News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Explore Sisters laying tourism groundwork

Explore Sisters is tasked with promoting tourism that fits in well with the community values of Sisters. The work of the organization, which is one year old, has not been very visible to the public.

The organization is funded through a lodging tax of 8.99 percent on room rates for overnight lodging of less than 30 days. Transient Lodging (Room) Tax (TRT or TLT) is the City's second largest general fund income source. Despite the volatile economic environment for the last three years that included COVID, Sisters has retained its tourist popularity, resulting in the TLT exceeding conservative projections over prior fiscal years.

How much is that? $1.075 million of a total of $11.7 million in lodging revenue. Using an average of $150/night, that works out to 78,000 nights spent in Sisters hotels, motels, cottages, inns, and licensed private homes. Looked at another way, if the average stay is three nights, then roughly 26,000 visitors paid for some kind of overnight accommodation last year.

Thirty-three percent of that fund is earmarked for Explore Sisters. By state law, 33 percent of lodging taxes must be spent on promoting tourism. Explore Sisters is known in the tourism world as a DMO - destination marketing organization.

Explore Sisters was created in 2022 by the City of Sisters, displacing Sisters Area Chamber of Commerce, who for years was the recipient of lodging tax funds to promote Sisters. Explore Sisters is an independent 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization with its own board of directors and an executive director, Scott Humpert.

The founding board of Explore Sisters includes Greg Willitts of FivePine Lodge & Conference Center, chair; Crista Munro of Sisters Folk Festival, vice chair; Jesse Durham of Sisters Coffee, secretary; Casey Meudt of Blazin Saddles, treasurer; Michael Preedin, mayor, City Council representative; Nancy Connolly, member at-large; and Kerry Prosser, City of Sisters liaison.

Deep into the tourist season citizens are expressing curiosity as to Explore Sisters' visibility.

"Where's the beef?" asks Bill Kelly of Sisters, a marketing consultant and member of the Public Works Advisory Board. "Where are the deliverables?"

Like others he has not seen any broadcast commercials, events, ads, posters, or any promotional materials produced by Explore Sisters.

"Maybe they exist; I just haven't seen them," Kelly said.

Mike Webster is "astonished that Explore Sisters doesn't have its own website." Visitors to are redirected to a catch-all site for 12 Central Oregon communities.

The Nugget asked Humpert where the DMO stands.

"We're making steady progress," he said. "There's been a lot of policy and procedure work to be done, creating a business plan and gearing up for defining the brand."

Explore Sisters has engaged Holly Macfee, owner and principal at Lookout, a destination, wine, and culinary branding and marketing consultancy based in Portland. Lookout focuses on helping destinations and craft food, beverage, and hospitality clients define their offerings and communicate that experience through brand development, strategic marketing planning, and campaigns.

Kelly was surprised that Explore Sisters would have to go outside itself for this expertise, assuming that such tasks would be produced in-house.

Humpert said that Lookout will develop "a logo and voice... set the tone and messaging" for Explore Sisters, who has formed a seven- to eight-person brand committee.

Humbert told The Nugget that he has been out "pounding the pavement," working the streets meeting business owners. He says that his reception has been mostly positive and acknowledges that some, like Kelly, have raised the question of when the group will be more visible.

"We put out a survey to 160 businesses seeking input to help guide us in our planning. We got 80 responses, a good sampling," Humbert reported.

That survey was the source of annoyance to Mark Dickens, who mentioned the survey in remarks he made to City Council August 9.

Dickens, who represents an ad hoc group known as CATS - Community Action Team of Sisters, disparaged the survey as being secretive and Explore Sisters for exploiting Sisters and turning it "into another Sunriver."

Explore Sisters says its primary purpose "is to increase livability and economic vitality through the development of intelligent management and stewardship of local (Sisters area) community natural and cultural resources, tourism, and outdoor recreation.

"The corporation will work to positively impact the City of Sisters community and surrounding areas through the advancement of tourism and outdoor recreation, sustainability, and focusing on balanced four-season visitation and overnight stays."

Humpert said Explore Sisters hopes to sustain Sisters' quality of livability by managing tourism to insure they attract "the right person at the right time in the right place." This phrase has been met with some criticism that it sounds elitist.

Using a rifle versus a shotgun approach, the DMO's messaging aims to attract distinct tourists who value a small-town atmosphere and surrounding nature that locals value. It's not the quantity of tourists, rather the quality of tourists, that will have a higher economic impact on our economy while preserving the livability and sustainability for permanent residents Explore Sisters foresees.


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