Conde Nast Traveler called it “the West’s best-kept secret.”
CNN deemed Boise “one of America’s most interesting small cities,” Vogue featured it as a “growing culinary hotspot” and the “Today” show included it as one of the “Best Places to Go in 2018.”
In recent months, Idaho’s biggest city has been on lists of the “Best Cities for Recreation” and the “Best-Run Cities in America.”
Boise’s recent media darling status has had a steady impact on tourism, certainly. But not enough to eliminate the central challenge that comes with convincing travelers and conventions to come to the Treasure Valley: the fact that many people still don’t have an impression of Boise at all.
“As much as we think we’re overexposed and that everyone knows about Boise, we still have a long way to go for that awareness,” said Carrie Westergard, executive director of the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But we’re not pulling out the map as much as we used to.”
She’s referencing a literal geography lesson. Director of Sales Terry Kopp has been with the bureau for more than three decades and has experienced a notable shift when pitching Boise at trade shows as a potential convention location.
“Even five years ago I had to show you a map of the United States and I had to show you where Idaho was and I had to show you where Boise was,” Kopp said. “Now I don’t ever have to do that.”
Though there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest that the city is attracting more tourists, business travelers still account for a large portion of Boise visitors. It’s been a few years since the bureau paid for research, but the recent numbers showed that 65 percent of visitors were traveling individually for business or attending a meeting or convention, Westergard said. The other 35 percent were leisure travelers, most frequently coming to see family or friends.
But Westergard said a promising development is that Boise is attracting more “bleisure” travelers – business travelers who make time for vacation activities while in town or come back as vacationers, often with their families.
“Originally when people think, ‘I’m going to Boise,’ they just don’t have an impression yet of what they’re going to find here,” she said. “So once they get here they’re usually surprised. And surprised in a good way at all there is to do here and what a vibrant city it is. I hear over and over again how clean and safe and walkable the city is.”
Kopp said it also used to be much harder to convince event representatives and travel writers to come out to Boise on promotional trips – they were lucky to get 10 to 12 people. This summer, the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau had filled most of the 20 spots before even sending out formal invitations.
Boise’s evolving landscape has a lot to do with the shift, Kopp said, with more hotel rooms, direct flights to now 21 destinations as far east as Chicago and as far south as Texas, and an expanded convention center. But so does the fact that Boise has simply been in the business of promoting itself for so many years.
“When you keep plugging away at people and putting a name in front of them, then they start to remember the name,” she said.
Last year, the Boise Airport welcomed 1.6 million passengers into the city and visitors racked up 1.72 million overnight stays, according to the 2017 Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau Annual Report. As of July, Boise had sold more than 700,000 hotel room nights this year, Westergard said. On an average day, about 70 percent of hotel rooms in Ada County are occupied, she said.
The Boise area sees about $1.4 billion in total direct travel spending, and tourism employs 14,000 workers, according to a 2016 report by Dean Runyan & Associates.
Beyond the business and “bleisure” travelers, the main reason visitors came to Boise were outdoor attractions – proximity to whitewater rafting key among them.
Events such as the Twilight Criterium, Albertsons Boise Open, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and Treefort Music Fest are also big draws.
“There’s a lot of people discovering Boise because they’re coming for the first time for those events,” Westergard said. “And then they’re loving it here and coming back. It’s just a reason for someone to put it on their calendar and then discover everything else we have going on here.”
Room for more events
Westergard suspects the proportions of business and leisure travelers may have shifted a little in recent years, thanks to Boise’s media attention. But the city’s capacity for conventions and meetings has also increased dramatically with the completion of the Boise Centre’s expansion last summer. The original space offered 18 meeting rooms and could hold up to 500 people for a multiday convention. With the additions, the now-80,000-square-foot Boise Centre offers 31 meeting rooms and can host up to 2,000 people.
In addition to opening Boise up to bigger conventions, the expansion allows the center to host multiple events at once. In fact, there was a day last July when two conventions and two local events were running simultaneously, said Mary-Michael Rodgers, Boise Centre communications manager. Overall, Boise Centre business increased 14 percent last year. The center’s estimated economic benefit to the community averages $23 million a year, but that’s expected to nearly double in the next five years, she said. An out-of-town visitor coming to a Boise Centre event spends an average of $277 a day in the city.
“Boise Centre is very proud to be a proven, vital component of the community’s economic health,” Rodgers said. “And we’re really looking forward to continuing to grow, continuing to see larger events.”
Last summer, Boise hosted its largest citywide conference ever, welcoming 1,500 for a Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists event. Attendees stayed in 13 Boise hotels, though Westergard notes that the conference took place right as the Hyatt Place on Bannock Street was opening and several months before the Residence Inn by Marriott on Capitol Boulevard opened.
Among the logistical challenges Boise faces in attracting big conventions is the fact that attendees will have to stay in multiple hotels. Boise sometimes finds itself bidding against cities that offer one large convention property. But Westergard and Rodgers said that organizers are often sold on Boise once they realize how easy it is to get around Downtown. That Boise tends to have cheaper hotel rates than competitors such Seattle, Portland or Salt Lake is also a benefit, Rodgers said.
“There’s a lot of appeal for people to come to Idaho because it’s a unique destination,” Rodgers said. “They may have been to Phoenix, they may have been to Tampa, Florida, they may have been to Dallas, to Portland. Boise has really been gaining momentum the last three years or so, and they want to do something different.”
Mixing business and leisure
The boom of hotel development in Boise has helped make bigger events possible, Rodgers said. New properties have added about 600 rooms downtown since the beginning of 2017.
“Even with the new supply, the downtown demand at least seems to be holding pretty steady and pretty strong,” said John Cunningham, CEO of Block 22 Hotels, which manages The Grove Hotel on Capitol Boulevard, Hotel 43 on Grove Street and the Courtyard Marriott on Broadway Avenue.
Cunningham said the only slow times tend to be around major holidays, which makes any conventions or athletic tournaments scheduled at those times helpful. The Anime Oasis convention last May, for example, filled up rooms during what would otherwise be a quiet Memorial Day weekend.
Erik Hansen, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites on Capitol Boulevard, finds the recent growth in hotel development exciting. The momentum was needed, he said, because things were starting to feel stale.
“I’ve seen more development downtown, more activity downtown,” he said. “The businesses downtown are actually staying and growing. And it seems like there’s a lot less unoccupied space. A lot more activity, a lot more things to do.”
However, he said, the city does need to find new ways to bring business to hotels on Fridays and Saturdays. The market is strongest on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when business travelers are in town. Scheduling consistent conventions and sporting events is necessary, he said.
Business travelers still make up 75 percent of the Hampton’s guests, Hansen said. But he has noticed that more of those travelers are bringing their families along for the trip.
“So the person not at the convention is renting bikes, is going on a tour of the Botanical Garden or the Old Penitentiary, walking around Downtown, doing retail,” he said.
As gift store manager at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, Teresa Franzoia constantly chats with visitors, asking where they’re from and why they’re in town. And she’s noticed a distinct trend recently.
“This year, I can absolutely say there have been more tourists,” she said. Though there are still a lot of people stopping by while in town for work trips or conventions, she said, a lot of people have simply chosen to visit Boise.
Idaho Wine Commission Executive Director Moya Dolsby says that while people aren’t necessarily traveling to the area specifically to visit local wineries, the businesses have certainly been getting more attention from visitors who happen to be in town for other attractions. And she’s seen the effect of the city’s press attention, with more people understanding all that Boise has to offer. At first it was surprising to meet so many visitors who weren’t just in town to see family.
“I should stop being shocked,” she said.
‘The discovery path’
Anne Long, office manager for Cascade Raft & Kayak, said most business still comes from people with a connection to the area, primarily family. But she’s seen a slight increase in people purely in the area to vacation – as well as a noticeable increase in people who are visiting as they consider a move.
Cunningham, too, notes that the recent interest in Boise is not strictly about visiting.
“Boise’s becoming more than just a curiosity,” he said. “I think people are exploring it as either a place to work or live.”
Growth and its accompanying bevy of concerns – traffic, rising housing prices, overall quality of life – are hot topics in the Treasure Valley. Boise sat atop another list in 2018: Forbes’ roundup of “America’s Fastest Growing Cities.” With the city’s population up 3.08 percent last year, it has grown more than any other major metropolitan area.
Westergard acknowledges that tourism is an introduction into the community. But she urges perspective.
“It’s a small minority of people that would actually uproot their families and go to a whole new location where they’re finding employment,” she said. “So I do think, yes, it probably is on the discovery path for some that are willing to up and move to a new location. But I do also feel that people love visiting here and they love it enough to hopefully return. But not everyone’s moving here.”
Do you know of an organization that might want to host a meeting or conference in Boise? The Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau is looking for suggestions. You can submit ideas at boise.org/meet/meet-in-boise.