Davis Phillips: My grandparents owned and operated Aquarena Springs in its heyday until they sold it in 1986. So, I grew up in the Texas tourism industry learning the value and positive impact of providing families the opportunity to spend time together having fun. My first chance to really work in the industry came when I was just 11 years old. I started taking tickets at the Wax Museum in the Dallas area for a company called Classic Attractions. My father was the president of that company, so I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn all aspects of this industry from the ground up alongside him.
My father believed there was opportunity to bring family entertainment attractions to the San Antonio market. In 1985, I remember standing in Alamo Plaza with my father and grandfather. At that time, Rivercenter Mall did not exist, nor did Six Flags Fiesta Texas or Sea World. I remember hearing my dad speak about all of the families that were in the Plaza area, but did not have much to do once they had visited the Alamo. There was nothing “fun” in the downtown area and many of the buildings were empty after a string of business failures. So, my father and grandfather started the first family attraction in Alamo Plaza, at that time called the Plaza Theater of Wax, in January of 1987. The City of San Antonio welcomed the business, and City officials helped cut the ceremonial ribbon on opening day. The business was very successful and later expanded with the addition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not in May 1988. Those businesses were later sold to Ripley Entertainment, who still owns them today.
We started our own small family business, Phillips Entertainment, Inc. and opened the Ripley’s Haunted Adventure in March 2002, the Guinness World Records Museum in July of 2003, and the Tomb Rider 3D in March 2005. In the years since then, we have been asked to run other attractions as well – The Buckhorn Saloon and Museum, the Texas Ranger Museum, The Amazing Mirror Maze and the Vault Laser Challenge.
Today, we operate these seven different attractions and have approximately 135 employees. Since 1987, the visitors to San Antonio, especially those with families, have heavily supported these family entertainment businesses. When you add in to this that 28 businesses have failed in the Alamo Plaza area over the last 30 years, what you see today is a family-grown, economic success story.
RR: Give us a sense of your operations as a business: how many customers you attract in a year, your revenues, etc.
DP: To truly understand the financial impact of the family entertainment businesses in Alamo Plaza, you need to look at them as a group. There are 10 businesses. They total 244 employees, combine for an annual economic impact of $19 million, provide taxes back to the City, County, and State of more than $2 million a year, and produce an annual payroll of $4 million. Also important to note, as many or more people pay to visit the family entertainment businesses each year – approximately 1.6 million – visit the Alamo for free.
RR: A lot of people assume you own the buildings. That's not true, is it?
DP: No, we do not own the buildings.
RR: Who is your landlord then?
DP: Our landlord is Service Life and Casualty Insurance, based in Austin, Texas.
RR: It must be pretty expensive to operate across from the Alamo. How much rent do you pay a year? Do you have a long-term lease or could you be given notice and made to move if redevelopment of the Alamo Plaza ever takes place?
DP: Phillips Entertainment, Inc. pays more than $58,000 a month in rent, and it goes up annually. Expensive rent rates and the seasonality of the business activity is why so many businesses have failed in the past. It is very difficult to manage the severe ups and downs in cash flow, and the ones that have been unsuccessful simply did not have enough of a broad appeal to the types of visitors that come to San Antonio.
Yes, we have a long-term lease, and we cannot be forced to move.
RR: You've had a seat on the Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee. What's the status of that committee and the plan announced last year to develop a Master Plan?
DP: We are waiting for the City and the State to select the master planner sometime this June or July. A positive development has been the recent agreement between the City and the State to work together on the improvement effort in and around Alamo Plaza. Initially, the Alamo Plaza Committee was only focused on Alamo Plaza, and to do this well, we need to focus on the entire area as a whole. Once the master planner is selected, they will meet with the committee members and we will work as a technical advisor to assist with the process.
RR: The Committee took a fresh look at the 1994 Master Plan that was never acted on. What is your opinion of that plan? Given that your businesses were in operation back then, were you also part of that process?
DP: Overall, I thought the 1994 plan was very well thought through. It was obvious that a tremendous amount of work had been put into it and it provided a nice starting point for us. We went through each page, word by word, and decided on what to keep, change, add, or delete based on the input from the historians and committee members. I was not on that committee in 1994.
RR: The state of Texas removed the Daughters from management of the Alamo, and are now undertaking direct control over the Alamo and planning to act jointly with the City of San Antonio to form a new Advisory Board or Committee and undertake a new Master Plan effort. Do you support that pending legislation? Would you seek a seat on the new advisory board?
DP: It will not be a new master plan effort. They are taking the work done by the Alamo Plaza committee as the starting point for the now joint master planning effort. This is a good development, and we must work together on this complicated project.
I do support the creation of an advisory board. I think it will be needed as there are very few in government that really understand all of the moving parts of the Alamo, Alamo Plaza and the visitor industry. We also deal with frequent turnover in political leadership, so this group would have the opportunity to provide helpful insight, experience and continuity as political leaders change.
My only objection – and it is a strong objection – is that they need to define the backgrounds they wish to be presented on this board and it should be inclusive. The Alamo Plaza committee discussed a single board concept to manage the overall operation of the new Alamo experience. We called for it to be inclusive of State officials, City officials, conservation members, historians, private sector individuals, adjacent property owners, and someone from the Travel and Tourism industry. If you are going to remake and operate one of the major parts of the Texas Tourism Industry, it only makes sense to have at least one person on this board that can advise based on real world experience in the Texas Tourism Industry. It does not have to be me, but someone from the industry should have a seat at the table.
The key for this advisory board to be successful is that they must include people from different backgrounds with certain expertise. I think Mayor Julián Castro understood this when he followed that format in setting up the Alamo Plaza committee initially. As it exists now, the State bill states only who will pick the nine positions, but nothing about expertise required. I think this is when you tend to create a board of “yes” people, and since it is an advisory group, the only real assistance they can provide is seasoned advice. That comes from experience. The only way to guarantee that a base of real experience is included is to mandate it in the bill. In my opinion, the way it is laid out today is not inclusive and has the real potential to be ineffective.
RR: Some critics of your businesses believe they create a carnival like atmosphere that detracts from the story telling and history of the Battle of the Alamo and the site's earlier history as a Spanish mission and even earlier, its indigenous history. Do you understand why people want to see a plaza more like Independence Hall in Philadelphia where history is presented without commercial enterprises in close proximity?
DP: I understand their viewpoint and I respect their right to feel that way. I hear many people ask – why did they let it get this way? Most people do not realize that City leaders had this discussion in the 1880’s. Their decision was to not only allow development, but to promote it. They started selling off the land for private development around the Alamo. They wanted to be taken seriously as a place of commerce, and not only known for the Battle.
I would also argue that the men of the Alamo fought for freedom and the right to individual determinations. That is precisely what has occurred. With that freedom, previous City leadership determined their path. I understand that not everyone agrees with the path they chose, but the decision to allow the development occurred before any of us were alive. The challenge today, of course, is that the Alamo is now in the center of the 7th largest city in the country. And we have a system that has relied upon the free market to determine what stays and goes. So you can see how this is deeply complicated, very emotional, and not nearly as simple to solve as many say it is.
RR: You've said that if your business were moved, far few people would come to see and experience the Alamo. Do you think people calling for removal of your businesses lack an appreciation of what visitors want and their importance to the local economy?
DP: What I have said is that if all of the family entertainment options are removed, as some suggest, we create a situation in which visitors will spend less time and money downtown.
San Antonio has the largest collection of family attractions in the state. This is a positive for our city. It has created a symbiotic relationship. The Alamo is the main draw, but the attractions, entertainment and retail keep people in the downtown area longer and increase their spending. Many of the people that visit the Alamo also visit the attractions. The false narrative is that history and entertainment are mutually exclusive. The economic facts have shown the blend of history and entertainment have created a powerful economic success.
One other challenge for this process is that many of the loudest voices calling for change really do not understand the San Antonio visitor market. They do not know who the average visitor is, how they spend their time, or how they spend their money. The San Antonio tourism market is approximately 75% leisure and 25% business/conventions. 61% of the leisure market is Gen X and Millennials; half of them have children and are looking for something fun to do in the area.
A variety of backgrounds will be needed to create a new Alamo experience that will engage the six year old, the 16 year old, the 46 year old and the 66 year old. In order to do this, we must be careful not to design this new experience simply to please the historian-type visitor. One lesson I have learned the hard way is always to design a business or space to please the end user – not the designer. The majority of our leisure visitors are not looking for a history lesson – they are looking to have fun. I know we can portray the story of the Alamo – all aspects of that story – and do it in a way that will excite people. We can do it, in part, through the use of technology. This will be critical to make the history lesson relevant and exciting to visitors. Technology can be used to enhance the guest experience while still staying true to the feel of the time period. You cannot engage visitors in 2015 as we did in 1960, and that’s the core issue. If you remove all the businesses across from the Alamo – you still have an underwhelming experience. People won’t mind a history lesson if it occurs as part of a unique experience.
San Antonio is the #1 destination for leisure visitors in the State of Texas. We must be careful that the changes do not harm that foundation. We must carefully plan this improvement effort so that we add to the visitor base and not subtract from it. To do that, people from the tourism industry must be included in every step of the way.
RR: You've said you are open to listening to proposals for moving your businesses. What kind of requirements would need to be met to make it feasible for you to move? I am assuming some of the attractions can't just be moved, that they would have to be rebuilt?
DP: I have given you all of the previous information because I think it is essential to understand as we move into the next phase. So much of the rhetoric has been disrespectful and dismissive of all of the businesses in Alamo Plaza.
We are not the enemy. We are locals. We live here, have bought homes here, send our kids to public schools, and we have invested substantially in downtown San Antonio, well before it was fashionable. There was no decade of downtown in 1987.
We are simply trying to support our families and employees while entertaining visitors and locals, alike.
Previous reluctance to discuss the possibility of relocation was motivated by the fact that the current location is the premiere spot in the entire state of Texas, and one of the top spots in the nation, for family attraction businesses. Currently, there is no other spot in the City of San Antonio that would equally support these businesses at the level of success they currently perform. If it were so easy to replicate this kind of market situation, it would be occurring all over the country. Most other cities want what San Antonio offers. I continually get calls from other cities that ask us to consider them for expansion. The conversation and consideration always comes down to achieving enough foot traffic.
In addition, past relocation conversations have only discussed ways to simply remove said businesses. Until recently, there has not been a serious concern for whether or not these businesses would be successful in any new location. A well thought out plan has been missing or simply not communicated to us.
Although both groups prefer to remain where their businesses currently operate, Phillips Entertainment, Inc. and Ripley Entertainment, Inc. are willing to listen to any serious plans that would offer a similar strength of location near the Alamo. Both ownership groups support the City, the State, and the effort to improve the Alamo and the visitor experience at the Alamo. A plan that would be as focused on our future success as it would be the Alamo visitor experience improvement would be the ideal starting point for discussion.
RR: I take it from our conversations that Plan A is for you to persuade everyone to leave your businesses in place and redevelop the Alamo Plaza without including the private property where you are? Is that correct? Plan B would involve you moving. What would that take?
DP: Since I have worked in this industry for over 30 years I know that it is possible to blend history and entertainment in a way that can work for each. Again, our preference is to remain where we are and participate in the effort to improve the Alamo visitor experience.
Any discussion regarding relocating the business will be exceptionally complicated and difficult. While we are willing to listen to a serious plan, the challenge is replicating the 1.3 to 1.6 million visitors a year that enter and exit the Alamo directly in front of our front doors. This does not exist anywhere else. It is why rent levels are as high as they are today. If this situation could even be replicated, the costs, in today’s dollars, to rebuild all of the family entertainment businesses would be well over $50 million, at least, not including the cost of constructing new buildings.
*Featured/top image: A transformer in the lobby of Louis Tussaud's Waxworks. Photo by Scott Ball.