This summer the city of Seattle is celebrating the centennial of the city's first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. But another world's fair anniversary in Seattle has been targeted for a major event, this one on a global scale.
The Prosperity Partnership, a coalition of business and trade leaders and policy makers that's an arm of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), is in the planning stages for what they envision as an Annual Global Health Celebration to be held in Seattle starting in 2012.
The Prosperity Partnership is a pro-growth group focused on Central Puget Sound (King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties). It has a number of working groups scheming in various policy and employment sectors, one of which is tourism. PSRC senior economic analyst Eric Schinfeld gave an overview of the "tourism cluster's" work at a recent symposium on Historic Preservation and Cultural Tourism held in Snohomish last week (I was a paid speaker and moderator for the event). The Partnership's tourism strategy document is available here (pdf).
The group has set several priorities, including the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center and finding ways to make Seattle more friendly to international visitors. Anyone who has traveled much overseas knows that Seattle, by comparison, doesn't cater much to international travelers, except for the Opera's Wagner Ring cycle each four years. We have poor signage, mediocre taxi service, and few people who speak foreign languages. This "world-class" city doesn't put out much of a welcome mat.
Still, travel and tourism have a big economic impact according to various agencies (pdf). Washington's Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development reports that travel spending in the state was $15 billion in 2007, up 7 percent over the previous year. The travel industry ranks just behind aerospace and software. In 2007, an estimated 150,000 state jobs were travel-related. The lion's share of the tourism is in King County, which accounts for 43 percent of all visitor spending. Promoting tourism also has another advantage: as Schinfeld puts it, people "come, spend, and leave." That's music to a mossback's ears.
The Global Health Celebration envisioned would be big, 10-day event drawing up to 250,000 visitors (locally and from outside the region). It would key off Seattle's role in global health, a natural given the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's central role, and tie in with the annual Pacific Health Summit (which is coming up next week). It would showcase the region's heritage of health and life sciences work. "It would," says the PSRC's principal economic policy analyst Chris Strow, "celebrate Seattle's leadership and status as the non-profit capital of the world when it comes to global health." It could gather together the health professionals, dole out awards, raise money for health causes, and feature entertainment events covering the arts, film, sports, and recreation.
Models for the summit draw on the Aspen Institute's Aspen Festival, which features ideas, food & wine, and music. Such events bring together heavy hitters and thinkers. From the standpoint of the region, the summit would pump up the local tourism/travel industry and help "brand" the region as an international leader in global health. Another possible model: the Cambridge University Science Festival in England.
The broadening of the travel and tourism field is important. Much of the local growth in tourism employment is due to the casino boom, says Schinfeld. Tourism wages tend to be low because much of the work is entry level service jobs or part-time. Cultural tourism, which includes travel related to the arts, history, and food, is an important sector in that research indicates that cultural tourists stay longer (great for generating hotel taxes) and spend more than other tourists. An annual celebration/summit would create a regular, high-end, travel-related cultural event that could have the added advantage of bolstering other economic sectors, like bio-tech, that in turn generate even higher-paying jobs.
The year 2012 is significant target for a couple of reasons. One, it is close on the heels of the projected opening of the Gates Foundation's new $500 million headquarters, slated for late 2010 (or possibly 2011). The celebration could function as a kind of unofficial one-year open house. The year will also mark the 50th anniversary of Seattle's first big global science fair, the 1962 Century 21 Exposition.
That world's fair was important for many reasons, one being that it was driven by a New Frontier science agenda — an effort to popularize and promote public awareness of science and generate enthusiasm for technological development. It was Space Age-oriented, boosted in part by Sputnik and the space race, but much broader in what it showcased, from atomic cars to computers that could answer questions. The fair, in fact, may have been the first place a young Bill Gates encountered a computer face-to-face and it certainly energized the imagination of sci-fi buff Paul Allen, who has since spent chunks of his fortune on various imaginative projects, including the search for extraterrestrials and an actual working rocket ship.
The Aspen Ideas Festival is an effort to create a "public commons for the 21st century" to discuss how to reshape the world with discussion and brainstorming from top thinkers, artists, and policy makers. The Global Health Celebration seeks to do something similar, with benefits that run the gamut.
One benefit that is not tourism-related could be helping to connect Seattle's global efforts back to the local community itself. Much of the global health work by the Gates Foundation or PATH and other groups takes place outside the city, in Africa or Asia, for example, or inside hermetically sealed research laboratories. Many global health workers are new to the region. They sleep in Seattle but wake up thinking of tropical diseases. Could the summit draw everyone, local citizens and global thinkers, closer together?
Organizers are rightly wary of Seattle's rocky history with hosting global events. Some have been mostly hype or failed to deliver as promised. The Goodwill Games didn't have legs; 1989's Pacific Celebration fizzled out. The city has also passed on bidding to host the Olympics (neighbor Vancouver, BC was less reluctant). The Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) during the Clinton years went pretty well, but was followed by the World Trade Organization protests of 1999, which turned "Seattle" into a synonym for fiasco.
While such ideas as the Global Health Celebration tend to look like win-wins on paper, the organizers would be wise to vet the idea with people who know that boosterism doesn't always have an upside. That said, as host of successful annual events like Bumbershoot, and two popular and transformative world's fairs in the last 100 years, sometimes Seattle does get it right.