News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Sisters’ future as a tourist destination

From a tourist stop for gas and food until the 1970s, Sisters has evolved to become a tourist destination (see related story, page 1). Sisters is no longer just a stop along the way to somewhere else. Leisure and hospitality-related jobs accounted for 31 percent of the local workforce in 2019. Black Butte Ranch is by far the biggest employer in the area. Tourists swell the population of Sisters on holiday weekends and all summer long, creating concern from local residents, who deal with traffic congestion, resource degradation, and temporary loss of their quiet, small-town atmosphere.

The 2018 Sisters Vision process was organized into four focus areas of livability, prosperity, connectedness, and resilience. The City of Sisters now wants to plan for the rest of the decade and beyond how to balance and manage those four focus areas as it relates to tourism.

The City Council and City staff have decided it is time to take a serious look at what it means to be a tourist destination. On Monday, October 18, the Council heard the results of Phase I of that look. City Manager Cory Misley introduced Kristin Dahl of Crosscurrent Collective, who was hired to provide some background information and set the foundation for future plans.

According to Misley, “Dahl will help the City figure out where we’re going to go from here and what that’s going to look like.”

Dahl has over a decade of experience working with Travel Oregon and communities across the state on destination tourism. She now has her own consulting firm, looking through a collaborative lens when it comes to working with partnerships to figure out how to create sustainable destination tourism with a stewardship perspective. Phase I of her work in Sisters involved information gathering (Destination Scan) from key community stakeholders and focus groups.

A project management team, formed to work with Dahl and the City on Phase I, is made up of: Cory Misley, Sisters city manager; Kerry Prosser, Sisters city administrator and clerk; Nancy Connolly, City Council president; Judy Trego, Sisters Chamber of Commerce executive director; Julia Thiesen, Central Oregon Visitors Association CEO; Ian Reid, Sisters district ranger USFS; Caprielle Lewis, former Sisters Country economic development manager; and Nick Beasley, Cascade Street Distillery owner and Chamber of Commerce board chair.

Dahl’s presentation provided a great deal of background material on what is involved in a destination- management initiative and the elements of a destination strategy:

• A clear vision for the future success of Sisters’ outdoor recreation and tourism economy;

• A clear understanding of local values that will be central to the strategy;

• A clear roadmap to implement priority projects that move the community powerfully toward the vision;

• An agreed-upon organizational structure to support the implementation of a destination strategy;

• A funding plan for the strategy.

To carefully plan for Sisters to become a sustainable tourism destination, taking into consideration the four focus areas of the Sisters Vision, the City and its residents need a road map that clarifies where the citizens want to go and how they are going to get there. A destination strategy is that road map and may contain direction on management, development, marketing, and stewardship activities.

By having a defined destination-management program, all the community stakeholders are headed in the same direction, working together, eliminating duplicate efforts, conflict, and confusion for the area visitors. By collaborating, it becomes possible to provide a richer, deeper experience for visitors encouraging them to stay longer. As Councilor Connolly pointed out during discussions, creating a strong destination-tourism plan isn’t about attracting more tourists but rather about providing the tourists with reasons to lengthen their stay and spend more money in Sisters Country.

According to Dahl, the area has any number of assets attractive to tourists, but many exist within their own bubbles. By “connecting the dots” for the tourists, working collaboratively to create packages and providing a better visitor experience, people are likely to visit for longer periods of time, utilizing more services in the area, and contributing more to the area’s economy.

Dahl’s focus groups and interviewees were asked a series of questions about what a successful tourism and outdoor-recreation economy would look like in Sisters, what needs to change to make it happen, what opportunities they see immediately on the horizon, what is already underway that a destination strategy could uplift, what might stand in the way, what are the community’s strongest assets, and what are the most important local values that need to be retained.

Some of Dahl’s observations included: Sisters is a community with a lot of heart and character; people are passionate about this place – there’s a deep and genuine love for Sisters Country; there is also a deep concern about the big issues of growth, affordable housing, and the community sentiment getting in its own way; and people are ready to roll up their sleeves to work on setting the future direction for tourism and outdoor recreation.

It is now up to the City Council, the project management team, and City staff to decide where to go from here.


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