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A Conversation with New Travel Tacoma CEO Dean Burke

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President and CEO Dean Burke. Courtesy Travel Tacoma + Pierce County.

Pierce County’s two major destination marketing organizations — Travel Tacoma + Pierce County and Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission — are joining forces, the agencies announced yesterday.

Both Travel Tacoma + Pierce County and Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission are nonprofit economic development agencies that promote the Pierce County region as a destination, the former with a focus on meetings and leisure and the latter with a focus on sports and recreation. With the recent merger, the joint organization will be able to do both, while sharing operating expenses and increasing efficiency.

The newly merged organization will be led by Dean Burke, who took over as president and CEO on Jan. 2.

“The connections Dean has built and the respect he has garnered throughout the community will be an asset as he leads Travel Tacoma + Pierce County into this exciting new phase,” said Evan Marques, chair of Travel Tacoma + Pierce County’s board of directors. “The board and I have seen first-hand his talent as an executive and as an advocate of this destination, and we have full confidence that he is the right person to guide the organization into a new era of destination marketing in the South Puget Sound.”

Burke has been with Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission for the past seven years and lived in Tacoma for the past 25 years. He’s worked for K2 Sports on events including the X Games and the Olympics, and he created the Seventy48 race from Tacoma to Port Townsend. He also gave a Ted Talk all about the South Sound’s relationship to the Salish Sea.

“I’m a Tacoma guy. And my growth trajectory was all about being here and expanding our voice and looking at new opportunities,” Burke said. “When Bennish Brown, who was my predecessor here — a great guy who left a great situation — when he stepped away, I thought, well this is the right time for the right thing here. This makes a ton of sense for us to approach this merger concept from a lot of angles.”

Burke spoke with South Sound and shared some insights into the world of destination marketing, and where the new joint Travel Tacoma organization is heading next.

Q: What kind of work does Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission do?

A: We used to joke that it was easier to say things that (Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission) didn’t do in terms of sports, and that list included things like luge. And then we thought, well, we’d better get a luge track built so we can quit saying that.

We serve all of Pierce County, so we go literally from salt water to the top of an alpine glacier volcano. You can do a lot of different sports in that kind of setting. Everything that we could possibly touch that was competitive we tried to get involved with.

Q: Will the joint organization be renamed?

A: It will change names. We don’t know what that will be just yet. We’ll approach that as we get closer to 2020. For 2019, most of what we’re going to be doing here has sort of been pre-scripted because we have all of our contracts for both agencies already in place all across the county.

Q: Are there any other specific changes to the joint organization that you see coming down the road?

A: The big piece that you’ll hear more and more from us is, we don’t have a signature event. Tacoma Pierce County does not have an icon, signature event. We are a collection of a lot of small great events, and we are a collection of stand-alone one-offs. … Things like a U.S. Open or Tall Ships. But we don’t have that sustainable thing like a Bloomsday in Spokane or like a Bumbershoot in Seattle.

Whether it’s an art, an entertainment, a sport, a cultural (event), whatever that expression may become, we lack that big thing.

Q: Where do you see the organization going in the next five years?

A: One of the big things on the horizon for us in addition to what I just talked about with signature events, is going to be asset development. That means enhancement to existing assets or the creation of new assets that are what we call “destination facing.”

We look at everything with two words. It’s either “community facing” or “destination facing.” Community facing means something that’s built for a small radius, within the city or a small footprint. Destination facing is that thing that wakes people up and gets them to drive across the state or get on an airplane to come here to be a part of it.

We definitely have some pretty substantial gaps in some of our destination facing assets, especially on the sports side. We’ve got a couple of projects in development right now from that standpoint. Enhancements are happening down at Chambers Bay right now with the golf course to incorporate not only more golf, which everybody knows about, but the other piece that’s going on is we are bringing in NCAA Division I cross country running, and we’re developing the terrain down there to accommodate that. It’s a sport that happens in November/December, when golf is really not happening, and activates the venue at a regional and national level in the offseason. That’s something that we’re developing in partnership with the University of Washington in Seattle.

We’re also helping facilitate a soccer complex development in DuPont in cooperation with Joint Base Lewis-McChord that could be one of the biggest soccer complexes west of Denver.

Q: What do you think makes this region unique and different from other places and parts of the country?

A: It starts with our geographic platform. I tell people this all the time. Go down to Ruston Way and you put your toes in the water and look at Mount Rainier. The summit of Mount Rainier, if you could shoot a laser to the top, just a straight line, it’s 42 miles to the top. To go from salt water with orcas and humpback whales and salmon and all this diversity to the top of a 14,410-foot glacier-covered volcano in 42 miles is ridiculous. It’s just such an amazingly diverse platform.

When you start to sprinkle in what I call the manufactured layer, which is the layer we live in, the layer with the restaurants and the hotels, that platform makes those experiences better. If you built the Museum of Glass in Kansas, it wouldn’t be as cool as it is here, because it’s here.  Nobody can repeat that. Anybody can build another franchise entertainment center on any interstate near any city in the country, but it’s better here because of the platform that we exist on. I still wake up on the balls of my feet every day for that alone.

Q: What are some of your favorite things to do that are unique to this region?

A: I spend just about every waking minute that I’m not working on the water. I’m a paddler. I paddleboard and standup paddleboard and I compete all up and down the West Coast and Canada. I’m the second human to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca with no support from Port Townsend to Victoria.