Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
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.