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Arizona’s hospitality industry embraces global market

Arizona has the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Sedona, but to promote these natural wonders to international travelers is no walk in the park.

To showcase Arizona around the globe, it takes detailed research, strategic planning, effective branding and marketing, a global network of industry professionals — and the power to erase any lingering negativity associated with the state.

Despite several years of bad publicity surrounding controversial immigration policies and other proposed legislation that darkened the state’s reputation, Arizona is experiencing an increase in tourism.

“We definitely try and share with everyone we come into contact with that we are a more progressive community than the state is known as being,” says Joanne Hudson, public relations specialist for the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Certain markets, especially the Mexico visitor, have been negatively affected the last few years from the state laws and policies that have come out,” Hudson says. “We share that we are a very welcoming and open community and try to get them here to experience it. Once they get here, they really do sense and feel that. They realize it isn’t what they see and hear in the news.”

Rachel Pearson, vice president of community and government affairs at the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, says, “We are traveling around the world connecting with customers and clients, trying to reinforce who we are as a destination, who we are as a state and ensuring that people understand that we are a very welcoming destination. We offer some unique, rich experiences that you can’t have anywhere else.”

Beyond the state’s scenic beauty, Arizona’s diversity, especially the Native American and Hispanic cultural influences, appeals to international travelers, explains Sherry Henry, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism.

The rich multi-cultural experiences and gorgeous scenery, combined with outdoor activities, vibrant cities, fine dining and shopping, attracts millions of visitors and brings in billions of dollars.

Industry leaders are looking toward the future with optimism as they strategize how to attract even more world travelers.

“Arizona Office of Tourism has been active in the international market for years starting with Mexico and Canada, and overseas with partners in the United Kingdom, Germany and France,” Henry says, “and just three years ago we launched into emerging markets of China and Brazil.”

MEXICAN INFLUENCE

Currently, Mexico tops the charts for international travel into Arizona. At the height of the controversy surrounding Arizona’s immigration policies, the influx of Mexican travelers decreased. But statistics from 2013 show a rebound with a total number of Mexican visitors to Arizona at more than 3.6 million. Other countries that rank high on the list are Canada, Germany, United Kingdom and France with 1.1 million visitors collectively. Total international travelers in 2013 reached roughly 5.3 million.

The Arizona tourism industry has been proactive in reaching out south of the border and developing programs to promote and facilitate travel in Arizona.

Jessica Stephens, director of public relations at Visit Tucson, says travelers from Mexico bring in close to $1 billion a year in southern Arizona alone. Visit Tucson has two visitors centers in Mexico that help with hotel reservations and other concierge services. They also help expedite border crossings with a program developed with customs and border patrol that allows pre-approved travelers to obtain a fast pass. This makes traveling to Arizona a 12-minute trip instead of waiting in a car for hours.

Other Arizona cities and convention and visitors bureaus have pooled resources to fund trade offices in Mexico. Today, Henry says, the discussions no longer reflect the challenges of the past, but instead focus on the future. “It’s all about how we can be better partners and how can we develop that area that has such great potential.”

FOCUS ON CHINA

Arizona is now setting sights on China, the number one traveling country in the world. Henry explains that there is so much potential for growth in the emerging markets of China and Brazil, which is also topping the international travel charts. She pointed to a partnership with Brand USA, the marketing arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce designed to develop travel interest in the United States, as essential to increasing global awareness.

“We think Arizona has such appeal,” Henry says. “International journalists are amazed at what they see when they are here, and they bring the stories back to their countries.”

Barry Nakano, director of business development with PacRim Marketing Group and a board member of the Hospitality, Sales and Marketing Association International Arizona Chapter, knows the Asian markets. He recognizes the potential of the China market and points out that other Asian markets also impact our economy. According to the Arizona Office of Tourism statistics, Japan and the Republic of Korea brought in more visitors than China in 2013.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest today in the China market and understandably so. Their 1.3 billion population presents enormous potential and the recent decision by the U.S. government to extend Visa validity for visitors from China should accelerate the growth of that market. We shouldn’t overlook however, that Japan is still the second largest overseas feeder market to the U.S., and South Korea and Taiwan markets continue to grow. Japanese, in particular, have been traveling overseas a long time so tend to be more independent and willing to explore new destinations.”

INDUSTRY PREPARES

Nakano offers practical advice for those in the hospitality industry as they prepare for the influx of international travelers.

“The most efficient and cost effective way to reach Asian travelers is online and providing information in the language of the traveler is important,” he says, adding that websites should be an essential part of any marketing toolkit. “When creating an international language website, make sure the content is developed by professionals, not by translation software that has difficulty conveying intangibles we promote in travel like experience and atmosphere.

“For hotels, it’s also important the online booking engine is in the target language to make it easy for travelers to complete reservations, which is the ultimate goal.”

One thing to note when targeting travelers from China is their spoken language is Mandarin and their written language is called Simplified Chinese so any written information should be in that form.

He continued to offer tips for hotels. “To attract Asian travelers, it’s important to show cultural sensitivity and make them feel welcome. Including small touches in guest rooms like slippers and Chinese tea, along with coffee, will be appreciated and can go a long way. Offering other amenities like Asian-language TV channels, newspapers, area maps and dining menus will make guests feel comfortable after they arrive and can also be used as selling points to show you care.

Henry is already seeing changes at the Office of Tourism and in the state. “We’re finding that Arizona is becoming more globally aware. On our staff we have staff members who speak Spanish, Mandarin, and Portuguese for the folks coming in from Brazil. We are in a global environment now. The whole world has changed and everybody is beginning to think globally.”

Michelle Oden-Huebner, CMP, president of Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International Arizona Chapter, says the hospitality industry has always been one that supports diversity and inclusion.

As Arizona increases its global visibility, it needs to continue to show that the state is inclusive and promotes diversity in the workplace and marketplace, Oden-Huebner says.

“Tourism is one of the largest export industries in the State of Arizona, providing funding for education and vital services in local communities,” she says.  “This makes Arizona more attractive for new businesses to relocate to the area, thus creating more job opportunities.  The more business we bring into our state, the more money we have to support the greater community improving and increasing services for residents in Arizona.”

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Restaurants serve super-sized economic impact

Think about the celebration that occurred after Arizona was awarded  the 2015 Super Bowl.

Much of that excitement came because of the economic impact the Super Bowl will have on the state. But the restaurant industry in Arizona generates revenue equivalent to hosting two Super Bowls a month.

“Restaurants are critical to Arizona’s visitor industry – and vice versa,” said Debbie Johnson, president and CEO of the Arizona Lodging & Tourism Association. “Arizona attracts more than 37 million visitors annually and dining is the No. 1 activity for those visitors. So the success of the two industries are definitely intertwined.”

Arizona’s restaurant industry, which included 8,885 eating and drinking places of business in 2011, is expected to rake in $10.5 billion in sales this year, according to the National Restaurant Association. Arizona’s restaurants also employ 262,200 people, roughly 10 percent of the state’s workforce. That number is projected to grow 15.9 percent by 2023 to 303,800 – translating into 41,600 new jobs in the industry.

“While the Recession claimed 500 Arizona restaurants, the industry that was born out of the recession was stronger and more resilient,” said Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association. “From 2007 on, Arizona’s industry sales have grown from $7.9 billion to $10.1 billion (in 2012) with extremely modest growth in the hungrier years of 2008-2010.”

Chucri said Arizona’s rate of restaurant sales growth, while once the top in the nation at 6.2 percent, is starting to fight its way back, growing at a little more than 3 percent each year, boosting this industry’s sales by an estimated $400 million annually.

“I think the restaurant community has stabilized and I sense an increasing confidence in the community,” said Steven Micheletti, CEO of Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill, which has five locations in Arizona and plans to add two more in the next year. “New restaurants are being built and being opened in interesting parts of the city. There is ongoing collaboration between great entrepreneurs happening, creating some great restaurant experiences. Operators are building restaurants in all types of buildings, creating really fun dining environments.”
A lot of the growth in Arizona’s restaurant industry is coming from entrepreneurs and chefs who are giving consumers different and unique dining experiences.
“Some of the strengths in Arizona’s restaurant industry include population growth, strong tourism, unmatched lifestyle and weather, and access to good produce,” said Russell Owens, president and COO of Fox Restaurant Concepts. “With all of these factors working together, there is more appeal for great chefs to come to Arizona to offer innovative new restaurants and fresh ideas. I think we are seeing more creativity today than over the last 20 years and this will positively shape the industry in Arizona for years to come.”

That influx of great chefs and innovative ideas has become an economic engine for the tourism industry.

“Scottsdale has seen a growth in chef-driven, independent restaurants, which are fueling our culinary scene,” said Rachel Pearson, vice president of community and government affairs for the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Not only do our resorts boast award-winning chefs and restaurants, but now you can drive to every corner of Scottsdale and find unique culinary experiences from well-known chefs.”

Not only are many of the new restaurants that are popping up utilizing fresh ideas and concepts, they are also beginning to increasingly rely on local produce and products to help serve their customers.

“Arizona visitors are really looking for a unique and distinct dining experience that they can’t get back home,” Johnson said. “So trends that we’re seeing in both hotel/resort restaurants as well as off-site restaurants include utilizing local ingredients and offering menu items and experiences that provide a taste of the local community.”

Micheletti has seen an increasing shift to supporting local farmers and growers, but the “Local First” trend doesn’t stop there.
“There’s also a growing influence of local crafted beers and wines,” he said. “Guests really are reading menus and asking questions about ingredients and sourcing. It’s not just about calories anymore.”

In addition to Arizona-grown ingredients, Chucri said one of the most transcendent trends he sees in the industry is the desire for healthy foods.

“The tendency towards more healthful items for the entire family illustrates that consumers are looking to restaurants for more than an indulgent special occasion meal,” he said. “Restaurants are becoming a part of consumers’ daily lives, an extension of their family. Whether it be a compliment dish for Easter dinner, a post-Little League party, or a got-home-too-late-to-cook family dinner, restaurants have infused themselves into the fabric of families everyday lives … a trend that is certain to stick around.”