New Visit San Antonio Chair: Selling SA as an ‘Authentic Destination’

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Rusty Wallace, Omni Hotels General Manager.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Rusty Wallace, whose job as managing director and general manager for Omni Hotels includes overseeing the Omni La Mansion del Rio, is the new board chair of Visit San Antonio.

Rusty Wallace wasn’t born in San Antonio, but he got here as fast as he could. Now the hospitality expert and Houston native runs one of the most iconic hotels in town and has just been named board chairman of Visit San Antonio (VSA), the public-private partnership that promotes San Antonio tourism.

“This is my favorite hotel I’ve ever worked,” said Wallace, speaking from his office tucked behind the gleaming saltillo-tiled valet portico at the Omni La Mansion del Rio.

The managing director and general manager for Omni Hotels & Resorts, which locally includes the 50-year-old La Mansion, its cross-river neighbor, Mokara Hotel & Spa, and the Omni at the Colonnade, has worked a long list of them.

Wallace joined the workforce at age 15 as a steakhouse dishwasher. He later put himself through college working as a security officer at Houston's Shamrock Hilton. That’s where he met his wife of 32 years and embarked on a career that took him to Miami, New York City, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Irving, and finally San Antonio in 2006. He has since served two terms as president of the San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association.

The classic River Walk hotel he manages has an even longer history, of course, its cornerstone having been laid in 1852 by four Marianist brothers from France. The building was operated as a school in one form or another until the Marianist order relocated St. Mary’s University School of Law to the university's Westside campus. In 1966, Patrick Kennedy, a St. Mary's law school graduate, purchased the property and turned it into a hotel – at the time, one of only two on the River Walk – for HemisFair ’68.

Ten years later, another 150 rooms were added, and in 2006, it was sold to Omni Hotels. The acclaimed “hacienda-style hotel” continues to operate at a healthy 75 percent occupancy to this day. And this summer, a multimillion-dollar renovation will begin to update the 339-room hotel, Wallace said.

With its blend of Spanish architecture and European style in a picturesque setting, La Mansion is the hotel of choice for tourists and locals alike, and often the performers booked at the Majestic Theatre, with its backstage door just across the street. Two harmless ghosts are said to haunt the corridors.

“It’s the most original San Antonio experience you can have,” Wallace said. “It’s a cool, romantic hotel. You know you’re in San Antonio when you stay here.”

In all, Wallace oversees six Omni hotels – two more in Austin and one in Corpus Christi – and the 425 people who work in the two San Antonio properties. They are the reason he enjoys the job, he said.

“This is a service industry, and we take care of people. We sell experiences,” he said. “People stay here for anniversaries, honeymoons, the last night before a deployment. Our people relish the ability to create those experiences.”

Wallace succeeds Frank Miceli, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Spurs Sports & Entertainment, as chairman of the VSA board. The role will have Wallace directing the next phase of the organization’s transition from the former Convention & Visitors Bureau to a public-private partnership that began in 2016.

The VSA board includes a mix of City officials and appointees, tourism and hospitality influencers, and public representatives who serve three-year terms.

“For the past 20 months, we have made a positive transition from the Convention & Visitors Bureau to what is now VSA, thanks in large part to the leadership of Frank and the great minds and voices of our inaugural board,” stated Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio.

Wallace, 58, has a broad smile and the hospitable manner of a seasoned hotelier. The Rivard Report sat down with him last Thursday to talk about VSA as the city’s tourism business heats up for summer. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Rivard Report: What are your goals for the organization in promoting San Antonio as a travel destination?

Rusty Wallace: First, I want to see the Tourism Public Improvement District come to fruition, so we can sell and market our destination better. When you look at the people we compete with, whether it’s Denver, Dallas, Houston, or even Austin – we used to be one of the highest-funded destinations in the state and now we’re trailing Dallas. It’s like we have one arm tied behind our backs in our ability to compete and get our messaging out there. So that’s a key one for me, both as a hotelier and chair of VSA.

I would also like to ramp up our convention sales efforts to fill the industry-wide weak years of 2020 and 2021. We had a really robust convention calendar this first half of the year, but now we have a bit of a challenge ahead of us.

So I have to make sure we are giving our sales team the marketing tools they need to get the job done, which is to bring business. We just engaged advertising firm The Atkins Group, and it’s critical to me that our ads are effective, that it’s sending the right message, and it’s making the clicks come into the website and the rooms to book, which generates all the funding and the economic impact for us.

RR: How do you feel about the City Council forgoing the chance to bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention?

RW: I think it was a missed opportunity. It’s disappointing, obviously. But I think most of us were pretty practical. If City Council has come out publicly and said they don’t support it, then I think it would put VSA in an awkward position to try to bid on a convention in a city where the government owns the convention center and would have to provide a lot of the infrastructure to make that event happen. If they’re not on board with it, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense. I think VSA didn’t have much of a choice.

It would have been great exposure and have filled a difficult time period in August when we generally have a hard time bringing people to San Antonio, and I think it would have been a good piece of business. I can’t afford, as a business operator of a hotel, to alienate one side or the other of any particular issue. Everybody gets married, everybody has events in their lives, conventions and meetings. As long as it’s legal, ethical, we’re here to serve.

RR: More hotels are either planned or already going up in downtown San Antonio. Are you concerned the city will have too many beds to fill in the near future?

RW: We’ve got a fair amount of development going on right now. We’ve got the Canopy, a Thompson hotel near the Tobin, the Curio by Hilton at Hemisfair, and another one planned for Broadway near the Pearl. Obviously, it’s a healthy environment. This is a unique destination. If you think about the assets we have for visitors, it’s not surprising you would see the development coming.

When the City expanded the River Walk north and south, that really expanded the type of visitor we were going to get. It went from just being someone walking the loop to people who want to use a canoe to people who want to go to museums and Missions. And then the Pearl brought the culinary scene.

I think millennial travelers are looking for more authentic destinations, and I think San Antonio has that going for it. We are within driving distance for something like 6 million people. So we are a popular destination. Hotel developers see it as an opportunity.

17 thoughts on “New Visit San Antonio Chair: Selling SA as an ‘Authentic Destination’

  1. Shari, where does this information come from that St. Mary’s University was built on the West Side in 1966? The driver of the river boat ride said the same type of thing. It was the St. Mary’s Law School that moved from College Street to the main campus in 1966. The university has been at its present site for a much longer time than 1966.

  2. Mr. Wallace has experience to lead VSA. I am still unimpressed because the board is not diverse. In a city where the African American population is approaching 10% and the stated push to attract African American meetings, groups and tourists there is not ONE African American on the board. Hmmm!

      • Bob,

        There is nothing racist about Deborah’s concern. I applaud her comment and it should be said about so many things that occur in our city but yet exclude Black people. The VSA Board should reflect our city’s full diversity. With the NAACP Convention coming next month to San Antonio, it was disappointing to see the VSA ask the members to become Ambassador certified. However, as indicated we are never asked to be Board certified. And to your readers – YES, we volunteer and we don’t push problems without being a solution. Additionally, as a former marketing director of the NSA, I can tell you even advertising agency’s logic you used is flawed… many of the agencies our city uses, for instance the 300 campaign, do not hire African Americans or have any representation to address how we think.
        Being in the publishing industry, your logic about the advertising agencies is very bad and most ignorant. Another case study, and a great example of repeated failure using city and county dollars is the non-diverse San Antonio Symphony Board. While they do benefit concerts where they want us to attend, when asked to be on the board, the board was not at all friendly to the idea. In fact I will publish my email to the Board so you can see how entrenched this culture is to excluding Black participation. I have provided a qualified volunteer to be on the board, but the board culture does not want to include a Black man who appreciates classical music. San Antonio’s EDF (Economic Development Foundation) has also excluded both African American (not county CPS who represents a public utility company) and Asian board members. How can you advance a City or a County if you fail to include your best and brightest of every community. I have addressed both the Mayor and the County Judge with no action to date to add more of us. When I led the Alamo City Black Chamber of Commerce I asked the same questions in 2013… So for 5-years my concern has been ignored because people really don’t want to see change. My last point for your readers, typically if any Black is to be added on a Board, they ask us for personal donations of $10,000 or more as a high entry and way to say we don’t qualify. Why are we attacked when we raise these concerns Bob? How do you want us to act and behave? I’m curious.

        • When it comes to boards of trustees for organizations such as the symphony the rule is the “3Gs – give, get, or git.” Such organizations don’t run on air. The $10,000 quoted you was not a white, black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Asian, or Mongol price, it was the price. You chose not to pay it. End of story.

          If you can’t or won’t give or get it from others, then they don’t need or want you. They don’t need bodies, they need producers.

          • Additionally, grant giving organizations require applicants to show that every board member supports the organization financially. You don’t want to give the money, fine. But don’t start shouting racism because you’re not getting a free ride.

  3. Deborah,

    I am all about diversity in our city and in every aspect of business, but it’s easy to play couch quarter back. If your concern is that there is no African Americans on the board then perhaps you should run for a position. Take action instead of expressing your concern that there is no action being done. Just a thought, hmmm!

    • Mollie, did the VSA ask for applications to be on the board? If the leadership of the VSA were in tune with the diversity within the city they should have addressed it. It is not the responsibility of citizens like Deborah to do so. Have you tried to influence a city entity??

      • Her point is still valid that if you want to see change then be it, don’t just go around pointing fingers and whining about it.

        No one needs to pander to an agenda of diversity, still focusing on race. Can we focus on issue instead of this stupid identity game?

        Get over equal outcome agenda, its completely racist. Adding people based on skin color has nothing to do with having a good committee or have we learned nothing yet.

  4. Shari, it would be interesting to hear of the accomplishments of the VSA over the last 20 months. I suspect very little or you would have reported on them.

  5. Thank you all for your comments. Bob, if the board was made up of only men and I commented, would I be a sexist? If the board was made up of people of non-Latin/Native descent in at city where the majority population is of Latin and/or native would I be racist? Your comment implies there is no person of African American descent qualified to serve on the board. I beg to differ. When Visit San Antonio was the CVB, I requested continually for an INFORMED, QUALIFIED and diverse board. I serve on a city commission as well as community organizations for the very reason that was stated because I want to be the change I SCREAM about. Most learned people understand you typically get a better product if you have a diverse team. Is it harder to work with a diverse team? Often. Are results slower? Often. Is the product amazing? Yes. There was nothing in my statement that suggests a person of color as the only criteria. Some things need to be intentional for the seventh largest city. The days of institutionalized segregation should be over in 2018. Sadly, in San Antonio it is not! That is why 2018 City budget is equality based not everyone gets the same thing. If we truly are a city of equity then that needs to be displayed across the board.

    • I have no idea how this board was put together. Looking at the roster, I do not see familiar names. They are all new to me. It appears, except for governmental appointees, as if each member represents a particular segment of the economy; museum, restaurants, lodging, etc. Do you have particular blacks in mind that could better represent segments than the persons selected and would be willing to serve?

  6. The comments in this article reflects how narrow minded people are to inclusion. I have seen the most brilliant Black people never invited and always excluded out of the major initiatives that our city or county initiates. As we are reaching the date of June 19 – Juneteenth – the date that General Granger delivered the news that Black people were freed in 1865, please understand the pockets of overt and covert racism is real. Bob, as a white woman, I choose not to stand with the “Make America Great Again” movement of further hurting our Black populations. As I see the Rivard Report’s evolution, it is baiting race arguments in San Antonio and the owner benefits because of increased readership -at the expense of hurting people. Shame on you Bob! Now I seriously doubt your ‘side of the fence’ Thank-you Deborah and Christopher… we see you both challenging the racist agendas of our top leaders and they don’t like it. But I very much appreciate your words and your service to our nation!

    • Excuse me, but what does Donald Trump have to do with this discussion. I understand your antipathy to the Make America Great Again movement. I know you wish that the prisoners were returned to North Korea, and that the regulatory burden which has been lifted from the economy be reimposed so we may return to a listless economy with high unemployment. I know you are pained by record low unemployment of blacks and Hispanics. It’s just terrible.

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