Lessons Learned from The Great American Eclipse

What do you do when a local astronomy buff casually mentions in 2011 that your area will be the epicenter of a major astronomical event in 2017? For Kara Kuh, public relations manager of Travel Salem in Salem, Oregon, it meant an early warning that allowed the area to better prepare for the national and international tourism and media influx of The Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.

As the first total solar eclipse visible across the entire United States in nearly a century, and the first one in the smartphone, Google and social media era, the event promised to be both a tourism boom and a complex logistical operation. Hardcore eclipse fans would want to be in the path of totality, a swath of total sun blackout that began on the Oregon coast, swept across central Oregon and passed through fourteen states before exiting the U.S. mainland in South Carolina.

For some eclipse watchers, that meant watching the event at the point of entry on the Oregon coast. For others, who wanted assurances of clear skies, central Oregon was the place to observe. And for many tourists who realized too late that the eclipse was a thing, finding available last-minute accommodations anywhere in the path was the goal.

The eclipse path through Oregon presented a unique set of problems for the impacted event planners, businesses, government agencies, Chambers of Commerce and tourism/convention agencies. Many of the communities were small and rural. Nobody could predict the tourism numbers for a celestial phenomenon that hadn’t taken place in over a century. And how do you prepare for a happening that’s only two minutes and forty seconds in duration?

“I learned about the eclipse in 2012 when a group of people who wanted to see it in an area with guaranteed clear skies called us and rented an entire hotel. That’s when we knew it would be big,” said Joe Krenowicz, executive director of the Madras, Oregon, Chamber of Commerce. “We convened the mayor and government officials in October, 2015 and quickly realized we needed an event coordinator.” So, the city hired Lyssa Vattimo, a plan facilitator with a background in marketing and emergency services.

Vattimo got to work establishing a budget and team that eventually included 220 people who met monthly in specialty groups including medical, transportation, marketing and accommodations. “We knew we were a premier viewing location in a rural area and we wanted local businesses to take advantage of this unprecedented big event in a way that promoted our area for future tourism and yet retained what makes Madras special,” said Vattimo. “That meant sending a strong, unified message to all locals that what eclipse fans experience will reflect on everyone in Madras.”

For Travel Salem’s Kuh, early coordination and face to face meetings of all the players were key to their success as well. “We started two years out and while that felt early at first, I think it turned out to be the right amount of time. It takes a while to get the right players together and everyone on the same page.”

During the planning stages, Travel Salem worked with the Governors’ Office, Oregon Department of Transportation, State Police and Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, along with a mix of local players – lodging, restaurants, wineries and local attractions. They developed an E-Clipse Newsletter for distribution. The newsletter featured promotions, events and lodging for tourists and locals, and Travel Salem added an eclipse page to their website generating a 488% increase in hits over the previous year.

Communication was key. “Looking back,” reflected Kristine McConnell, manager of industry and international relations at Central Oregon Visitors Association, “everyone’s flexibility, the numerous meetings, over-sharing of information and open lines of communication among so many different entities were integral to providing structure for businesses, local organizations and for visitors from around the world. Having the awareness to know what was out there in case it was needed was equally reassuring.”

In Madras, the diverse team of 220 included tribal representatives, Bureau of Land Management, area schools who planned educational activities, cellular providers who needed to boost wireless capacity and the area’s public and private campgrounds. Early coordination included the development of a website hub, the use of social media to stay in contact and a lot of scenario planning among the players.

That preparation paid off when several disasters struck central Oregon before and during eclipse week. Sixteen large fires and fire complexes erupted, and the community of Madras experienced a bank robbery, plane crash and a structural fire on eclipse weekend.

Balancing the needs of tourists with the event’s impact on local citizens was also part of the Madras planning. “As an example, we warned residents to fuel up and buy a week’s worth of groceries and medical prescriptions before the event so local businesses could stock up for visitors,” said Vattimo. “And we encouraged them to conserve water and electricity during the peak of our tourist influx.”

The first eclipse in a century flooded the communities with national and international media. Having press kits, maps, facts, routes to take and local stories prepared in advance reduced the amount of attention they needed during the event. “If the media was successful, we would be successful, so we made sure we advised them in advance about the secret locations for best photos,” said Vattimo. With all available lodging taken by eclipse fans, getting creative to house reporters and photographers in a small community was necessary. Local residents opened up rooms and brought in trailers and Vattimo even housed the Portland media at her house.

Everyone gave particular kudos to the work of Oregon’s Department of Transportation who coordinated with communities prior to the event and issued regular travel advisories to help control the flow of traffic in and out of the prime viewing areas in the state.

Despite the best planning, there were still unexpected surprises and unanticipated needs. “Porta Potties were a premium,” said Vattimo. “They couldn’t be rented after the fact and we learned it would have been far better to have more than less.” Krenowicz realized the shuttle service for eclipse tourists needed better routing and promotion during the course of the weekend. And Salem earned some unwanted national media when a few accommodation owners cancelled reservations and then increased rates when they realized the magnitude of the event.

However, the biggest issue for everyone involved in the planning was an inability to predict how many tourists would appear and when and what their needs would be. Reservations only accounted for some overnight visitors and not the day trippers or visitors staying with friends and family. Beyond the two minutes and four seconds of the eclipse viewing, what local attractions would entice visitors? And how do you market for an unprecedented visitor influx without discouraging potential tourists?

Once the eclipse fans had packed up and left, there was a mixed bag of results. “Visitors came prepared and didn’t buy a lot locally, so some of our businesses were left with excess inventory,” said Vattimo. “People came to see an outdoor phenomenon and enjoy fellow eclipse fans and seemed more content to stay put rather than wandering through our downtown businesses,” echoed Krenowicz. “We should have considered how to coordinate a way to discount and sell the inventory of eclipse trinkets and t-shirts before everyone left town!”

Salem realized after the fact that area residents stayed home rather than contend with the traffic, resulting in some unexpected loss in business for local restaurants. In Salem as in Madras, visitors trickled into the area. “We did not experience the mass influx of people that some were expecting in one or two days leading up to the event.” said Kuh. “We believe that it was partly due to the fact that they trickled in over the course of 3-4 days ahead of the eclipse. Some businesses did not get as many people as expected before the eclipse but many saw a significant uptake in business the day of the eclipse (literally right afterwards) and in the day or so following the event.”

Salem promoted its indoor cultural attractions to visiting guests and, as with Madras, found that an eclipse, particularly one occurring in the summer, doesn’t always translate into indoor tourism. The community’s historic Elsinore Theatre and the Bush House Museum drew fewer crowds than expected. However, the area’s minor league baseball team, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes scheduled its game during the eclipse and drew the largest crowd for a non-4th of July game in the team’s history.

With the once in a lifetime Great American Eclipse behind them, both Vattimo and Kuh have condensed their area’s experience and results to paper and PowerPoint for future reference and to share with others. Vattimo’s summary includes a quintet of advice: Give yourself at least 18 months to plan. Hire an event plan facilitator. Collaborate heavily. Define your plan, think big, then think a little bigger. Enjoy it!