Front & Center: Visit Spokane’s new leader seeks to enhance metro area’s appeal as a destination city
When Meg Winchester arrived in Spokane this year, she took notice of the city’s natural beauty, great dining options and friendly community.
Winchester, who became president and CEO of Visit Spokane in late January, is hoping those attributes will put the city on the map as a destination for tourists and convention attendees.
Winchester has decades of convention sales and marketing experience. As former director for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau in Texas, she was instrumental in rebuilding tourism revenue and visitation in Galveston after Hurricane Ike devastated the region in 2008.
Winchester replaced Cheryl Kilday, who led Visit Spokane for eight years before leaving last year to become CEO of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau in South Carolina.
“(Spokane) is a wonderful city, so I was very excited to take this position,” Winchester said. “When I met the community – especially the hospitality community – and saw the package they have with the convention center, the river running through downtown and the hotel package, it was just a given.”
From catering assistant to tourism executive
Winchester grew up in Southern California but has ties to Texas through her father, who is from Galveston. After Winchester graduated from Texas State University with a degree in journalism, she was unsure of a career path but wanted to return to California. She got a job as a catering assistant at the New Otani Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
“That was my first job – my first real job out of college,” she said. “I thought this would be an opportunity to see if it was a career path that I wanted to look at – hotels and hospitality – and it just turned out to suit me really well.”
Winchester was hired as national sales manager in 1996 for the citywide sales team at the San Diego Convention Center. She retained that position for more than seven years before becoming a national key accounts sales manager for Visit Houston and the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Winchester then became director of sales for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2006 and took over as director of the organization in 2009.
Rebuilding after Hurricane Ike
While Winchester was working at the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, Hurricane Ike struck the area in 2008 and “pretty much knocked the city down.”
“It didn’t take all the buildings out, but there was a lot of water damage to our major industries,” she said. “We realized at that point, that tourism was going to be the one industry that was going to be able to quickly bring back economic impact to the city.”
Winchester said homes also sustained damage, and it was important to get hospitality employees working again.
“So we worked really diligently to get the industry back up, of course with all of our partners – hotels, restaurants,” she said. “But, we were very fortunate. By the following March, we had a great spring break and we were back on our way to getting the island back – at least in the tourism industry and having people starting to come back to the island.”
Challenges in the tourism industry
A big challenge in the tourism industry – which varies depending on the city – is welcoming people to the destination.
“There’s cities that are not that welcoming,” she said. “Spokane is not that. This is one of the most welcoming cities I’ve been to, hospitalitywise, and it has just genuine people.”
Tourism is also a competitive market, and people may have perceptions about destinations they haven’t visited yet, she said.
Additionally, people from other regions may not have heard of Spokane and when they think of Washington state, they immediately envision Seattle.
“We want to be able to really get out and tell the Spokane story to get people here,” she said.
Growing tourism in Spokane
Winchester aims to grow tourism and bring convention business to the city by working with regional partners, such as the Spokane Convention Center, hotels and the Spokane International Airport.
“The footprint for the hotel and Spokane Convention Center is amazing for certain size groups,” she said.
Spokane is hosting 16 conventions this year, including the Vietnam Veterans of America National Convention in July and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability and Higher Education, which will bring 2,200 people to the city in October.
The Public Relations Society of America will bring more than 500 participants to Spokane in 2020 for four to five days, she said.
“That is something we are super-excited about,” Winchester said. “We’re already working on it. Most of them haven’t been here, and we will look at different niches of Spokane to feature.”
Spokane is on the verge of becoming a tourism and economic hub, she said.
“I truly believe that working together, telling the story of Spokane and getting people here is going to lift all of us up,” she said. “That was one of the reasons I was most excited to come here, too.”