Destination Brief: No Sales Tax in Portland Leads To Hero Event Experiences

An aerial view of the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, with two pyramidal glass spires on the ceiling that can be lit up in different colors to match the event or conference theme.

Skift Take

Event planners face the challenge of creating ever more immersive and exciting event experiences but on a tighter budget. Portland’s zero sales tax, outside-the-box thinking, thriving foodie culture, and varied event venues are helping them to answer the call.

This content was created collaboratively by Travel Portland and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

As the Experience Economy gains traction, event planners today are met with both a challenge and an exciting opportunity: to transform their events into memorable, enticing, and extraordinary experiences that truly stand out from the crowd. In a recent Freeman Trends Report, 65% of respondents said that immersive experiences came out on top as the biggest factor influencing a positive event experience, underlining the need for planners to get creative.

However, this growth in experiences is taking place against a background of budget cuts and increasing pressure on event planners to minimize costs. According to the Cvent Planner Sourcing Report, 48% of North American planners say that cost-saving measures will be the biggest factor shaping their event planning priorities in 2024. According to the AMEX 2024 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, 67% of respondents expect meeting spending to increase.

So how can you balance these two conflicting priorities? The city of Portland, Oregon — a bastion of free-thinking, community, and creativity within the U.S. — presents a ready-made solution: Both the state and the city have an across-the-board zero sales tax policy. The median rate of sales tax for other major western region states stands at 7.8%, meaning that Portland’s zero rate represents real cost savings of thousands of dollars, much of which can be redirected towards creative event experiences.

Rosina Romano, Chief Operating Officer for the Entomological Society of America, recently ran a conference that benefited from Portland’s zero-tax policy. She explains, “The zero tax rate is an immediate savings that means you can provide better value for your members. I used it as justification for not needing to increase registration rates, for example.”

And in a city known for its foodie credentials, unique venues, and experiential offerings, there’s no shortage of ideas for designing an immersive event experience that attendees will remember — and hopefully return to.

F&B: Wow Attendees With Some of the Country’s Top-Rated Cuisine

Portland’s DIY ethos and diversity of people, backgrounds, and cultures are reflected in its foodie scene. It celebrates mom-and-pop businesses, global cuisine, and a local bounty of ingredients sourced in the Pacific Northwest. There’s a strong commitment to farm-to-fork dining and Cascadian cuisine in line with Portland’s emphasis on sustainability and community, with many restaurants choosing to use ingredients from within a local radius.

Eem, an award-winning Thai BBQ restaurant in Portland. Image credit: Aaron Lee.

Foodie Highlights

One of the most notable features of Portland’s foodie culture may lie in its thriving food truck scene. Standout examples include Stretch the Noodle, Baon Kainan, Kee’s Loaded Kitchen, Frybaby, and Tierra Del Sol. Besides allowing visitors to sample diverse cuisines, these carts also offer entrepreneurial chefs — often from BIPOC communities — the chance to test their best ideas on a small scale before moving on to open brick-and-mortar establishments.

With a similar sense of community spirit, many of Portland’s top chefs showcase great pride in locally sourced ingredients. Neighborhood eateries like cozy brunch spot Sweedeedee, for example, champion the farms that provide their fare. With sustainability and provenance increasingly important to event attendees around the world, these values are something to shout about.

And this movement isn’t going unnoticed. According to WalletHub’s survey of 180 cities in the U.S., Portland has consistently ranked among the top foodie destinations, clinching the number-one spot in 2022 and coming second in 2023. WalletHub has also crowned Portland the number-one city for vegans and vegetarians for several years, a symbol of its inclusive approach to dining and a draw for diverse event audiences.

Attendees can try vegan pizza at Virtuous Pie, healthy juices at Kure Superfood Café, Asian-inspired bowls at Native Bowl, or vegan ice cream at Kate’s Ice Cream.

If you want to impress attendees with more elevated options, Portland is home to several James Beard Award-winning chefs and establishments. Try Kann, a “live-fire,” gluten-free, and dairy-free restaurant by Chef Gregory Gourdet conveniently located close to the Oregon Convention Center, Japanese-Korean fusion cuisine at Janken, or “tiki Thai barbecue” joint Eem, a favorite from James Beard nominee Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom. Portland’s hotel scene is also heating up, with in-house restaurants like the acclaimed Urban Farmer and rooftop Departure restaurants at The Nines Hotel, and homegrown flavors at Northwest Pacific-inspired Lovely Rita at The Hoxton.

Abbey Creek Winery, Portland. Image credit: Diego Diaz

Beverage Standouts

Beyond its restaurants, Portland also has over 75 craft breweries, distilleries and wineries throughout the city, with an average of 4.4 breweries per 100,000 people — more than triple the average American city. From the counterculture taprooms of Gigantic Brewing Company to the products flying out of Oregon’s 725 wineries, thanks to international acclaim, there’s plenty for beer and wine lovers to explore. And for spirit aficionados, Portland has the world’s highest concentration of indie craft distilleries.

Finally, and perhaps unsurprisingly for a city often fondly satirized for its hipster credentials, Portland’s vibrant coffee culture has seen it ranked the number two coffee city in the U.S. Its cafés and roasteries offer everything from traditional espresso to cold brew to Vietnamese Ube Lattes. For the ultimate local experience, top them off with a visit to Blue Star Donuts for artisanal treats in unusual flavors.

Unique Venues: Striking Architecture, Views of Nature, and Interactive Experiences

When it comes to finding a core venue to host your event, Portland benefits from storied architecture, sustainably-minded organizations, and nature-immersed locations that appeal to varied audiences. A few highlights include:

  • The Kridel Grand Ballroom: This dramatic venue is located within the Portland Art Museum, which was founded in 1892 and is one of the oldest art museums in the U.S. The ballroom carries a timeless grandeur and can host up to 1,000 underneath its soaring ceilings.
  • McMenamins Crystal Ballroom: A Portland icon that opened in 1914, the ballroom’s standout feature is its mechanical “floating dance floor,” which bounces to the movement of the venue’s patrons. According to historian Tim Mills, “It’s one of those special places that has served so many people in this city since 1914… to have a building last as long as this one has and continue to flourish now — it’s rare, and it’s important.”
  • World Forestry Center: Portland is home to Washington Park, affectionately dubbed “Portland’s backyard,” and the World Forestry Center stands immersed in its lush surroundings. Escape the city in its banquet and conference rooms, outdoor central plaza, and Discovery Museum, where guests can enjoy hands-on exhibits that reveal the beauty of forests around the world.
  • The Redd on Salmon Street: Part of the Ecotrust project, the Redd on Salmon “hosts both critical back-of-house support for socially conscious food businesses, and a world-class event center focused on spreading the ideas of the good food movement.” The industrial-chic venue covers two city blocks and offers four separate spaces that can either connect seamlessly or stand on their own. Options range from intimate cooking classes to full buyouts for gala events and festivals.
  • Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI): Portland’s largest off-site event space is a hub for interactive learning, with its own planetarium and retired Navy submarine to explore. It can host up to 5,000 guests across its indoor and outdoor spaces.
  • Oregon Zoo: Turn your event into a safari experience at the oldest zoo west of the Mississippi. It’s home to over 2,600 animals and 215 species, including elephants, red pandas, and polar bears. The zoo offers not only a captivating backdrop but also indoor and outdoor event spaces — including an amphitheater that hosts up to 3,500 people.
  • Hopscotch: Tapping into the burgeoning trend for immersive experiences, one of Portland’s favorite spots for off-site activities offers an interactive art experience spanning 23,000 feet. Hopscotch’s 14 immersive installations are designed to create a sense of joy and wonder, with snacks and drinks available to further elevate the experience.
Portland’s The Redd on Salmon, Main Hall.

On-Site Activities: The Oregon Convention Center’s Event Services

For those seeking a large-scale, all-in-one event solution, the Oregon Convention Center (OCC) is a top choice. It’s one of the largest event centers in the Pacific Northwest, with 255,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space, 52 meeting rooms, two grand ballrooms, and an 800-space underground parking lot. Additionally, the Convention Center is located in the dynamic heart of downtown Portland, where it matches the city’s energy with a modern, accessible, and updated space. The OCC also offers a place to nurture attendee wellness with ample natural light and a $2 million art collection inspired by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Just as importantly, sustainability is at the heart of the venue. It was the first convention center in the world to achieve LEED Platinum status for an existing building — a certification that it recently renewed. An example of this commitment is its partnership with Path Water. Together, they provide reusable bottles that can be purchased at restaurants and cafés throughout the venue and used at its 17 refilling stations, free of charge.

As an added bonus, the OCC offers a few ways to help event planners better manage their costs. When you use its house AV provider, Onsite Audiovisual, there’s no charge for power — and if you find yourself in need of extra mics or screens last minute, it’s easy for them to source these without looking outside the building. Flexible union rules also mean that there’s no exclusive decorator, so exhibitors have flexibility with decorating their own booths, which can translate to huge cost savings. Finally, the venue has several soft-seating and networking areas with free power.

The MLK Lobby of the Oregon Convention Center.

Outside-the-Box Event Experiences

When it comes to the experience, the OCC can also provide a taste of Portland without leaving the venue. Food & Wine crowned Portland the number-one Food Truck City in the U.S. in April 2023, and it has over 500 food carts across the city. OCC has a unique partnership with Food Fleet: On request, they can bring food trucks right to the door of the Convention Center. There are two outdoor plazas available to stage with seating, so attendees can have that food-truck experience without ever having to leave the conference. And for a fun additional twist, the building can even be customized to suit your event. Its “Twin Spires,” large glass towers atop the building, can be lit up to match the color of the theme of your event. Previous incarnations include pink for Breast Cancer Awareness and red for the Red Cross.

Savings to Satisfy Cravings

If you’re looking to max out on your experience and not your budget, Portland’s hard-to-beat zero sales tax, the wealth of immersive and foodie experiences, and character-rich, well-equipped venues provide adaptable options for event planners everywhere.

Learn more by visiting the Travel Portland website.

Did You Know?

Portland’s city name was decided by a coin toss — with “Boston” being the alternative! For a closer appreciation of this fateful coin, you can view what’s thought to be the actual “Portland Penny” at the Oregon Historical Society right in the heart of downtown.

This content was created collaboratively by Travel Portland and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.