we wanted to start a local organization. So that’s what we did, along with help from Sandy Ward, the president of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.”
Weber has also spent years in the hotel business, but moved to Bellingham as an adult. “It was sort of on a whim,” he says. “I grew up in Seattle, and started my hotel career there, in 2001, with Silver Cloud Hotels. I saw an opportunity at the Lakeway Inn in 2006, and I’d never lived more than three miles from my parents at that point, so I thought, ‘You know what, let’s go on a journey’—and I’ve never looked back.”
During the association’s first year, Weber sat on the executive committee and served as secretary. The group took on projects like creating a communication system, an online forum that lets all of its members share information on everything from staffing to upcoming local events that might bring a wave of visitors.
Now, as a relatively young organization, the Lodging Association is focusing on expanding its partnerships. One area includes short-term rentals, or Vacation Rentals By Owner. “The Airbnb and VRBO business has become such a big deal in Whatcom County,” Weber says. “We’re trying to reach out to ‘superhosts,’ because they’re just as important as the hotels are to lodging in Whatcom County; they’re starting to pay lodging tax just like the hotels. We want to see them as partners.”
They’re also engaging with lawmakers in Olympia on a number of issues. “New ‘panic alarm’ legislation just went into effect in January,” Weber explains. “Everybody on staff now has a device to contact the front desk. God forbid, if somebody does something, they can hit a button on their radio, and it sends an alarm.”
Looking to the future, member are talking about collecting money from lodgings to bolster local projects in the form of a tourism assessment. “The City of Seattle put a two dollar assessment on every hotel room, and that money goes strictly toward lodging and tourism,” says Weber. “We could do something like that here: if we build an indoor sports facility, we could use that assessment to help run it.”
That type of building project is part of a conversation that includes the Lodging Association, Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism and the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Right now, the biggest convention space in town is the Four Points by Sheraton, which can hold up to 400 people,” says Weber. The group would like to have a space that could fit 1,000 to 2,000 people.
“Obviously, we have a beautiful summer, so people come here in droves,” he continues. “But there’s not enough drawing folks up here in that off season, when it’s raining for the other eight months of the year. So we’re partnering with the Tourism Board and helping with that study.”
Another part of their growth includes attracting more members in other hospitality industries. “It’s amazing the amount of stuff you can accomplish in this county. The city is barely 100,000 people, but you’ve got Mount Baker Theatre, you’ve got music—and the beer,” Weber says with a laugh. He gets many guests from Canada and Seattle who want to do brewery tours. “They specifically come to Bellingham for the breweries; it’s becoming the same way Bend is, or Portland’s brewery scene. And we need to look at the restaurants, too, because they’re just as important as the hotels in helping out with our visitors.”
When asked whether competing businesses make good Lodging Association partners, Weber responds by talking about “co-opetition,” a blend of cooperation and competition. “Yes, we are competing against each other, but at the same time we’re also trying to draw visitors to come and see how wonderful we are up here.”
Weber is quick to say that the thing he loves most about living in Whatcom County is its people. “What I really respect about Bellingham and Whatcom County are the relationships—everybody wants to help each other. I really want to promote Whatcom County, to get more people up here. Then, we all win.”