Article courtesy of The Seattle Times.
by Lynn Thompson
In November, Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center will feature a luminous glass court surrounded by 3, 000 international fans for the 2015 Men’s World Squash Championship.
It will be the first time the competition has been in the United States and, for many locals, will serve as an introduction to the intimate, fast-paced racket sport that’s played by about 20 million people around the world.
It will also be a coming-out party for what will be a $12.5 million renovation of Bellevue’s convention center as well as a ramped-up effort by the city and its tourism marketing organization, Visit Bellevue Washington, to showcase the city and attract leisure and convention visitors.
“When we thought about putting in a bid for Bellevue to host the World Squash Championship, we asked, does the city have the entertainment, restaurants, hotels, attractions? Check, check, check, ” said Shabana Khan, founder and CEO of YSKevents, the organizer of the championship and a former nationally ranked squash professional.
Last year, Bellevue’s estimated 1.5 million visitors added $736 million in spending to the local economy, almost 10, 000 jobs and almost $9 million in city lodging taxes, double the revenue of 10 years earlier, said Sharon Linton, marketing director for Visit Bellevue.
Bellevue tourism and economic-development officials readily acknowledge that one of Bellevue’s biggest assets is its proximity to Seattle, a much more recognizable destination city to much of the world.
But these same officials see the weeklong squash championship as a chance to highlight Bellevue’s own increasingly international character as well as its nearness to other regional attractions including Woodinville’s wineries, Kirkland’s waterfront and the hiking trails of the central Cascades.
Their message, “Stay here. See everywhere, ” also includes returning in the evening to Bellevue’s relative quiet after a day visiting, say, Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
“Without Seattle, we wouldn’t have the business we do, ” said Cindi Breen, director of marketing for The Westin Bellevue. “But by staying here, you can go to the Market, to the Sculpture Garden and come back at the end of the day, walk outside with your family and feel safe.”
The Meydenbauer Center closed Monday for a three-month face-lift that will include warmer interiors, new lighting, new theater seats and upgrades to technology throughout the building, said Stacy Graven, executive director.
The project is being funded by bonds issued by the city and the sale of the old convention-center site.
Graven said the improvements reflect the changing character of convention centers from cavernous concrete bunkers to more lively, upscale interiors that complement hotel meeting spaces.
And with Meydenbauer turning 22 in the fall, Graven said, “It’s time.”
Three new hotels will also open in downtown Bellevue within the next two years. A new Marriott is to debut in July, and an AC Marriott, its more sophisticated, European cousin, is under construction.
A new W Hotel is also being built as part of the 1.5 million-square-foot expansion of Lincoln Square.
Those properties will add about 850 rooms to Bellevue’s existing 4, 500 and accommodate more conventions, more business travelers and more vacationers, said Linton.
The Bellevue City Council in November hired a new economic-development director and tasked him with drafting a tourism master plan in partnership with Visit Bellevue to guide city efforts to market and promote the city to visitors.
With its high-end shopping opportunities such as Bellevue Square and The Bravern, Bellevue had already established itself as a regional destination for tourists in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and British Columbia.
Jennifer Leavitt, vice president of Kemper Development, which owns and operates Bellevue Square and Lincoln Square, said the company has marketed its properties, now The Bellevue Collection, in partnership with local hotels for decades.
The new partnership with Visit Bellevue, she said, has meant a stronger message and a stronger voice.
“It’s added to the reasons to come to Bellevue, ” she said.
The city also sees an opportunity to expand its appeal beyond the Pacific Northwest and become an international gateway destination for visitors from China, South Korea and Japan, said James Henderson, a Bellevue native who moved back from San Antonio to head the Bellevue Economic Development office.
Bellevue’s population is now almost 30 percent Asian, both foreign- and American-born. And Eastside companies including Microsoft increasingly attract international employees and business travelers.
“Our goal is to understand more broadly what niche we can play in the region, ” said Henderson. “Who do we go after, how do we reach them? We want to be more focused and strategic.”
Ten years ago, Bellevue couldn’t have sold itself as a tourist destination, said David Yusen, chairman of the Visit Bellevue Advisory Committee.
“We didn’t have the critical mass. We didn’t have the restaurants and hotels. We didn’t have enough things to do, ” he said.
Yusen’s day job reflects the change. He’s the marketing and public-relations director for the Heavy Restaurant Group which includes Purple Cafe, Lot No. 3 and Barrio.
Six of the company’s eight restaurants are on the Eastside.
The owners recognized that the area was growing in size and sophistication and that new residents were increasingly looking for more dining options, he said.
“I think the opening of so many new hotels is another sign that travel-and-leisure experts see that same potential on the Eastside. It’s exciting, ” Yusen said.
Seattle tourism officials say there’s plenty of business to go around.
David Blandford, vice president of communications for Visit Seattle, noted that the organization represents all of King County and is already directing visitors to Bellevue shopping, Woodinville wineries and natural vistas such as Snoqualmie Falls.
He said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s 9½ block initiative, announced in April, has markedly improved the safety and cleanliness of Seattle’s downtown core.
“It’s not so much which is the better destination. It’s about what’s happening and who would want to come. We’re partners with Bellevue in promoting the region to visitors, ” Blandford said.
This year, at least, only Bellevue can boast of a world squash championship.
The event organizer, Khan, a Seattle native and squash instructor at PRO Sports Club in Redmond, said she was excited by the opportunity to introduce athletes and fans from around the world to her hometown.
Her clients at PRO Sports include Microsoft employees from countries where squash is as popular as soccer, she said. The game is faster than tennis, and with the players shifting and lunging around each other to get to the ball, she said it resembles a tightly executed dance.
Khan is talking up the sport’s international appeal as she tries to raise the last $350, 000 from sponsors to help cover the $1.2 million costs.
“It’s played by so many people around the world. It’s big, ” she said.
Bellevue tourism leaders are thrilled to get the opportunity to play host.
Said Visit Bellevue’s Linton: “It puts Bellevue on the world stage with a huge opportunity for it to shine.”