Departing Convention Center Director Recalls ‘Visionary Projects,’ End to ‘Great Run’

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City of San Antonio Director of Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities Michael Sawaya

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

City of San Antonio Director of Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities Michael Sawaya

Michael Sawaya, who oversees the Henry B. González Convention Center and the Alamodome and is one of the longest-tenured department heads with the City of San Antonio, has resigned to accept a position at the convention center in New Orleans.

Director of the San Antonio Convention and Sports Facilities Department, Sawaya is one of only two City department heads that City Manager Sheryl Sculley retained from the prior administration after she came to San Antonio in 2005.

“While we wish we could hold on to one of our best executives, this new position represents a tremendous opportunity for Mike and his family,” Sculley stated Monday in announcing his departure.

His new opportunity is with the 1.1 million-square-foot Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, considered the sixth-largest convention center in the United States and almost twice as large as San Antonio’s convention facility. Sawaya leaves for New Orleans next month; his last day will be Feb. 9.

His departure brings to a close a 14-year career with the City. Sawaya came to San Antonio following 20 years managing 13 hotels across the country. He was general manager at the Omni Hotels here before joining the City in 2003 as director of the Convention and Sports Facilities department. There, he managed 335 employees and operations for the Lila Cockrell Theatre and Carver Cultural Community Center as well as the convention center and Alamodome.

Sawaya led the $325 million expansion of the convention center, the recently completed $60 million renovation of the Alamodome, and a $26 million renovation of the Lila Cockrell Theatre.

Sawaya helped start the Big League Baseball Weekend in San Antonio, negotiated a contract to host all University of Texas at San Antonio home football games and graduations at the Alamodome, and led the effort to purchase Toyota Field through his role as chairman of the Public Facilities Corporation, a joint partnership with the City and Bexar County.

He was instrumental in booking the 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four, which will be played at the Alamodome March 31-April 2, an event he hopes to return for in his new capacity as president and general manager of the New Orleans convention center. New Orleans will host the Final Four in 2022.

Wherever Sawaya’s career path has led, hospitality has come naturally to him, he said. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of restaurant owners spent his summers helping an aunt and uncle at their inn on Cape Cod before graduating from college with a degree in hospitality management.

The Rivard Report spoke with Sawaya the day after his departure was announced to talk about his long tenure leading the city’s biggest tourism, sporting, and entertainment venues, and why he is looking forward to the move.

Rivard Report: As you look back on your career with the City, what do you think has been the key to your success and what attracted you to New Orleans?

Michael Sawaya: It’s been a great run. I’ve worked on amazing visionary projects under Sheryl Sculley’s leadership. Once she came on board, we developed a great relationship and a shared vision or what success looked like, and she was a partner and mentor, and helped spearhead these dream projects – expanding the convention center, setting up capital reserve accounts so we can maintain it to a high standard, revitalizing the Alamodome … and also making it a more viable, multipurpose venue. She was supportive of maintaining our assets to a high degree. It’s the philosophy I came in with and she really hit the ground running – on Day One, she told me what her vision was, and it lined up with mine. It’s been a real dream position for me. Rarely do you have two people who are in a position like mine who can partner with the city manager over a tenure that long. But we have been able to accomplish so much.

This new opportunity wouldn’t have happened without the experience Sheryl Sculley gave me to be involved in some really visionary projects. The New Orleans convention center is larger, for sure, and has a bigger impact on that community’s economy, as well as the state’s economy. More exciting is the 47 acres adjacent to the convention center that’s on the river, and a project being conceptualized as the “up-river project,” an entertainment, mixed-use, hotel, retail, and residential project. So that opportunity on behalf of the convention center authority is very intriguing.

RR: Of all the venues and renovations you’ve overseen, which one was the most challenging?

MS: There was a period of time when I was the interim Aviation Department director, and I had stepped in when the [San Antonio International] airport renovations were just getting started. The previous director had left right before the letting of contracts for construction, so it was a challenge to pick that up and be on top of that and make sure it happened on time. But once we focused in on that project, and righted the ship, by the time I left, we were under budget and ahead of schedule. That was the goal we set. We were able to do that, and it was very challenging, because operating an airport that busy while under construction presents its own unique set of challenges.

The other one is the convention center expansion, the biggest single capital project the City has ever done, and we underwent renovations and expansions during one of the busiest years ever and we didn’t lose any business.

RR: What is the most unique event you’ve experienced at the convention center?

MS: In 2008, we got a call from a group wanting to host Aga Khan IV, the imam of Nizari Ismailism, in six weeks. He had not been in the U.S. in 25 years, and his followers must make a pilgrimage to see him. So it was a big deal. We needed a place for 16,000 people the weekend after the [2008 Men’s] Final Four, and we were able to accommodate that. But we had 60,000 [people] over two days, including having to feed 40,000 a kosher meal. The RK Group stepped up. Security was enormous. But it all came off well, and they are looking to potentially come back. The fast turnaround and the number of people made it one of the most unique events we’ve hosted.

RR: What is one of the most memorable and proud moments you’ll take with you?

MS: Opening the Lonesome Dove Room at the convention center – a venue developed from a storage room on the river into a Texas-themed, multifunction room that makes us stand out nationally. It’s nice to see, when you dream something up and use your creative skillset and you build it, and it immediately exceeds expectations for success. That’s very gratifying.

The other answer is that when I first came to the city in 2003, we recognized we had a nice [convention] facility, but it was attached to a much older facility, and the oldest parts were showing their age. Then we planned out how a new facility would be designed and came up with creative, innovative financing to do that, and do it on schedule. It was a 30-month project, and we now have one of finest convention centers in the world.

RR: Your role is very important to the economic health of this city. What should we be looking for in your successor?

MS: Someone to carry on the vision of exceptional operations. When I came in, my mission was to bring up standards to four-diamond hotel standards, to develop and maintain that. There will be a national search, and there will be a lot of interest because this is one of the finest centers around. I was a hotelier, and I would think someone with hotel expertise would be a viable candidate. But it’s ultimately about fit – the right person with the type of leadership skills it takes to not only maintain standards, but also elevate them to a higher level of success. Sales and marketing acumen are key.

RR: What do you feel San Antonio still needs to do retain world-class status in its 300th year?

MS: There’s so much going on here already, but what I’d like to see is another professional sports team. And a downtown baseball venue makes sense. That’s 70 dates that could bring together locals and tourists, and it’s a key opportunity that needs to be pursued.

We also need a naming rights partner for the Alamodome, not only to present a new image, but to provide it with a revenue stream that allows us to reinvest in the Alamodome. Even after the renovations, there’s another $60 million more worth of stuff that can be done. It’s the busiest domed stadium in country and the home of UTSA, helping it grow to its Tier 1-status potential. But that may or may not include keeping the Alamodome name on it.

RR: Spurs or Pelicans?

MS: I’ll always be a Spurs fan, especially when they come to town. But I’ll certainly be a New Orleans Saints fan now, too. Who Dat?

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