Rivard: San Antonio Needs a New Sales Pitch

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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

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

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.

Cassandra Matej, CVB executive director

Cassandra Matej, CVB executive director

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.

Chef Steve McHugh stands in front of his restaraunt, Cured. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Chef Steve McHugh stands in front of his restaraunt, Cured. Photo by Scott Ball.

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.


Getting Real with the San Antonio Visitor Economy

City Considers Independent Convention & Visitors Bureau

Inside San Antonio’s Expanded, Updated Convention Center

San Antonio’s Tourism Industry in an Era of ‘Transformation’

RK Group Wins Convention Center Catering Contract

Renovated AT&T Center Welcomes Spurs Fans

Alamodome Set for 25th Anniversary Makover

San Antonio Airport Working Group Aims to Improve Service

17 thoughts on “Rivard: San Antonio Needs a New Sales Pitch

  1. It’s timing I’m thinking about. We are spending someone’s fortune to create a landscape around the Alamo to enhance a historic site, at the same time we are swallowing hard to accept the reality that history, or the Alamo, is less attractive to the new adventurer (tourist)?

    • Bobbie

      A smart, creative marketing of The Alamo will lead to visitor growth some day, but first two things need to happen: One, the Alamo Plaza needs to be redeveloped. Right now the carnival attractions outdraw the historic site. The story we tell visitors, if you can even call it storytelling, is thin and incomplete. Second, the Alamo needs to become part of a larger World Heritage narrative, one that embraces San Antonio’s indigenous history and the existence of Mission San Antonio de Valero. That experience in the Plaza needs to move people to travel down the San Antonio River to explore the four remaining Spanish colonial missions and meet the people who have lived there for so many generations. Again, we first need to invest in our own city, streets and neighborhoods, and offer a better visitor experience than the one we now offer. First we need to build an authentic and memorable experience. Then we can market it. –RR

  2. The ubiquitous phrase “First Class City”, is stale. Let the creative folks come up with something that reflects what San Antonio has to offer. I didn’t hear a plan by the CVB that would be encouraging for them to become a “non-profit’.

  3. I wonder what would happen if we spent the $20mm annually on marketing our city towards building a couple new attractions each year. My guess is the city would eventually be so attractive to visit that it would market itself.

    • That’s a really interesting idea. I honestly have no understanding of attraction budgets like the true cost of installing sculptures, expanding museum offerings, improving parks, improving zoos, etc., but one thing I think SA is at a crossroads for is that we’ve got this hip younger brother to the north whom everyone wants to visit. Each time we reject or delay a light rail proposal or something else related to public infrastructure, we look older and more crotchety compared to that cool brother.

      If we could improve infrastructure connection Austin and SA and everything else the Hill Country has to offer, we could not only sell the city’s attractions, but sell the region as a destination that isn’t just Austin. San Marcos would probably help out with this a lot, since they’d stand to gain quite a bit from something like transportation infrastructure. Imagine looking at Austin real estate prices and saying “I’d love to work there, but I can’t afford the housing, so I can live in SM and take the train to downtown. Oh, and if I’m in SM and there’s a train to SA, why not go there on the weekends for a different and fun experience?”

      Certainly San Antonio has much better and authentic Tex-Mex food, as much as I loves me some Chuy’s and Z’Tejas or El Arroyo, come on, even tiny mom and pops in SA like Taqueria Datapoint blow those out of the water.

  4. Love this article and would offer up 3 points:

    1. I think the notion that the city has to match what other cities spend dollar for dollar in marketing is flawed. When you run a company you are never asking yourself “how much money are our competitor spending” and then go match it. Instead you ask, “what is my market differentiator” and then you go spend smartly on that. The problem we have is that having a Marriott Hotel, theme parks, and a Hard Rock cafe is not a market differentiator.

    2. I am actually not worried about the CVB being less inclined to show what they are spending their money if they are an independent nonprofit. When you go nonprofit you are actually more vulnerable to the demands of your donors. Working for a foundation you can demand that the nonprofit you are supporting be able to show the results and how they achieved those results. You can also demand that they make them public as part of your grant. The city of San Antonio is about the be the largest donor of this nonprofit and should have a long list of demands for their money, including what they spend their marketing dollars on. The city should also have a board seat or two that they get to appoint.

    3. I love the tactic that you recommend in your article with balancing the board with local champions from the various sectors that are doing amazing things. I just want to plus 1 that strategy.

  5. Great article Robert. I’m glad others see that something is fundamentally flawed with our current status quo. I also emphatically agree with your comment above regarding Alamo Plaza. Do they not see what an embarrassment it is?! I drove in front of the Alamo just yesterday and there was a carnival type group doing a pogo stick show with loud speakers and all right in front of it. WTH, San Antonio?!

    With all the money that’s been thrown around downtown in the last decade, I’m completely dumbfounded our City leadership has ignored our most prized and treasured “differentiator”. The City needs to take an urgent lead in redeveloping the Alamo into a first class historical destination. A “Must Do”. If you’ve ever visited Mt. Vernon in the 90’s and then again today, you can see the possibilities and they’re limitless. All it takes is leadership…

  6. I’m glad we are talking about this, it is something I’ve cared deeply about for a long time. The Board idea is a great way to ensure input from all our local industries and I really hope it is pursued. However, I do warn against this becoming an “us vs. them” thing like so many of our downtown projects/movements/initiatives. I’ve been guilty of this too many times myself in the past. I think we can showcase our new brand without ostracizing those who have championed our traditional tourist industry for decades. Everyone deserves a seat at the table–SA does best when it works towards a common goal/identity together.

  7. Excellent piece.
    +1 on the Sea World comment. SA CVB can’t save Sea World; Sea World can’t save itself right now. It’s amazing to see the power and influence a low budget documentary film like Blackfish has on that industry.
    +1 on your comment about Alamo Plaza- we need to weave it into the story with the rest of the missions versus being the ‘disappointment’ so many tourists describe it to be

    I look forward to seeing folks step up and tell a new narrative for SA- it’s long overdue.

  8. This will be another issue (like the San Pedro Creek design and the UIW land grab at Brackenridge) pulled to the forefront by the relentless and brave reporting of the Rivard Report.

  9. The hospitality industry is far to important in San Antonio to waste dollars on serving special interest groups. The SA CVB should be transparent with public monies and the city should require this. Anything less then this would be a betrayal of the public trust.

  10. Really enjoy these pieces…in-depth and educational, at least for me. I still have questions, though. Where does the $10 million come from? If t’s from local tourism companies, doesn’t the CVB have to “pitch” the members who pay them? And what if it’s Hometown Buffet, Hobby Lobby and Sonic who pay but not cool chefs at Pearl or art galleries? Then, what does the CVB sell? $10 million seems like a lot of money in this city and I don’t understand what members would be paying. Will the city always give $20 million to the CVB or more each year? Why? What does the city get if it’s paying the same money to the CVB? Also, Robert, what does the CVB do now in the pitch for San Antonio? Thanks for the article, never really thought about this topic until reading Rivard.

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