Destination Report: Seattle

Seattle is seeing its burgeoning tech industry reflected in increased airlift and hotel capacity. BBT editor Paul Revel reports 

Earlier this year I travelled with Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Kreeger, the airline’s PR team and a posse of journalists on board the inaugural flight to Seattle, a route which it took over from JV partner Delta.

It was quite a flight – the thirsty hacks kept top cocktail mixologist Giles Looker busy at the Upper Class bar, while R&B singer Raye and her guitarist gave a live performance at 39,000ft.

We were greeted at Seattle Tacoma airport by founder Richard Branson, who pointed out the new service in the larger Dreamliner B787-9 adds 40,000 seats a year to the route. Branson praised the city’s “hip, entrepreneurial spirit” – but slammed Seattle-based carrier Alaska Airlines for its plans to drop the Virgin America brand it had recently bought for US$2.6 billion.

Shortly after the Virgin inaugural in March, low-cost rival Norwegian announced a four-times weekly service from Gatwick, starting this September. Dominic Tucker, UK&I head of sales at Norwegian, says the airline is seeing strong forward bookings in its Premium cabin – higher than on more leisure-oriented routes. So while it’s hard to track MICE traffic to the US, the figures suggest “Seattle is fast becoming a key business route,” he says.

In August, Sea-Tac airport started construction on a new 42,000sqm international arrivals facility. Scheduled to open in late 2019, it will increase passenger capacity to 2,600 per hour, doubling the number of gates for widebody aircraft and passport check kiosks.

Patti Denny, international tourism development manager for the government agency Port of Seattle, says the destination has 70,000 new seats on flights coming online this year. And this growth is reflected in the hotel pipeline, she says, with 3,000 more hotel beds in 2017, “with new hotels driving the market”.

A draw for corporations

“Seattle is regularly voted one of the USA’s top cities to live in,” says Denny, citing its liberal, relaxed lifestyle and “fabulous urban life with the wilderness literally on the doorstep” that is proving a draw for some of America’s top corporations.

“Facebook is putting its HQ in Seattle and moving 20,000 staff there. It’s also the HQ for Costco, Boeing, Starbucks… Amazon is based in Seattle and is building an amazing new HQ downtown,” she says, referring to the spectacular glass ‘spheres’ that the online retail giant is building, which are likely to become an iconic addition to the cityscape.

These will house a verdant botanical paradise for Amazon employees, complete with 400 plant species, a river, waterfalls and ‘tree-house meeting rooms’.

The spheres are due to open in 2018, but in the meantime, May saw the first Amazon Fresh Pick-up supermarket service open in Seattle, while it continues to internally test its cashierless ‘grab’n’go’ grocery store – also in Seattle – where customers simply fill their shopping bags from the shelves and the items are automatically charged to their Amazon accounts.

In July this year, the company passed a milestone US$500 billion valuation, making it a member of an exclusive club of four mega-corporations. Another member is Microsoft – headquartered just a dozen miles from Amazon in the Seattle metropolitan area of Redmond. And speaking of Microsoft, cofounder and local boy Paul Allen is a big presence in this town, his influence vividly marked by the spectacular Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Pop Culture (Mopop).

Allen established the museum and its priceless guitar collection, ‘Sound Lab’ rehearsal spaces and live music programmes reflect his love of rock’n’roll. With its eclectic, interactive exhibitions – currently featuring David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Henson and Star Trek – Mopop also serves as a distinctive and memorable MICE venue.

Mopop’s senior event sales manager Janelle Doig says the hands-on aspect of the exhibitions is able to engage all demographics and creates a fun atmosphere conducive to networking. “Mopop has the ability to take a creative approach to corporate events, by incorporating unique entertainment – from headliner bands to aerialists pouring champagne,” she says.

Doig says Mopop, which can host up to 3,000 delegates, is seeing an increase in requests for larger capacity events as the city becomes an increasingly popular business destination, driven by corporate expansion in the area.

Mike Leeson is general manager of Event Travel Management, the MICE division of CTM, which has an office in Seattle. He agrees that business is “booming” in Seattle and says an influx of major tech companies, including Facebook, “has driven further growth in the technology sector in the area, as more organisations are able to recruit hi-tech talent.

“The growth in businesses in the area generally – tech or otherwise – has increased demand for corporate events, including sales kick-offs, training sessions and user conferences,” he says.

Another trend Leeson is seeing is demand from events clients for greater ROI (return on investment).

“They are also looking to ensure their event agencies are helping them to engage attendees before, during and after the event – for as much as four to  six weeks.

“It’s critical that our engagement with clients – and the attendees’ engagement with them – doesn’t stop the minute the event ends,” says Leeson. “It’s at that point attendees are most invested in the client, and the potential to influence behaviour and perception is at a high.”

Good advice, but what makes Seattle so attractive to events bookers? “Seattle – and the Pacific Northwest in general – has been showcased in many TV shows and movies, which has piqued interest,” he says. “It’s a very clean, attractive city and beyond it the Pacific Northwest offers tons of outdoor activities. It also doesn’t suffer from the same ‘destination fatigue’ as cities like Orlando, Chicago or Las Vegas.”

He adds: “Logistically, it also has a lot to offer, including good flight availability for domestic and international, and great hotel and convention centre availability – with many meeting-friendly hotels and continued development on the horizon.”

All sides of Seattle

That’s not to say Seattle doesn’t have a couple of negatives, admits Leeson. Apart from the infamous Seattle rain, “while it’s reasonably priced in winter, it can be very expensive in the summer season.”

He says another disadvantage is the north-west location – travelling is easier to more central cities, but Port of Seattle’s Denny counters that flight times from Heathrow are comparable to Miami on the east coast.

Local journalists and politicians express concern about a downside of the tech boom – the rising cost of living and resulting social problems. As Pacific NW magazine writer Tyrone Beason put it: “Forty-storey apartment towers and tent villages: both say something about how we’ve managed our emergence as a globally important tech hub and real-estate investment destination.” He wrote that finding a balance is a challenge for a city that has an average annual income reaching a record $80,000, soaring property prices and a serious homeless problem. 

Memorable events

Virgin Atlantic hosted the inaugural party at the Chihuly Garden and Glass, a museum featuring the stunning works of world-renowned glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Other eye-catching event venues include the iconic Jetsons-style Space Needle, with its panoramic views from 160m up, while memorable activities include tours of the famous Boeing factory in nearby Everett. Built in the 1960s and the birthplace of the iconic B747, it’s still the world’s largest building by volume and a fascinating place to visit, with Dreamliners and B777s inching down state-of-the-art production lines, swarmed over by man and machine.

The historic Pike Place waterfront market is a hub for artisan food and crafts, and has both meetings and tour options, while striking out from the city there is whale watching in Puget Sound and the pick of more than 900 wineries in the state.

Perhaps the last word on the city should go to Richard Branson, speaking when his first flight touched down at Sea-Tac. “As home to Microsoft, Amazon and, of course, Boeing, Seattle’s one of the fastest growing cities in the US – and as a mecca for entrepreneurs and innovators, it’s a perfect fit for the Virgin Atlantic brand.” 

New hotels

  • SLS Seattle is due to open in November. Located midtown, it will feature Philippe Starck design, a 16th floor cocktail lounge and Ciel Spa, plus conference and event spaces in an imaginatively restored 1908 former First United Methodist Church.
  • Design-led brand Thompson Hotels opened its first property in the region in 2016. Thompson Seattle, located near Pike Place market, has 158 rooms, views of Puget Sound, a rooftop cocktail lounge and six meeting spaces.
  • The new Hyatt Regency will be Seattle’s largest hotel, with 1,260 guest rooms. It’s due to open next year in the downtown area, adjacent to a planned expansion of the Washington State Convention Center.
  • Marriot International’s Moxy hotel is due to open in the South Lake Union neighbourhood at the end of this year, offering 147 tech-friendly rooms, communal areas and grab-and-go food and drinks.
  • W Bellevue: Starwood brand W Hotels opened a new property in the tech hub of Bellevue, five miles east of Seattle, in August. It has 231 guest-rooms and a range of meeting spaces for up to 500 delegates theatre-style.
  • Portland-based Provenance Hotels is due to open the 151-room Hotel Theodore at 7th and Pine Street in downtown Seattle in November – in the landmark 1929 building previously known as the Roosevelt Hotel, and showcasing an art collection reflecting Seattle’s “pioneering spirit”.

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