Rural Tourism Towns, Your Chamber of Commerce is your Welcome Mat to the World

by Joanne Steele on August 26, 2009

Here’s another great small rural tourism business story to inspire and amaze you.

We spent the night in a little campground outside of rural tourism town, Winthrop, WA. We got up early and went into town to locate a wifi hotspot and discovered a comfortable breakfast spot with good coffee and electrical outlets next to sofas and upholstered chairs – my kind of home away from home.

I asked if the owner was available. The breakfast rush was over, and Colbey Breed came out of the kitchen in his white chef’s garb and a spritely colored chef’s hat.

colbeyMy first impression: This guy is young! Yes, but a seasoned restaurateur, having purchased and opened the Grubstake when he was 18.

“I was working here for the owners, trying to finance an education in architectural design in Florence, Italy,” explained Colbey, “when I realized that what I was really interested in was Design itself. Architectural design, furniture design, food design, anything relating to design itself.”

“The owners were looking for a way to get out of the restaurant here, and I saw it as a great design challenge,” explained then 18 year old Colbey. “I borrowed $1000 from my grandpa, $100 here and there from friends and made the owners a purchase offer that sounded good enough that they accepted.”

“I moved walls, made these stools we’re using here, painted, redesigned the kitchen and opened the Grubstake. And here I am, 5 years later feeling pretty successful,” he declared.

Colbey Breed’s Biggest Marketing Successes

When I asked about his biggest marketing successes he talked about how his customers are responding to the recession and how he is changing his menu to serve the needs he sees.

“People want to feel like they’re getting a good deal these days, but they are not doing that by going cheap,” Colbey explained. “People are coming here to dine out to treat themselves and they want good value, not cheap prices. My most inexpensive wines aren’t selling as well right now as my more expensive, good value for the money wines. I’m offering high value items at good prices that help to make people feel special”

Colbey reminded me that at the end of the Great Depression, people were doing exactly the same thing – treating themselves to high value items.

He also said that he felt people would not go back to the kind of mindless spending habits that got us where we are today. He is planning on a future where people are spending more carefully, using their disposable income more mindfully. He is positioning himself to be a place where those mindful spenders come for quality, high value yet affordable dining.

Pretty amazing insights from a 23 year old.


The Grunstake has outdoor and indoor dinign options.

Colbey’s Biggest Marketing Challenges?

Being in a themed tourism town means that Colbey doesn’t have to do much out of the area advertising. The town sells the destination. Colbey feels that this is getting him the traffic he needs. Plus, people return to Winthrop and repeat business in high.

The major problem is that the mission of the local chamber may not be aligned with the mission and needs of the small downtown businesses. Certain events that used to be sponsored by the chamber are no longer being done. The local business community does not have a significant voice on the chamber board. Local non-business owning residents are in the majority.

A strong moving force on the chamber who was responsible for the web site that drew me to Winthrop is working elsewhere.

My suggestions:

As a rural tourism town, your chamber of commerce is your first line of contact with the traveling public. With 80% of travelers doing some portion of their planning and reservations online, you need to maintain a high quality cutting edge chamber web presence. Especially since Winthrop lives or dies based on tourism – a situation many rural communities now find themselves in.

It is vital to honor the chamber participation of local residents who have invested in Winthrop by buying homes and living there, but a thriving business community is what brought them to Winthrop in the first place. Having a strong business presence on the board and working in the chamber is in their best interests as well. High property values are dependent on tourism as much as the downtown and adventure businesses.

Business owners tend to be the busiest people in town, and so they tend to miss chamber meetings and limit their participation to paying yearly dues. Moving the chamber back to the business orientation that successfully resulted in a themed tourist town in the first place will require the following steps.

1. To increase their ability to regularly participate, businesses should request that chamber meetings be scheduled to accommodate their needs. Some places hold meetings at varying times – evenings one month, mornings another etc..

2. Colbey and other young business owners in Winthrop need to run for office on their chamber boards. Insights and vision like Colbey’s are what turned Winthrop around in 1971. It is important for him and other young business owners to see that the success of their business is an extension of the success of the chamber. In small rural communities in the Internet Age, the two are linked in the eyes of the travelling public.

3. Make certain that well trained volunteers are staffing your chamber office. That volunteer should be able to answer questions about where to stay, where to eat, what to do where, where to get certain items, and what is the history of the area.

The chamber can set up policies about how recommendations are made. The best I’ve seen is to ask the visitor about services he or she is looking for. What type of food? Pet friendly accommodations? Hot tubs? And then the volunteer makes up to three recommendations. The list is revolving so that all businesses have equal access to those recommendations over time.

So Colbey, our time with you was inspiring. Our major recommendation for your town is not to rest too long on your laurels. We visited Twisp, and they’re right on your heels, attracting visitors looking for authentic experiences!

More about Winthrop and Twisp in the future.

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