Getting Real with the San Antonio Visitor Economy

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A scene of the Pearl Brewery during the popular Tamales event. Photo by Scott Ball.

A scene of the Pearl Brewery during the popular Tamales event. Photo by Scott Ball.

When Lonely Planet ranked San Antonio #8 on its list of “unexpectedly exciting places to see in the United States in 2016” last week, local officials in the visitor industry were understandably excited to share the news that the “new San Antonio” is getting noticed. It could not have come at better time as forces in the city’s civic and business community edge closer to a difficult conversation about how San Antonio can shed its Alamo City image and become a more authentic cultural destination.

Here is what Lonely Planet, the counterculture’s guide to the known universe, had to say:

“Take a hearty stew of Mexican culture, add a dash of Austin weird and a big dollop of pure Texas ‘tude, and you get San Antonio: the Lone Star State’s most compelling city right now. The River Walk, long an attraction for travelers, has been transformed from the previous three-mile walk to a whopping 15 miles, connecting museums in the north to downtown and the historic missions in the south with river views and parkland in between. San Antonio’s five Spanish colonial missions, the largest concentration of missions in North America, were recently named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The high-design Pearl Brewery District, continues to evolve with top-notch restaurants, a cooking school and outdoor events throughout the year.”

Not a word about the Alamo, River Walk barges or theme parks. The Lonely Planet recommendation was an about-face of its standing description of San Antonio:

“…Downtown is filled with tourists in shorts carrying cameras and consulting their maps. In fact, many people are surprised to find that two of the state’s most popular destinations – the Riverwalk and the Alamo – are right smack dab in the middle of downtown, surrounded by historical hotels, tourist attractions and souvenir shops. The rest of the city sprawls out around downtown, careful not to impinge on the tourist trade.”

The online travel guide’s update followed a December 2015 report published in Travel & Leisure magazine that ranked San Antonio #18 on a list of 50 world destinations worth visiting in 2016:

“They’re only 80 miles apart, but for decades San Antonio has been Austin’s more mature (but less cool) sibling. Alamo City locals have happily played second fiddle because they like flying under the radar, but now San Antonio is overturning its sleepy stereotype. In November, the historic St. Anthony Hotel downtown opened after a multimillion-dollar renovation. This overhaul follows an epic project that converted the River Walk from a congested tourist trap into 15 miles of trails that connect the city’s Spanish missions (just named a World Heritage site) to the Pearl up  north. The Pearl, once a 23-acre brewery complex, is now a neighborhood brimming with locally owned shops and acclaimed restaurants, in addition to a Culinary Institute of America campus. Travelers can finally stay on its historic grounds at Hotel Emma, an independent boutique inside the former 1894 brewhouse. You’ll see the Roman & Williams aesthetic in the lobby, where ammonia tanks once used to cool Pearl beer sit on replicated Redondo tiles, and the guest rooms combine leather chairs with cement floors and exposed beams. The hotel has two restaurants: Supper, which specializes in grilled meats, and Larder, for grab-and-go baked goods, flowers, and beer. Ready or not, San Antonio, you’re becoming cool.”

Many in San Antonio are eager to embrace the city’s new image in our messaging to the world, but other interests stand ready to defend the traditional Alamo City brand at all costs. Right now there aren’t enough marketing dollars in the pot to properly promote the new San Antonio and the traditional Alamo City. That leaves the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is poised to gain its independence from city government and transform itself into a free-standing nonprofit, caught between colliding forces.

Standing in the way of a dynamic rebranding initiative for the SACVB is its $20 million budget, which is $10 million less than “competitive set” cities — Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and San Diego — spend on promoting their attractions. Add to that the expectations of downtown hotel and River Walk restaurant owners, the Alamo Plaza tourist attractions, and theme park operators that expect continued marketing support.

The people, places and developments behind the “new San Antonio” — the Pearl, the Broadway Cultural Corridor destinations, the city’s rising culinary talents, Southtown, the Museum and Mission Reaches, and the newly-bestowed World Heritage recognition, believe it’s time for the city to tell a different story, one no longer aimed at the budget-minded tourist arriving in the family automobile.

The visitors San Antonio should cultivate now, it’s argued, should arrive by air, not only from Dallas or Houston, but also London, Tokyo and Rio. A new narrative would appeal to more sophisticated travelers, be they backpackers seeking a unique cultural experience or luxury hotel guests dining their way through the city’s top chefs.

Dozens of kayakers passed by the opening ceremony festivities on the Mission Reach. Pictured: San Antonio Nature Hounds, a local recreational meet-up for dogs and their pet humans, pass by Padre Park during the opening ceremony of the Mission Reach. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

Dozens of kayakers passed by the opening ceremony festivities on the Mission Reach.  Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Without new money, the new SACVB can’t do both.

“The more you invest in marketing, the better the return,” said SACVB Executive Director Cassandra Matej. “For every dollar we invest, we get four to five dollars in return. When the state invests a dollar, its gets a seven dollar return. Organically, our destination is changing. The culinary scene is exploding, and we’re getting national attention. The arts and culture scene is growing fast. The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts is changing perceptions of our city.”

City Council is expected to vote Thursday to approve the transformation of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau from a department of City government — the last top 50 U.S. city to be so structured — to reorganize as an independent nonprofit. The 18-month transition will include the establishment of a board of directors, selection of a new name without the word “bureau” in it, and efforts to add millions of new dollars to its budget.  The real issues going forward, various stakeholders say, will be money, the message, and makeup of that board, all crucial to how San Antonio positions itself going forward.

“We’re behind now, and we’re worried about being behind in the future,” Sea World CEO Dan Decker said in his remarks to City Council in December. Decker served as chairman of Mayor’s Ivy Taylor’s San Antonio Convention and Visitor Bureau Structure Task Force, which presented its report and recommendations to Council in December, which will be acted on Thursday.

If the SACVB website is any guide, expect the new name to be Visit San Antonio or Visit San Antonio!

Ultimately, Matej will be the point person on any new direction San Antonio takes in its branding message and spending. Who wins a seat on the board of directors will probably be a good barometer of the new organization’s direction. Matej was one of 13 members of Mayor Ivy Taylor’s task force formed in April 2015 to explore a transformation of the SACVB, its challenges, budget, and strategies. The task force was chaired by Decker, and all 13 members were from the City government or the traditional hospitality industry, mostly downtown and resort hotel operators.  Its mandate was limited to organizational structure and financing. The task force did not have the diverse representation to engage in a serious examination of marketing strategies.

San Antonio’s Declining Regional Tourism Economy

A look at the numbers that have not been shared with the public. Source: San Antonio Area Tourism Council

A look at the numbers that have not been shared with the public. Source: San Antonio Area Tourism Council

Lurking beneath the growing debate about marketing and branding San Antonio are statistics that are not found in press releases about San Antonio’s $13.4 billion visitor economy. Unpublished numbers tracked by the San Antonio Area Tourism Council (see charts) show a steady decline in visitor interest in the Alamo and Alamo Plaza, the River Walk barges and even the San Antonio Zoo. San Antonio’s long celebrated regional tourism market seems to be flat, at best, or actually shrinking.

The Rivard Report asked Marco Barros, the Tourism Council’s CEO, to release its latest data, which he did not agree to do. The information in the charts we are publishing was provided by stakeholders frustrated with the Tourism Council’s lack of transparency, and its unchanging approach to promoting the industry. The Tourism Council blog was last updated in July 2015 with a short posting about a Castle Hills Thai restaurant, and before that, with a 2014 notice that the San Antonio Zoo was celebrating its 100th anniversary. Its board of directors is largely composed of traditional industry representatives rather than a more dynamic mix of the old and new.

The reasons for the declining numbers are varied. Officials say San Antonio has taken for granted its long monopoly on statewide tourism, with market share now being lost to increasingly well-financed marketing efforts in Houston, Dallas and Austin. All three cities have invested heavily in the redevelopment of their cultural institutions, parks, and urban cores, and all offer an annual calendar of events appealing to a wide range of sophisticated travelers of all ages and demographics.

“We once owned the leisure market in Texas, but now Dallas and Houston are doing more in leisure. Historically, we’ve had the healthiest budget in the state,” Matej said, “But we have not been keeping up. We spent just under $20 million in 2011 and Dallas spent $14 million. Now, we still spend $20 million, while Dallas has doubled it budget and spends $30 million.”

Some of San Antonio's traditional tourist attractions are seeing declining numbers of visitors. Source: San Antonio Area Tourism Council

Some of San Antonio’s traditional tourist attractions are seeing declining numbers of visitors. Source: San Antonio Area Tourism Council

Millennials, travel experts say, are highly mobile and think nothing of flying to another city to visit friends for a weekend. When they arrive, they want to live like the locals, not visit tourist attractions. Well-heeled empty nesters, especially the Baby Boomers now experiencing more leisure time, have the money, education and worldliness to seek out experiences that cannot be had at home. They took their own children to theme parks, and now seek more meaningful experiences.

The Alamo, once the centerpiece of San Antonio’s visitor experience, has been the subject of negative publicity on several levels. There was the protracted fight between the state of Texas and Daughters of the Republic of Texas over management of the site, and there has been widespread criticism over the lack of historical context and ambience in and around Alamo Plaza, which is filled with tourists attracted to garish entertainment venues, a barking street preacher or two, and ubiquitous tour buses. The plaza is devoid of thoughtful cultural exchange.

Attitudes about animal theme parks like Sea World and zoos have changed, too. Water parks remain enormously popular with families and teenagers, as do animal exhibitions. But virtually every Millennial has seen the documentary film “Blackfish,” which put Sea World on the defensive and forced it to establish a website called Sea World Cares.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the San Antonio Zoo in December for its continued ownership and display of Lucky, the zoo’s solitary and aging Asian elephant, which it contends is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. One World Conservation has campaigned against the San Antonio Zoo for seven years over 54-year-old Lucky not being sent to an outdoor sanctuary to be with other elephants for her remaining years. Zoo officials say moving Lucky would probably kill her, and it’s obvious to observers that the elephant has a close relationship with her handlers, who lavish Lucky with care and attention. Zoo officials, also placed on the defensive, have countered the campaign with a We Love Lucky website of their own.

There’s an important, often overlooked “other side” to the story in the heated debate over animal parks and zoos, and that is their role in preserving and breeding species disappearing now in the wilds — or what is left of the wilds — but that hasn’t stopped a certain percentage of people from crossing off such destinations from their list. It’s a serious challenge for operators.

 A Skeptical Look at the Numbers

The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum at the corner of East Houston Street and North Presa Street. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum at the corner of East Houston Street and North Presa Street. Photo by Scott Ball.

Do 32.5 million people really visit San Antonio each year? Matej and her staff and just about everyone else in the visitor and convention industry here say they do. That equates to an average 89,041 people coming here every day of the year. Where are all of them staying? San Antonio has 35,000 hotel rooms, 13,500 of them downtown. Those figures might be dated now, but still: Where are 89,041 people spending the night?

“Traditionally, we say 80% of that number is the leisure audience, and 20% is conventions and meetings,” said Richard Oliver, the SACVB’s director of communications.

The source of the 32.5 million figure is D.K. Shiplett & Associates, which bills itself as the “leading travel and tourism research company,” and which Oliver agrees, “dominates the DMO market.” The acronym DMO stands for destination management organizations, such as the SACVB. The company undoubtedly does a brisk business with DMOs everywhere, all of whom are understandably eager to tout growing numbers. But are those numbers based on any hard data, or are they based on models?

The numbers matter because they drive public investment.

To protect San Antonio’s convention business, the City recently invested $325 million in Hotel Occupancy Tax funds to expand and upgrade the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, even as other cities do the same in the highly competitive space. Another $43 million is being on Alamodome upgrades.

The far larger market, if the numbers are to be believed, is the so-called leisure market, which would represent 26 million of the 32.5 million total visitors. That means 6.5 million conventioneers and meeting attendees visit San Antonio annually.  That equates to 71,232 “leisure visitors” every day of the year, and an average 17,808 people attending meetings and conventions daily, including weekends and holidays.

The outdated webpage for the San Antonio International Airport reports that 8,243,221 people flew in and out of the city in 2012. Even assuming strong growth in the ensuing three years to 10 million passengers today — many of them, by the way, residents coming and going  — that suggests 22 million or more people are arriving by automobiles or other conveyance than airlines annually.

The Tourism Council, meanwhile, reported that 1,317,236 people visited the Alamo in 2015, or about .5% of all leisure visitors, and 298,037 people visited Alamo Plaza in 2015, or about .04% of all leisure visitors. If those leisure visitors numbers are correct, it means very few people who come to San Antonio have any interest in seeing traditional tourist attractions. The numbers, it would seem, simply don’t add up.

What should not be lost in the coming debate over a new marketing organization and approach is that San Antonio is on the cusp of extraordinary opportunity as it continues to invest in its downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, including the convention center and Hemisfair, and as it develops a long-term World Heritage plan. The 2017 Bond offers the opportunity to make major strategic investments in key corridors like Broadway north of downtown and Roosevelt Avenue south of downtown that will drive significant new investment and economic activity in the “new San Antonio.”

All sides in the debate will be well-served, however, to take a harder look at the numbers to get a more accurate reading of who is really visiting San Antonio and why, and how we can best invest our tax dollars going forward to realize the best possible return.


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 This story was originally published on Sunday, Feb. 14.

*Top Image: A scene of the Pearl Brewery during the popular Tamales event.  Photo by Scott Ball. 


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25 thoughts on “Getting Real with the San Antonio Visitor Economy

  1. The SACVB records that are now public will be harder to get when it becomes a nonprofit. Just as the Tourism Council refused to give you their data, the new agency will be able to do the same. That’s my understanding of the new structure. It seems a blow to oversight and transparency.

  2. This is good journalism. I’ll become a Rivard member.

    Finally. For years I’ve thought the city was marketing SA poorly. Stop pushing the Alamo and the theme parks. We need to tell the world we are more than that !! We need to bring in the national and international travelers, who will then share the good news via social media. For example, we can market ourselves as a unique culture and history destination that is affordable! I tell people Austin may be hip and trendy, but our city is lasting, and organically developed. Focus on a top ten list like this and spread the news:

    Ten places in San Antonio that are amazing that you should experience and won’t bust your wallet:

    1.the SA museum of Art 2.The McNay art institute 3.Pearl brewery 4. South town neighborhood at night 5.Mission San Jose 6. Mission Reach walk and bike trail and kayak opportunities 7. the Witte Museum complex soon to double in size 8. the new Children’s Museum largest in Texas 9.downtown : Main Plaza, Briscoe Museum , el Mercado area 10. Food tour: list all the great places, the old standards and the new ones…there , not one mention of the Alamo or the amusement parks.

    We’ve got work to do. Let’s go.

    • “We need to tell the world we are more than that !!”. That’s exactly what the CVB does, thank you. All the 10 places mentioned are currently promoted. Appreciate your passion about SATX.

  3. (per the paragraphs under the Buckhorn Saloon photo) Of the alleged 89,041 people who visit SA each day, SACVB says 80% are for leisure and 20% are for conventions/meetings. Are those the only classes of SA visitors? What about workers on temporary assignments? What about business travelers here for reasons other than meetings? What about out-of-town families of military, college students, and hospital patients? What are the other reasons people “visit” SA and where are they staying?

    • John

      It’s certainly true that every city has its share of day visitors, coming on business, pleasure, family, etc. but the SAT traffic numbers still suggest the 32.5 MM number is inflated. Even if the vast majority of day visitors are coming by automobile, and I’m sure that is the case, how many parked vehicles can we accommodate in public garages, on the streets, etc.? I could be proven wrong, and I’ll certainly invite the SACVB and others to demonstrate to the Rivard Report how those numbers accurately break down, but color me a skeptic. Look, for example, at the required seven day a week traffic of meeting and convention attendees to get to the 6.5 million number. Thanks for reading and commenting. –RR

      • Robert — I was wondering if the SACVB figures clumped the other types of visitors into its two categories (leisure & convention) without considering how other types I mentioned fit into the economic scenario. There are many hotels near the airport ; I doubt if many conventioneers or tourists stay there. I wonder what percentage of those airport hotel guests are lay-over airline employees, salespersons, Med Center patients/families, travelers en route to other destinations, etc. I point out other types of visitors to question, as you do, the inflated tourism volume. But I must say that I am excited that killer whales, bluebonnets, BBQ, cascarones and coonskin caps will not be touted as SA’s prime raisonnes d’ visit. And I hope McNay, SA Museum of Art, Witte, SA Botanical Garden and the ever-expanding Greenway trail system are promoted as the jewels in SA’s crown that they are.

        • John

          There is definitely enough general interest in these numbers for us to follow up with SACVB staff to publish an official breakdown. I’ve already been in touch with Richard Oliver there, who will help make that happen this week. Thanks, RR

  4. “The visitors San Antonio should cultivate now, it’s argued, should arrive by air, not only from Dallas or Houston, but also London, Tokyo and Rio. ” The flight patterns need to change for this to happen. I travel to San Antonio a couple times a year to visit my mother, who still lives in the house I grew up in. It’s very difficult to get to San Antonio without stopping in Houston or Dallas, which adds way too much time to my travel day.

  5. It will be difficult to stay competitive as people “discover” Houston and Dallas and under-forty conventioneers and travelers increasingly prefer the Austin experience. Longer term, if the perceived security situation improves, there are numerous air-accessible cities in Mexico and Central America (think in Costa Rica and Panama) that offer access to as much or more of the purportedly authentic “cultural experience” and “Hispanic heritage” that SA has historically marketed.

    In the face of these trends, and taking as true the claim that “for every dollar we invest, we get four to five dollars in return,” why should taxpayers prop up the hotels, theme parks, and riverwalk attractions through marketing outside SA? It seems to me that all these commercial entities could fund Visit San Antonio! on their own (or advertise in other markets, as they already do), if tourism marketing is as effective as SACVB claims. Given that we are generally talking about low or middle wage service jobs for servers, hotel workers, park operators, etc, I don’t see why tax money should be going to prop up this sector over others providing higher wages (and education!). Of course, these companies pay taxes, but these taxes go into many public amenities (not least of all the expansion of the riverwalk) that benefit both the companies and locals.

    Put differently, what great cities were made great and prosperous by their tourism industry? Tourism makes a contribution to cities like New York, DC, San Francisco (and more on our scale, Nashville and Portland) but none of these cities are getting ahead DUE TO tourism (Las Vegas and maybe Orlando are counterexamples, but we’re not remotely on that scale). Tourism is exactly the sort of low-to-middling wage industry SA needs to be breaking out from through fostering higher wage sectors and, above all, education.

    • This is a fantastic comment that almost needs to be an article itself.

      A tourism-first strategy never builds a healthy, robust city, but a healthy, robust city is exactly what tourists now want to visit. Get your city right for locals and the tourism will happen organically. And those tourists will be happier. The number one complaint I hear from central downtown visitors is that there are no locals there. No one books a hotel to be near other hotels.

      That said, there are smart and important things you can do to put a city on the international stage. SxSW did amazing things for the city of Austin, for example. But that’s more “meeting of the minds” tourism than theme park tourism.

  6. Great and informative read. As a downtown loft owner, I interact daily with visitors from all sorts of backgrounds and cities/countries of residency. I lost count of the number of couples I met yesterday from Austin, Houston, Dallas , and San Antonio who were here to spend the Valentines Weekend. I am saddened by every vacant, abandoned building I walk by – be it from the loss of architectural beauty, the loss of vibrancy, the loss of opportunity for residents and businesses to inhabit them, or the loss of solid infrastructure here. I agree that the SACVB should be nonprofit and apolitical. It is critical to message SA to the world, free of influence from the stagnant and /or outdated ideology. SA was, at one time, The Alamo, Sea World and military bases/retirees. It’s a different city now, from biotech and tech to unbelievable cuisine, and the extended Riverwalk, The Missions, Pearl et al add an entirely new element to the tourism industry. San Antonio is no longer one dimensional and the message needs to get out there. A walking, cycling, dining, artistic, accessible downtown is the ticket to locals and tourists keeping it alive and thriving – and in spite of the lack of promotion, it is getting attention. Imagine if the updated and unfolding story is told, how many more people will enjoy it here. They, like many, will come here, support our city, make some memories, share our unique culture with us, and spread the word.

  7. Excellent and compelling read. I am glad we are digging into the numbers and thinking about the best ways to invest our money. SA has historically told its story poorly but has so much more to offer. No need to reinvent the wheel, just increase awareness of our year-round ice house culture, excellent restaurant scene, and the friendliest people in Texas. People are going to come for the Alamo and theme parks no matter what, and there is nothing wrong with these kind of visitors. But let’s start attracting a new kind of visitor as well by showcasing the lesser-known, and more authentic jewels.

  8. In regards to the redevelopment of the HemisFair area, what happened to the world-class
    Carlos Rivera mosaic made for the World’s Fair? It is located next to the staircase that connects the old convention center with its riverwalk level? I have inquired with the city staff about the priceless artwork, but I guess they were have too busy spending $1 million on a new art piece for the lobby of the new convention center.

  9. Fantastic journalism. So proud to be a supporter of the Rivard Report. We are at a critical juncture in our city’s future, and this kind of accountability is crucial to making sure our city progresses instead of its typical regressive attitudes and behavior. I can feel the momentum of change, I just wish it could move a little faster! I think one pervasive issue with our city-run organizations is not who is on the board of directors, but who is handling the day-to-day execution. Those folks are largely responsible for some of the most significant losses by San Antonio to other markets (economic development groups). Lori Houston is an absolute boss and we are so lucky to have her, but a lot of the other people in economic development I’ve worked with are so weak–same old Riverwalk-first, 1995 Powerpoint sales pitch.

  10. Excellent piece.

    On a side not, we HAVE to stop promoting SeaWorld! Four whales/dolphins have died right here, at SeaWorld San Antonio, in the last 6 months alone. How insane is that, and how can we justify spending tax dollar on promoting that?

  11. Wow, this was a great read and good journalism. I always wonder why we didn’t have a private CVB when I think most cities do. We probably should make it private but this story exposes some misleading statements or misunderstandings about it. Don’t know if it’s the writer or the sources or the information itself but so much of this makes no sense…the city is making the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau private so they can have a $30 million budget? Is the city giving them $30 million, if yes, what is the point? Or are they planning to raise the $10 million dollars? What model are they using that makes them think they can raise millions of dollars in fees from members in a city that has never paid before?

    So of the 32.5 million people who visit San Antonio EACH year, 80 percent is leisure and 20% is convention. But we are still to believe that they are ALL visiting the same city, right? Wouldn’t we have hotels and motels full everyday from here to Laredo and down to Corpus if those numbers were anywhere near what was happening? Did the CVB spokesperson not understand or deliberately not answer the question about those numbers? Where the heck are all these people eating and going, never mind staying?

    And the CVB says they promote arts and culture, inferring that they need to go private to
    to promote the “new San Antonio” …But wouldn’t a private CVB have members that want exclusively to be promoted by the private CVB? And wouldn’t the paid members make up the “new San Antonio” that the private CVB would sell to the rest of the world? Could the arts and culture institutions pay to be promoted by CVBs? All the talk about enhanced experiences and millennials seems to fly against the privatization campaign. Wouldn’t the main members be the SeaWorlds of San Antonio and Ripley’s type of attractions that aren’t exactly “arts and culture”? The CVB has had a bad record of how they promote San Antonio for years. I wish we could see the arts and new San Antonio that they say they advertise instead of the same old stuff I see. I suppose it got working families from Oklahoma and Dallas down to ride riverboats eat Mexican food and watch Shamu. But even that gets boring after a while. Guess that’s the problem. That, and lies.

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