Public meets Explore Sisters in destination forum


Last updated 10/24/2023 at 10:39am

Explore Sisters Board Chair Greg Willitts shared a cautionary tale at last week’s public forum on Sisters’ Destination Management Organization (DMO), making the case for tourism management — not just marketing.

Willitts is also the vice chair of the Oregon Tourism Commission, which directs the activities of the Travel Oregon staff. In about 2010, their advertising campaign centered around the Seven Wonders of Oregon, featuring the Columbia Gorge, Crater Lake, the Painted Hills, the Oregon Coast, Smith Rock, the Wallowas, and Mt. Hood. The goal was to drive tourism to support economic development.

As Willitts related, the campaign was successful in increasing tourism, but failed overall as the state became the victim of that success when the increased visitors overran the featured areas. Within two years, Travel Oregon knew they needed a new way of promoting tourism beyond just “getting heads in beds.”

The Commission, dba Travel Oregon (a destination management organization), collaborates with stakeholders and partners to align as stewards of Oregon. They now work to optimize economic opportunity, advance equity, and respect the ecosystems, cultures, and places that make Oregon, Oregon.

The new Travel Oregon promotion is “There’s a lot more to Oregon than meets the eye.” There are ads promoting using guides to explore places and experiences in Oregon and information on how to be a responsible visitor.

That is basically the same mission for Explore Sisters: protecting Sisters’ livability while providing meaningful experiences for visitors and economic opportunities for local business. The DMO introduced itself to the Sisters public at an informal forum held at Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District’s Community Hall.

The Sisters City Council has been proactive in establishing a separate nonprofit DMO to promote tourism that is compatible with local life and values. Tourism is an important economic driver in Sisters, but Council and the citizens want to be sure that the quality of life in Sisters doesn’t degrade due to too much tourism. A DMO can design marketing strategies aimed at particular tourists who share the values of Sisters’ citizens regarding sustainability, culture, and ecology, as well as spreading visits out to year-round rather than multitudes here in the summer. The DMO can form partnerships with other local organizations to improve access and create new attractions.

The lodging in Sisters has been built and run by families who live here, not large national chains.

“The DMO board is vested in local livability,” according to Willitts. “We want to enhance what we have. We are serving on the DMO board because we love this town.”

The nine-member board consists of Willitts, FivePine and Shibui Spa, chair; Crista Munro, Sisters Folk Festival, vice chair; Jesse Durham, Sisters Coffee Company, secretary; Casey Meudt, Blazin Saddles, treasurer; Victoria Graves, Three Creeks Brew Pub; Nancy Connolly, citizen-at-large; and non-voting members Kerry Prosser, assistant city manager, City staff representative, Michael Preedin, mayor, City Council representative, and Explore Sisters Executive Director Scott Humpert.

Since the establishment of Explore Sisters in mid-2022, work has been ongoing with the organization starting from zero. Since 1988, Sisters Chamber of Commerce had a contract with the City to provide tourism marketing. When the decision was made to establish the DMO, the contract was not renewed with the Chamber.

The assets developed by the Chamber over the years belonged to the Chamber, which was beholden to its members. Photographs used in marketing, the Sisters brand and logo, brochures and maps, and the website developed by the Chamber were not transferred to Explore Sisters.

As a brand-new organization, it has taken time to do all the initial behind-the-scenes work of legally establishing Explore Sisters as an independent nonprofit, recruiting a full board, and creating the bylaws, policies, and procedures. Executive Director Scott Humpert was hired in December 2022 as a staff of one. He worked with University of Oregon students to develop a business plan.

Humpert says he has met with over 100 business owners and a few local organizations while doing community outreach. A survey of local businesses has provided robust feedback for use by the DMO board in planning. A three-year contract has been negotiated with the City. Development of an initial budget will guide the use of $350,000 received from the annual transient lodging tax (TLT). Interim marketing has been developed prior to the establishment of a DMO website that will be effective for visitors, businesses, and the community. Branding work is currently being done by a committee of community members working with an outside firm and should be revealed in the next couple of months. Board member Durham is heading that committee.

A library of printed and digital materials needs to be established, as well as a strong social media presence. In the first quarter of 2024, the DMO will undertake a strategic planning process looking at the activities and plans for the next three-to-five years, in alignment with the Sisters Country Vision.

There are many ways citizens can get involved now and in the future with Explore Sisters to support and sustain the Sisters community through tourism. The biggest need right now is content – photos and videos of all the wonderful things there are to do and see in Sisters to share with visitors.

Share events, news, and information with the DMO so they can pass it on to visitors. Contact the DMO office (541-904-4414, [email protected], 204 W. Adams Ave., Suite 103A) for a complete list of ways for individuals, organizations, and businesses to get involved or partner with them.

Willitts said that at this time there is no capacity for establishing any new large events, unless perhaps something during the winter. The DMO is taking over the street-light banner program from the City.

When queried as to how the board will measure success, Willitts said if the amount of TLT received each year increases due to more lodging nights, that is one measure. If people are able to find employment in Sisters, that’s another. Another measure would be if Sisters becomes a four-season town for visitors. If there are fewer complaints from visitors and residents, that would indicate a better overall tourist situation. Business will be enhanced without creating an imbalance between economics and livability.

Willitts envisions Sisters becoming a “grown-up Western town” where tourists and locals all benefit from managed tourism with seasonal consistency in marketing.


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