How Visit Bend reinvests tourism dollars into sustainability and local amenities

David Archer

18 June 2024

“At Visit Bend, we think about regenerative travel like, how are we reinvesting the money that tourism brings into our community to make this community better for everyone who spends time here?” – Serena Gordon 

Bend, Oregon is a fast-growing city and outdoor adventure destination. And as is true in many places, some locals are questioning whether tourism is worth the trouble. But Bend is also becoming a leader in sustainable travel through actions and alliances across the region that aim to ensure that tourism benefits everyone. The local travel industry is funding projects that make life better for Bend residents and preserve the environment everyone relies on.

On this season of Travel Beyond, you’ll hear from community leaders and tourism operators about many interrelated sustainability actions. You’ll learn what the latest resident sentiment research is showing, and hear about inspiring collaborations with NGOs, visitor education, and travel’s impact on the nearby Warm Springs Reservation. If you’re a tourism operator, travel leader, or conscious traveller trying to give back to the places you visit, this season’s for you.

How are Bend locals reaping the rewards of their hometown’s popularity? In this first episode, we speak with Serena Gordon, Visit Bend’s former Sustainability Director. Serena was the first person to hold that role and led the creation of the Bend Sustainability Fund, which reinvests tourism revenue into sustainable experiences. The fund is also opening doors for partnerships across the region.

Projects like these have helped Visit Bend demonstrate the tourism industry’s value at a time when some are tempted to blame tourists for local issues like traffic congestion. “The more residents or the more visitors we have, the more funds we can invest into our community,” says Serena. “And that is the definition of regenerative travel.”

This episode, you’ll learn about:

  • Examples of sustainability solutions driven by the destination management organization.
  • How Visit Bend reinvests tourism funds back into the community.
  • Why tourists are sometimes scapegoats for problems like traffic.
  • How Visit Bend is unwinding the myth that tourism is making life worse locally.
  • Advice for others working on sustainability at their DMO or tourism organization.


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Show notes

Bend Sustainability Fund – A project by Visit Bend that reinvests the short-term lodging tax revenue paid by visitors into sustainable experiences for the community.

Central Oregon LandWatch – An environmental watchdog and land use advocate that defends the region’s waterways, wildlife, farms, and forests. 

Oregon State University Sustainable Tourism Lab – A research hub that provides data and services to help tourism organizations balance visitor and community needs.

Visit Bend – The destination management and marketing organization for Bend, Oregon. 

Warm Springs Community Action Team – A non-profit community development organization located on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. 

The world’s last remaining Blockbuster Video store – A thriving tourist destination, the Bend franchise became the last Blockbuster in 2019. 

Episode transcript

Serena Gordon: There’s this word, regenerative travel, that gets tossed around a lot. And oftentimes it is in regards to like volunteering or a visitor doing something while they’re in town. They give back to a community. And at Visit Bend, we think about regenerative travel as like, how are we reinvesting the money that tourism brings into our community to make this community better for everyone who spends time here?

David Archer: Welcome back to Travel Beyond, where we partner with leading destinations to bring you inspiring solutions to the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet. I’m David Archer from Destination Think, recording from Daajing Giids, British Columbia, a village in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And I’m Sara Raymond de Booy, Associate Creative Director at Destination Think. I’m recording from Seattle, Washington on Coast Salish land, specifically that of the Muckleshoot, Duwamish, Suquamish, and Stillaguamish people. On this show, we look at the role of travel and highlight destinations that are global leaders. We talk to the change makers who are addressing regenerative travel through action in their communities, often from the bottom up.

David Archer: And we’re always looking for the best examples of efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems. So please reach out if you have a story to share with us. You can find Destination Think on LinkedIn, or you can send me an email at david at destinationthink dot com. Well, Sara, it’s good to be back and to kick off another new season of Travel Beyond.

This time, we’re going to explore Bend, Oregon, which is a small or medium sized city, depending on your perspective, I suppose. It’s a Goldilocks type of place, not too big, not too small. About 100,000 residents in the city itself, located in Central Oregon, east of the Cascades mountain range. And it’s a destination known for outdoor adventures.

It’s quite fast growing as well. So it shares some similarities with Revelstoke, British Columbia, which we talked about in our very first Travel Beyond season. It’s had a lot of changes, a lot of changes in the last few years. Some of the most popular attractions here are skiing at Mount Batchelor.

Whitewater rafting on the Deschutes River, and it’s not far from Crater Lake National Park as well. And uh, just a quirky fun fact, which is also mentioned on the tourism website, is that Bend is also the location of the world’s last Blockbuster video store, which, uh, amused me quite a bit. I remember, I don’t know when the last time you went to a blockbuster was, but for me it was, I think, on vacation in Hawaii more than a decade ago, renting a movie on vacation there.

Sara Raymond de Booy: I think mine was the, just the local blockbuster in high school. But is this the place as well, the blockbuster, where you can, um, overnight there? 

David Archer: Oh, I don’t know. I’ll need to look into that. Well, Sara, you were on site doing some of the interviews this season and visiting the city. What was your impression of Bend?

Sara Raymond de Booy: Well, it was my first time to Bend. Um, I think I was, most people I know have, have been there. Um, you know, being from, um, from Seattle and having it be such a, a place that’s really known for outdoor activities. Adventure and, um, you know, getting out in the wilderness. Also, um, a bit, a bit well known for its beer as well, I’ve heard.

Um, and so it’s a place where the nature, nature is still very accessible from in town. Um, from my experience and the walkability really stood out as well. Um, and I really enjoyed the planning of the city that enabled that. Um, I’m someone who doesn’t love to drive. So it was kind of nice to just be able to, to take a wander and see how interconnected a lot of the neighborhoods are, as you can imagine a very active culture being so close to the outdoors.

And it’s also the first time in a while where I felt like I was kind of having to be. a little bit Amsterdam style vigilant when walking around because I didn’t want to step out in front of someone’s bike. Um, and that hasn’t really happened. 

David Archer: Does that mean you just look an extra time before you cross the street? That kind of thing? 

Sara Raymond de Booy: That kind of thing. And then also like, you know, you don’t want to get too zoned out with your, your music or your headphones or anything. Um, and be aware of where other intersections are coming into the path you’re on. Right. One earbud in, one earbud out. Yeah, exactly. Be a little bit more aware of your surroundings.

And you can really tell it’s growing there, um, and that the face of it might be changing. I think there was, there’s one street I walked down when I was looking for a, a, a park with some, some river access. And it seemed like every single home there was being renovated. So you can really see in certain areas how the face of it is, is changing and how that, that might kind of cause some, some frictions with the, with the older residents and the ones who are moving in.

David Archer: Yeah, we’ll hear about that from some of our guests as well. It seems like. A lot of people have moved into the city over the last decade or so, and I’m sure tourism has evolved as well. What stood out to you about Bend as you prepared for the interviews? 

Sara Raymond de Booy: I guess what I, what I really liked about preparing for these interviews and, and kind of what we found in this season is how tangible and practical so many of these solutions and stories are.

So it really takes away intimidation that sometimes comes with driving change. There are these smaller tactics that are really building into something bigger. Um, and there are things that can easily be replicated in other places, depending on what capacity that place has for it. You know, as we’re talking about Bend and the unique culture that facilitates these tourism led improvements, um, that each episode approaches a common challenge from just a different angle.

And I think how they all come together is really, really interesting. What’s also interesting about Bend is how, uh, the DMO has chosen to operate on a much more nimble level. So there’s not a huge plan that is, is weighing them down necessarily. And I know Serena will, will talk about that in this upcoming interview, but operating on that nimble level means that all these solutions can really work together in a unique way because they can constantly kind of lever things up and, um, or dial things up and, um, you know, change different levers to set, yo see how they can really help to drive that change.

Yeah. So, so many people in organizations are taking care of Bend from different angles and they all intersect. So they’re all things that they’re doing that are not super complex and can easily be replicated. And I think that they come together in a really unique way and, and really speak to the culture in this part of Oregon as well.

David Archer: Yeah, I think that’s really refreshing to, to hear from a place full of people that are just doing, doing the things that need to be done, no matter, no matter their role. And we’re going to kick off this season by speaking with Serena Gordon, who was, until just recently, the Sustainability Director at Visit Bend.

She was the first person to hold that role and has just recently moved on to a new adventure. During her time there, she has woven sustainability into everything the organization does, and that includes the Bend Sustainability Fund, which reinvests tourism dollars back into the community. And in this interview, Serena says that it’s important that people in Bend know about this fund, and know about the positive things that tourism brings to the city, because she says, Sometimes tourism is the scapegoat for problems that affect locals.

And I’ve seen this in other places too. One example she gave is traffic congestion. And I always find the complaints about traffic a little funny because anybody who complains about traffic is identifying themselves as part of the problem. Right? This is an issue in many places. We’re seeing more cities introduce fees for driving in congestion zones, that sort of thing.

Sara, have you noticed this type of scapegoating of tourism or tourists in other places? Are tourists ruining the roads in Seattle? 

Sara Raymond de Booy: I, I definitely notice the scapegoating in plenty of other places, but when we’re, we’re talking about roads, I don’t, I don’t necessarily think that the tourists are blame, getting blamed for roads in Seattle a lot.

I think a lot of things are probably responsible for the wear and tear of the roads here. But –

David Archer: That’s fair. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: Yeah, definitely. No, no one’s, no one’s going after the, uh, the cruise ship passengers with pitchforks regarding the roads. That’s for sure. 

But, um, her opinion definitely makes sense to me. You know, if you see things changing in your community, it’s easier to blame all the issues that come with that change and population growth on tourism.

And most likely, cause it’s more visible and a less nuanced story, you know, tourism is a part of it, but it’s not the whole picture. Locals are tourists too. The trails in an area, the trails around Seattle aren’t only crowded by visitors. And the locals are enjoying those outdoor areas too. 

David Archer: That’s an important point.

And Serena says it’s a big challenge to communicate to residents about the value of tourism, not because that value is hard to find necessarily. She goes over a lot of examples. Maybe because people aren’t yet aware of all the good that tourism brings, and they’re not used to thinking about tourism as a thing that does that.

Later this season, we’ll hear from the leader of Oregon State University’s Sustainable Tourism Lab, which is doing resident sentiment research in Bend and many other cities and no doubt we’ll learn more about local sentiment then and what people are thinking about tourism. The rest of our Bend season will cover tourism from different angles, like you mentioned before.

We’ll talk with a watchdog organization devoted to land management. An artist and producer from Warm Springs Reservation just outside of Bend, and a couple of tourism business operators who will share examples of how the travel industry can make communities better places to live, and how they are doing that.

And I have one more note for our listeners. Visit Bend also seems to be a little ahead of the curve when it comes to accessibility in communication online. I’d encourage you all to go to visitBend dot com where you’ll notice a little accessibility icon in the bottom right corner. You can use that to customize the appearance of the site in many, many ways to help with focus, use a screen reader, change the color contrast, and a lot more.

I just wanted to make note of this. It stood out to me. It’s kind of an inspiration for my accessibility work in Haida Gwaii, and it’s very welcome. Well, with that, Sara, here is your conversation with Serena Gordon of Visit Bend.

Serena Gordon: My name is Serena Bishop Gordon. I’m the sustainability director at Visit Bend, and my work is to weave sustainability into everything that we do. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And how long have you lived in Bend? I’ve lived in Bend since 2006. What makes Bend different to any other place in the U.S.? 

Serena Gordon: That’s a great question. And I’ve lived in Bend since 2006, so I can’t speak, um, with full certainty.

But I would say that one of the things that makes Visit Bend really unique is that we are a mountain town, but we’re so much more than that. And we rely on tourism as a portion of our economy, but it’s certainly not all of our economy. We have a great winter resort up at Mount Bachelor, but we also have great theaters and music and art and culture.

And, um, and so I think it, we’re at this really interesting intersection of not a small town, not a big city, and we’re really multifaceted. Visitors and visitor dollars only make up about 11 percent of the economy. So we really do have like a robust economy that includes tourism, but isn’t. And completely based on that.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And within that, how do you like to spend your free time? 

Serena Gordon: Outside. Um, in the winter, I spend a lot of time skiing and hiking and just being in the mountains. And I would say in the summer, I also spend a lot of time in the mountains, um, mostly riding my bike, but also hiking with my dog. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: How would you say Bend has changed you?

Serena Gordon: I’ve really feel like I’ve grown up a lot in Bend, and Bend has also grown up a lot since I’ve lived here. I think the community values of being really connected to a place, spending time outside, moving through space at a speed that allows you to soak it in, um, has allowed me to just be grateful for clean air, clean water, big trees, flowing rivers, and I don’t think everyone gets to have that experience in the place that they live.

I can be in National Forest and 10 minutes from my front door. Um, and that’s really special. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So on the note of those values, what, what values do you think are held in highest regard here? 

Serena Gordon: Again, I can only speak for myself and the people that, that I spend time with, but a balance of knowing we need to be responsible and plan for the future, but also recognizing that this is the day that we have, and this is the moment we’re in.

And it’s really important to harness that and enjoy it and embrace it. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And you mentioned that Bend’s changed a lot since you’ve moved here. Can you give us a little bit of information about that change and the growth and some of the challenges that that’s brought? 

Serena Gordon: Yeah, Bend has grown substantially since I lived here.

Um, the population of Bend is now over 100,000 people. The cost of living has increased. The number of schools that we have and the kids that are attending them has drastically increased. Um, the number of restaurants and theaters and music venues have all increased. So we have more people. We have more resources. We have more, um, demands for our open spaces. 

So I think when we moved here in 2006, we didn’t have a Trader Joe’s or Costco or Whole Foods and you really couldn’t buy clothes in Bend. You had to go to Portland. And now all of these things are here and the growth of population has brought those amenities.

And so sometimes it feels, um, how Bend has gotten so big, or you drive across town and it takes 20 minutes, or like, I didn’t even know that that subdivision existed. Um, and it feels a little bit overwhelming and then you think, oh, right, but I have all these amazing amenities that are right here that I get to use.

And in addition to that, when we moved to Bend so many of the mountain bike trails that we now take for granted didn’t even exist. So there’s, there’s a give and take with growth and. Um, I choose to look at it from a positive perspective. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And what challenges do you think that growth has brought? 

Serena Gordon: Whenever there are more people and more demands on a resource, people move into this mindset of scarcity, whether it’s scarcity for first chair at Mount Bachelor or having to plan ahead when you go to the airport, because it takes a little bit longer to get through security.

Um, So there’s, I think the biggest challenge that we face is just more demand for our resources. But to counter that, we now have greater investment into those resources and into that, into our community. And as I mentioned, like, when we first moved here, half the mountain bike trails didn’t exist. And as we have a growing population of users, our local trail organization has built more trails for us.

And that’s amazing. And the number of restaurants that we have available has increased. And, um, our hospital has grown and our transportation infrastructure has changed. So we are facing challenges of a city now, and we are building the structures and the government that we need to face those challenges.

But those aren’t new challenges. They’re just new to us, like so many other places have faced them. So I think it does provide an opportunity for us to look to other communities that have already gone through this growth. Um, for examples of how we might succeed. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And how do you think tourism plays into or relates to this growth and some of the benefits and challenges it brings?

Serena Gordon: It’s a great question. People who live in Bend often blame tourism for all of our problems. They scapegoat the tourists and the visitors and then are not required to really look at the root of the problem. 

And I’ll use traffic for example. Um, if you are driving around between like 6:30 and 8:30 in the morning, there’s a lot of traffic, especially coming from the north into Bend, or around the schools.

That traffic is not a result of tourism. However, people blame tourism for our traffic problems. And at any given time, I think the figure is 13 percent of the people that are in Bend are from outside the area, um, or tourists. So our problems. Regarding traffic are not caused by visitation, but it’s an easy scapegoat, an easy, an easy, um, group to blame.

And what I, I think what I would like the people who live in Bend to see is what visitors bring. And how can we be reinvesting tourism dollars into our community to make it better for everyone. And, we have, there’s this word regenerative travel that gets tossed around a lot, and oftentimes it is in regards to like volunteering or a visitor doing something while they’re in town that somehow makes their, they give back to a community.

And at Visit Bend, we think about regenerative travel, like, how are we reinvesting the money that tourism brings into our community to make this community better for everyone who spends time here? Tourism plays a really important part in our economy and the amenities that are available to everyone who spends time here.

And educating and messaging to the residents of Bend, the value of tourism is really important and really difficult. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So switching gears a little bit, can you tell us a little bit about Visit Bend and how it’s set up? 

Serena Gordon: Yeah. So Visit Bend is Bene’s destination marketing organization. And we have a contract with the City of Bend that has, that goes up for renewal every five years.

Um, so we’re basically a contractor with the city. So transient room tax, which you pay when you stay at a hotel, um, goes to the city and about 65 percent of that money stays with the city of Bend. And that’s unrestricted funding last year. Um, it made up about 10 million of the city’s unrestricted budget.

And that’s mostly goes through to emergency services, roads, infrastructure. The other 35 percent of that TRT comes to Visit Bend. And we’re tasked with, um, growing our tourism economy and helping our lodging partners, um, have successful businesses and, and bringing people to our community to really support all of the tourism industry partners.

And so how do we do that? Uh, well, we market, uh, our destination, but I would say we don’t advertise. We try to tell a story. And we try to create an experience that people want to have when they come here. And so we do that through storytelling, we do that through video and photos. Um, if you’ve taken a look at our website, it looks very different than any other website.

DMO website that I’ve ever seen. And it’s really about the experience and what you, um, might encounter when you’re here. And what we found that not only are visitors checking out our website, but so are people who live here because they want to be inspired by the place. That that they call home as well.

And so we have a robust marketing team. We do all of our creative and all of our, um, photo and video production in house, which is pretty unique and very cool. Um, my role as sustainability director is also pretty unique. And so I get to weave people, place and economy into all the things that, um, the rest of the organization does.

And we also have a visitor center that’s open seven days a week downtown. Um, and that’s a place where we can visit, we can welcome people in, um, answer questions, help them get a lay of the land, and, and educate them on, on any questions that they have. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And do you think any of that makes Visit Bend a little different to DMOs elsewhere? Does it make you unique? 

Serena Gordon: Well, I come to the DMO tourism industry as a newbie. Um And with the, with the beginner’s mindset. So again, I can speak only to my experience, but I do think our organization is unique and the people who make our, make up our organization are really unique and that we’re all very, very committed to this place.

And our goal is less about driving revenue and more about driving experience and really ensuring that this place that we all love and hold dear remains. So, into the future. So I think there is a, um, a passion and an intimate connection with this place that everyone at Visit Bend exemplifies. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And how do you work with the businesses in the area?

Serena Gordon: Oh, that’s a, that’s a good question. So we have, our lodging partners are our highest priority, of course, um, because it’s really imperative that they’re successful and therefore we can be successful. Um, and also we can contribute to the city’s success. So we try to partner with our lodging partners, our, uh, restaurant partners, our tour providers in a way that helps them amplify their offerings and their story.

But again, it’s through experience. So if you look at our new website, we don’t have hotel listings. We have experiences that you might have while you’re here and then direct people towards potential lodging opportunities, but we’re not a booking engine and we are not membership-based. So it’s really about encouraging people to come here and then showing them, okay, you’ve made the decision to come to Bend, here are some opportunities for you to stay. 

But again, we want to be responsive to our partners. So if we get a phone call or an inquiry from a coffee shop or a hotel or a music venue and says they might say, Hey, we have this event coming up or we need a little extra support. Then we’ll send our photo and video team to their location and try to incorporate. Um, and then we can incorporate their particular business into the ads and social media work that we’re doing. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And with making it more experience-focused, how does that help attract more values aligned visitors? 

Serena Gordon: If we can show the experience and we can show people operating in a way that is respectful and giving back and environmentally conscious, then when they see that in our advertising, they can step into that when they come here.

So it’s really, um, trying to exemplify the behaviors that we would hope that residents and visitors, um, display when they’re spending time here and, um, sort of setting the stage of this is what you can expect when you come to Bend. You can expect to have beautiful blue sky days and awesome snow and sweet single track and you can be expected to smile and receive a smile when you pass somebody on the trail.

Um, you can expect to see, um, EV charging stations and recycling receptacles and, um, water, water, water bottle refill stations and community rental bikes and things like that. And so how do we just weave those sort of expectations of behavior into, into our messaging?

Sara Raymond de Booy: And so, um, before this, we’re talking a bit about collaboration.

And so I wanted to see if you could give us a little bit of insight of how you collaborate with organizations throughout the state or even closer to home. 

Serena Gordon: Yeah, collaborating and partnerships is my very favorite part of my job. Um, I think without partnerships, Visit Bend isn’t successful. And it’s really important for us.

Like, we are a destination marketing and or management organization. We are tasked with marketing our destination to people outside of a 50-mile radius of Bend, however, there’s so much important work that has to happen within that 50-mile radius. So we have to recognize what’s our sphere of influence.

What are the areas of critical concern that we think will impact our destinations ability to be, um, a vibrant community 50 years into the future. And then identify partners that we can lean on to help us and we can help them achieve these goals and work towards a sustainable community. And so we do that through our relationship with the Forest Service, with um, Visit Central Oregon, with the City Council, with the Chamber of Commerce, with our strategic partners.

We, as Visit Bend, can be a hub that can then help. Spread out all these spokes and, but we aren’t the experts in these fields. And so we really need to lean into the people that are the experts. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: Yeah. And you mentioned the 50-mile radius, right? So, um, within that radius, are there other organizations that you have any unique collaborations with as far as gateways into the area?

Serena Gordon: Yeah. So one of the, um, partners that we’ve, partnerships we’ve been really excited about is, um, Warm Springs Community Action Team. So they’re based on the Warm, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation, um, which lies between Portland and Bend. And our two largest markets for visitors are Seattle and Portland.

And the majority of those people drive here and they drive through the Warm Springs Reservation. And so what we recognize is that, um, Warm Springs is really a gateway into Central Oregon, and how can we support the Warm Springs tribes through the Warm Springs Community Action Team to help educate our visitors on the history of this landscape, of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and their, the, the historical value that they bring to our community as they come into Bend?

And so, um, so that’s one example of how we’ve been really creative with using our Bend Sustainability Fund money, our strategic partnerships, and our marketing dollars to support these organizations that enrich the experience of being in Bend and in Central Oregon. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And so just switching it up a little bit, um, can you tell us a little bit more about your role as a sustainability director and what you’re tasked with and what really excites you about that? 

Serena Gordon: Yeah, I’m going to get really excited because I like my job quite a lot. Um, in the spring of 2021, my position was created within Visit Bend. So I was, I have, I am the first and only sustainability director that Visit Bend has ever had, which allowed such a unique experience of really crafting what this job looks like. And my first task was to build the Bend Sustainability Fund, which is a grant program that reinvests transient room tax into tourism related facilities. And in Bend, we look at tourism related facilities, um, a little different than a lot of other places.

So yes, it could meet a convention center or a theater, but it could also mean new single track trails, new river access points, new outdoor gathering. Um, and community spaces. So my first task was building the Bend Sustainability Fund. Um, and over the last three years, we’ve granted, uh, just about 3 million to 25 different projects.

Um, so that occupied a lot of my time initially. And then once we got that up and running, I recognized there was just so much runway and so much room for more. And so we’ve developed, um, our strategic partnership program. We do a lot of work, uh, around that messaging, um, responsible behavior. We have a great partnership with Carbon Hero, which has helped mitigate our carbon footprint and also with Leave No Trace that has helped us develop specific principles of Leave No Trace for the Central Oregon region.

And I’m also just an advocate to ensure that our marketing team is always coming back to being a responsible, thoughtful visitor and how we are supporting the people who live here, the people who visit here, our environment and our economy through everything that we do. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And so I know you’ve mentioned the sustainability fund as being something that you’re proud of.

What are some other innovations that are helping to address some of the challenges that you face? 

Serena Gordon: I think our strategic partnership program is a way that we can address those areas of critical concern or, or big initiatives. So we partner with Central Oregon Land Watch, which is a watchdog organization to ensure that the city and the county, um, are really upholding land use laws.

So their focus is on creating complete communities in our urban centers, protecting farm and forest land, and ensuring that all the rules around our water, um, are upheld. So we aren’t looking at return on investment and KPIs for like, this quarter, we’re looking at it for the long term. So what we’ve done is identify areas where we want to focus our efforts and then identified partners where we can lean into those partners and utilize their expertise to help us overcome those challenges.

And so some of those things are the protection of farm and forest lands, um, workforce, housing availability. Um, climate change. And so when you look to our strategic partnership program, you can identify specific organizations that are tackling those problems. And we’re helping to support them financially and through the amplification of their work in hopes and in the effort to create a sustainable destination going forward.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Which programs are you most proud of? 

Serena Gordon: The Bend Sustainability Fund is a pretty, um, innovative and impactful program. And when I look at what we’ve done in the last three years and the projects that have been completed and the benefit that they provide for our community, not just for visitors, but for the residents that live here, it’s pretty amazing.

And when you see kids who live on the East side of town, utilizing Big Sky Bike Park after school on their mountain bikes, it’s really – that impact is real. That’s one example. And I could rattle off a whole bunch more, but that’s one thing that Visit Bend is really focused on is like, what’s our impact?

Not what’s our intent? What is this? What does this glossy plan look like? But what are we actually doing? And I would say that’s one of our strengths. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And with the sustainability fund, let’s dig into that a little bit more. Um, tell us a little bit about it and how long it’s been around and kind of what need brought it about.

Serena Gordon: Yeah. So my background is in conservation giving. And at the time, Kevin Dugan was our CEO and he and I would just have coffee now and again, this is way before I worked for Visit Bend. And he had this idea of creating a grant fund. And because I had experience, um, operating a grant fund, he’d just tap my brain.

I thought, wow, there’s so much potential here. So we were batting ideas back and forth for, I don’t know, a year or so. And then one day he gave me a call. He’s like, Serena, I think we can do this. Do you want to come work for me and build this plan, this, this program? Like, yes, for sure. So the first thing we had to do was have city code change so that we could use transient room tax to not only fund marketing, but also invest in tourism related facilities.

And we were able, we were successful with that. That was step number one. So now we said, okay, uh, we can now use TRT money to invest in tourism related facilities. How do we define tourism, tourism related facilities in Bend, but still stay within the Oregon state statute? And then we launched the program.

So through this, we also committed to our lodging partners and our industry partners that we would continue to market them at the same level. We weren’t going to take money away from marketing and driving tourism to Bend, but we were also going to use, we were also going to invest in our community that would, in the long-term, drive visitation.

And so people were very supportive. And as this, this program has grown, um, we’ve done three rounds of funding, um, and this fall we’ll do our fourth. Um, the impact on our community has been. remarkable and people are stoked and um, our partners are excited. The relationships that the Bend Sustainability Fund has allowed to open up and strengthen is just unbelievable.

And when the Forest Service is calling me to ask about our timelines for our grant program to ensure that their NEPA process is on track so that our local trail organization can apply for funding, it’s like, that is success. When we have different entities, we have Bend Parks and Rec collaborating with Upper Deschutes Watershed Council to submit a grant so that we can have accessible river access at a point in the river where there’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of damage to our riparian areas. Like, that’s a success. 

And then we see these projects come to fruition and we see people using them and It’s amazing. So it’s a model that’s working and it’s going to continue to grow. And, um, we’re currently undergoing some work with a trust-based philanthropy consultant, because we really want to ensure that our program is inclusive and equitable and, um, driving a diverse pool of grant applicants so that we can touch every corner of our community.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And I know you mentioned before, sometimes tourism being a scapegoat for some of the problems in town has, has this program and the community response helped to alleviate that at all? 

Serena Gordon: I think it has. I truly believe that if we can change resident sentiment and people understand the value of tourism, that will drive tourism because you want to go where people want you to be.

And recognizing that tourism dollars is benefiting our community helps raise resident sentiment. So it’s a really nice circular reference there. The more residents that we are, the more visitors we have, the more funds we can invest into our community, which therefore benefits residents lives. They’re happier.

Tourists are stoked. They keep coming back. Then we can reinvest that money. And that is the definition of regenerative travel. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: Also a perfect segue into some of that sentiment research. Um, and I know you do some work with the university locally. Um, can you talk a little bit about that program and how that helps you to better understand what the mindset of residence is in this community?

Serena Gordon: For sure. So, the OSU Tourism Lab, um, has been conducting resident sentiment surveys, um, for, two-plus years. We just received the initial results from year two, um, which is exciting. And basically what a resident sentiment survey does is ask residents, does the benefit of tourism outweigh the cost of tourism?

And there are a lot of sub-questions, but that’s the gist of it. So does our tourism economy have an overarching benefit or not? And over the past two years, we’ve increased resident sentiment by two and a half percent, which moves the needle in the right direction. And it tells us the things that we’re doing are impacting resident sentiment in a really positive way, but it also shows us we have a lot more room to grow.

And I think so much of resident sentiment is based on misinformation because We have things like social media, we have Reddit, we have comments on the newspaper articles that come out about Visit Bend, and it’s really easy to say this problem that our community is facing as a result of tourism. So how do we unwind that myth?

How do we help share a message and a narrative that shows people who live here the benefit of tourism? And I like the idea of – take tourism out of the Bend equation. And what are you left with? You’re left with a decaying mill town with a river that isn’t safe to swim in without restaurants, without grocery stores, without shops, without a vibrant economy, without a very state of the art hospital.

You have Bend in like the late eighties. It’s not a place that you want to be. And the reason that Visit Bend is so important to this economy right now is that we, tourism is not going to stop. People are not going to stop coming here. And there are examples of DMOs that have lost their funding and been told don’t market anymore.

And in those communities, people keep coming, but then they come with no guidance. They come with no expectation or direction. And that is a recipe for disaster. More, more issues. And so Visit Bend plays this really, we’re sitting in this really pivotal role and time where we can help shape the experience of the people who visit here, but also help shape the experience of the people who live here.

And, um, it’s really exciting to see resident sentiment increasing and also recognize that we still have so far to go. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So with all the data points that you have coming in, um, how does that play into a bit of your strategy and flexibility as an organization? Like, how do you like to approach, um, your future plans?

Serena Gordon: So some DMOs want to create a 10-year strategic plan. Visit Bend does one-year business planning. We have a strong mission. We have strong values. We have a strong, strong guiding principles, but we want to stay nimble and we want to be able to react to the landscape and the needs of our, of our constituents and of our partners.

And when we have, um, a weather event that disallows people to travel over the mountains, um, and therefore our hotels are not as full as they normally would be over, say, um, MLK weekend, how can we pivot quickly and nimbly to help support them? How do we, um, identify what organizations and what partners are thriving and let them continue to do that and what partners and organizations need a little bit more support.

We also think it’s just really important to understand that we can set goals, but if those aren’t the right goals. And we’re not really accomplish anything. So we need to be nimble and flexible and respond to the needs of the community. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So over the next, let’s say five years, how do you think the sustainability work being done at Visit Bend will shape this place?

Serena Gordon: Well, I think between the Bend Sustainability Fund, our strategic partnerships and the Bend Cultural Tourism Fund, which we haven’t really spoke about, but it’s a program that invests in arts and culture in our community. Um, I would like to see. Our total budget for those programs all grow. And the more we can invest our budget into those programs, the more we can invest into the community.

And I think the community investment will drive resident sentiment. And I think people will start seeing the value of tourism dollars at work in our community. And so in five years, I would like to see people who live here, recognizing all the projects. and all of the engagement that Visit Bend has made possible.

And it’s less about taking credit for it. It’s not like, Oh, Visit Bend did this. It’s more about, Oh, our tourism economy is giving back to our community in such a marked way. And it’s not just the number of dollars that are spent at hotels. It’s really about the larger impact that tourism and tourism dollars is having on our, our way of life and our wellbeing and our opportunity to experience this place.

Sara Raymond de Booy: So I know that the, the money would help you make a bigger impact. Is there something beyond that and increasing the budget that you think would, would really help to, to take it to the next level? 

Serena Gordon: We are constantly thinking about how can we provide support beyond the check? And those relationships and those partnerships are so important.

And there are ways that Visit Bend can help amplify, projects and bring visibility to organizations that are doing really good work. Um, so I think leaning into that, using a lot of our partners in our marketing. So instead of just doing a photo shoot in a certain place, doing a photo shoot at a place that Bend Sustainability Fund money has contributed to, or using talent, um, that has another connection to Visit Bend.

So there are a lot of different ways that we can incorporate our sustainability work and the investments that we’ve made into our larger marketing story. And that’s something that I’ve been working with a lot on with the marketing team of this isn’t a Visit Bend – this isn’t a Bend Sustainability Fund story.

This is a Bend story and telling these stories through our marketing helps our community and our visitors recognize that they are contributing to the greater good and the experience. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: And so with the visitors, do you, do you find that traveler mindsets are changing where those stories are making a bigger impact with them?

Serena Gordon: I hope so. I think so. I know that when I go to places, I see things differently because I know about the Bend Sustainability Fund. I hope that people learn about it. I hope they come here and they see that change. I hope they take advantage of the new trails that are being built. Um, The summit experience that they now are going to be able to have at Mount Bachelor in the summertime that three years ago wasn’t available to them.

Um, but because of Bend Sustainability Fund money, they can now hike to the summit of Mount Bachelor in the summer without a permit. Um, I hope so, but that’s part Visit Bend’s job to tell that story. And it’s also part. a partnership piece of how do we help our grantees and our partners tell that story as well.

Sara Raymond de Booy: What do you think other destinations can learn from your efforts? 

Serena Gordon: Start small, gain community support, and think outside the box. Like, look at what problems you have on the table and where you can make a difference. And it might be, might start really small. Um, but start a grant fund. Maybe it’s 1,000 to five organizations. Maybe it’s 10,000 to five organizations, but if you can start somewhere, whether it be a grant fund, whether it be thinking about measuring carbon footprint, and then working to mitigate that, um, whether it be just reaching out and having conversations with people that are non-traditional partners, like those are all things that you can start doing to build social capital and relationships.

And then you don’t really know where those relationships might take you, but there’s always going to be doors that open if you’re just available to have those conversations. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: So what do you think the state of tourism will be in 10 years, either in Bend or further afield? 

Serena Gordon: Well, we, we talk in Bend, we talk about visitors and residents, and I like to look at those people as partners.

Um, But when you’re a resident in Bend, you’re a visitor when you go to BC or you go to Moab or you go to Vermont, whatever it is. And so when I think about the state of tourism, I would hope that the people who are residents in Bend can see themselves in the visitors of Bend, right? So they’re also visitors.

And so how can we, how can we reduce the gap between visitor and resident and just say, we’re all people who are partners in these places making it better. So tourism isn’t going away. People love traveling. They love having new experiences. I think experience is becoming more and more important to people.

And, uh, if we can use tourism as a source and a force for good in our communities, like, it’s gonna be great. We just have to make sure that we are staying focused on the positive. And taking the resources generated through tourism and reinvesting them into our community. 

David Archer: This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think.

And you just heard Sara Raymond de Booy speaking with Serena Gordon of Visit Bend. For more resources and show notes, visit the blog at DestinationThink dot com. This episode was produced and has theme music composed by me, David Archer. My co-host is Sara Raymond de Booy. Lindsay Payne provided production support.

If you like what you hear, please take a moment to give us a five-star rating on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It helps a lot more people find our show. 

We would also like to thank Visit Bend for sponsoring this season of Travel Beyond. 

Next time, we’ll learn about resident sentiment in Bend and beyond from the director of Oregon State University’s Sustainable Tourism Lab.

We’ll see you then.


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