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.
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
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."
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
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.