After decades of marketing the city as a family-friendly destination, San Antonio is losing market share to other Texas cities as visitors show declining interest in traditional tourist attractions and seek out more authentic experiences in cities with more contemporary and artful sales pitches.
Read more: Getting Real With San Antonio's Visitor Economy.
Last week's action at City Council followed by sudden and unexpected leadership changes at Sea World here and elsewhere around the country sound an alarm bell: San Antonio's leadership needs to stand up to the traditional "leisure industry" special interests and needs to take a new direction.
The San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau and its sales and marketing efforts are underwritten by $20 million in taxes, and with other cities spending even more, it seems obvious that the CVB can't afford to keep shoring up traditional Alamo City attractions with their declining attendance, and at the same time, embrace a truly ambitious strategy to present the city as a cool urban and culinary destination with one of the longest linear parks in the country and World Heritage historical and cultural assets.
Moreover, it's time the CVB open its books and start sharing with the public how it spends those tax dollars, and how much public money is spent shoring up the gate at for-profit theme parks and other businesses, versus how much those businesses are spending marketing themselves.
Last week's headlines point to why San Antonio is at a crossroads and needs to focus now on its future direction.
City Council voted Thursday to allow the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau to embark on an 18-month transition from a City of San Antonio department to an independent nonprofit. The council's approval came with vague but widespread discomfort as council members wrestle with questions and concerns about the CVB's future direction that can't yet be answered but certainly deserve focused attention.
The approval came three months after Sea World CEO Dan Decker appeared before City Council in his role as chairman of Mayor’s Ivy Taylor’s San Antonio Convention and Visitor Bureau Structure Task Force to present its report and recommendations.
Decker and 12 other hospitality industry stakeholders, including CVB Executive Director Cassandra Matej, concluded that San Antonio was at a competitive disadvantage as the only CVB in a top 50 U.S. city that was part of city government. The task force recommended the move to nonprofit status that the council approved Thursday.
Days later, the Sea World leadership coup was carried out. Here is a story in the Guardian that reports the corporate leadership changes, and here is the brief Express-News story reporting the dismissal of Decker.
Sea World is a troubled enterprise. Whether you personally support the park, its work and its value as an attraction, it's in trouble. Attitudes have changed since the 2013 release of the documentary film “Blackfish,” which called into question Sea World's treatment of whales and the drowning death of animal trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was dragged and trapped underwater by a bull whale.
Should San Antonio continue to spend tax dollars supporting Sea World? Numerous sea mammals have died at the local park, and now with the national leadership shakeup resulting from the company's declining fortunes, its seems obvious that nothing San Antonio can do will make much difference. Sea World will have to save itself.
CVB's Matej believes that San Antonio needs to find $10 million in new money to match the $30 million being spent in Dallas and other cities we compete with for visitors. No one I know thinks she can raise that kind of money from the private sector to match her public dollars.
An argument can be made that San Antonio should stop spending tax dollars promoting theme parks with their non-San Antonio ownership and instead reallocate those dollars to focus on the new San Antonio, which is largely the work of local owners and money. Why not refocus our marketing efforts to boost their success?
People are concerned that the new CVB will become less transparent once its transition to nonprofit is complete. City Council can take steps to protect the public interest now before the transition by winning concessions on fiscal transparency and overseeing the establishment of an independent-minded board of directors.
The mayor's task force consisted of 13 industry stakeholders, representing the theme parks, downtown hotel chains, and the River Walk. The nonprofit board needs strong representation from people selling the new San Antonio: Someone from the Hotel Emma to balance the Marriott interests; a local chef-owner like Andrew Weissman or Steve McHugh to balance the River Walk restaurants; an arts leader like the executive director of Blue Star Arts or the San Antonio Museum of Art, or the McNay Art Museum; a Broadway Cultural Corridor leader from the Witte; perhaps the city's new World Heritage director and the CEO of the 300th Anniversary Celebration.
The CVB won the right to restructure on Thursday with the City Council vote of approval, but the real conversation should be what kind of city it will sell once it gains its independence. It seems unrealistic to pretend it can sell the new San Antonio right alongside the old San Antonio. If the new CVB can only do one thing really well, shouldn't it be trying a new sales pitch?
*Top Image: Mayor Ivy Taylor thanks those who had a hand in the construction of the Convention Center. They lined the circumference of the lobby. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.