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

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The view of the Tower of the Americas from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The view of the Tower of the Americas from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

Maximizing an expanded convention center, managing the implications of the Missions’ World Heritage status, and developing more air service are the City’s Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) key missions in the coming year according to representatives from across the local hospitality industry and cultural institutions that gathered Tuesday for the CVB’s annual meeting.

The event’s theme was “Destination: Transformation,” but the meeting at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center largely avoided the topic of a possible shift in management of the CVB. A task force, established by Mayor Ivy Taylor, is expected to make a recommendation later this year on whether the CVB should operate outside of local government.

Addressing a packed room, CVB Executive Director Casandra Matej outlined highlights in the City’s tourism and convention business from 2015 including:

  • Booking meetings that represent 931,539 definite group room nights;
  • Achieving 6.5 million in online engagements to;
  • Being selected to host IPW Marketplace, considered the travel industry’s premier marketplace, in 2023;
  • Hosting its largest conference to date – 60th General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; and
  • San Antonio’s Missions being declared a World Heritage site.

Matej then outlined strategies for the CVB and its industry partners in 2016, including:

  • Maximizing opportunities for the Convention Center transformation;
  • Maximizing short-term business opportunities through sales strategies and tourism sales;
  • Activating a long-term strategic plan including air service development; and
  • Enhancing and broadening San Antonio’s awareness through the CVB’s “mix-it-up” marketing strategy.

Additionally, the bureau plans to put more emphasis on spreading the word about San Antonio’s tourism-related offerings throughout online platforms and social media outlets, including making it even easier for people use the CVB website on mobile devices.

CVB “partners” can for free sign up to look at the bureau’s full annual report here.

Mike Sawaya, director of San Antonio Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities, said CVB wants to make the most of the current $325 million makeover of the convention center, which is being expanded to more than 514,000 sq. ft.

Sawaya said the City is due to formally occupy the newly expanded convention center in late January 2016, two months ahead of a public grand opening celebration. The project began in November 2013 and will create easier pedestrian access to the Alamodome while making room for Hemisfair’s Civic Park.

The pedestrian bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.

The new pedestrian bridge loop connects Tower of the Americas Way to the Alamodome and will soon connect to the convention center. Photo by Scott Ball.

Matej said the CVB remains committed to helping the City to make the most of the new convention center and take advantage of World Heritage designation. The latter, City officials have said, could help to pump more than $100 million into the local economy and lead to the creation of hundreds of jobs by 2025.

“It has been a momentous year. We’re ready to move forward with a new agenda based on a new strategy,” Matej said.

There are also sports-related developments to help the city to lure more visitors, such as the NCAA Final Four returning in 2018, and a decision this week on whether San Antonio will be a finalist to host a future NCAA Division I national championship game.

While the CVB appears firm with its strategies for 2016, bureau and other City officials await recommendations from a task force, chaired by SeaWorld San Antonio President Dan Decker, that has spent several months exploring whether the City should relinquish control of the CVB in a larger attempt to further enhance its $13 billion tourism industry.

San Antonio is alone among the top 30 U.S. convention and tourism markets that uses a publicly financed and controlled organization (CVB) to help increase tourism and convention business.

Matej could not comment on the task force’s progress other than it could offer formal recommendations to Mayor Taylor and the City Council by the end of this year.

The mayor provided a few remarks at the meeting, but didn’t comment on the task force. She did say that, more than ever before, she sees how strong the local hospitality industry is.

“I see it day in and day out that the travel and tourism industry is a vital force of our economy,” Taylor said. The mayor was at the meeting to recognize the Connect San Antonio program, which encourages business and civic partnerships that help to raise the city’s profile as a meeting destination.

“As mayor, my goal has been to connect all San Antonians to opportunity for prosperity, so the theme of this program is particularly significant to me,” she said.

Matej led a brief panel discussion about how air service and World Heritage status can further help the city’s economy and position as a prime destination emphasizing its business-friendly climate, and rich history and culture.

Casandra Matej, San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director, talks with colleague Mike Sawaya, director of Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities, a t the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau annual meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Casandra Matej (left), San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director, talks with Mike Sawaya, director of Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

Betty Bueché, Bexar County Heritage and Parks Department director, said a new series of public symposiums enable the community to be part of long-range planning for the World Heritage Missions sites.

“The question is, now that we have a site, what do with it?” she added. “I am grateful to be in a community that is planning for the future.”

City Aviation Department Director Frank Miller said the City is always looking to raise the number of nonstop flights across the United States and Mexico. Currently the San Antonio International Airport boasts 130 nonstop daily flights to 36 destinations.
He also said the new consolidated rental car facility and long-term parking project, along with other recent improvements, should help to keep business people and tourists coming back.

“It’s improving customer service so that when someone comes into San Antonio, their first and last impression are positive,” Miller added.

San Antonio City Manager Cheryl Sculley observes a presentation from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.. Photo by Scott Ball.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley observes the CVB annual meeting before accepting the Robert H .H. Hugman Award. Photo by Scott Ball.

The CVB also honored City Manager Sheryl Sculley and RK Group President and CEO Greg Kowalski for their contributions to the San Antonio hospitality industry on Tuesday.

Sculley received the Robert H.H. Hugman Award, named after the architect who designed a beautification and flood-control project in 1929, now known as the River Walk. CVB officials said Sculley championed the convention center expansion and pursuit of the World Heritage designation.

“Sheryl has always supported the hospitality and tourism industry’s efforts to make San Antonio the premiere destination,” Rusty Wallace, outgoing CVB Commission chairman, stated in his nomination letter.

RK Group President and CEO Greg Kowalski

RK Group President and CEO Greg Kowalski

“Our future is so bright. There are so many things that lie ahead for our tourism industry,” Sculley said.

Kowalski received the Con Corazón Award, given each year to a community member who “embodies the spirit of San Antonio, the people, pride, passion and promise,” according to the CVB.

“Greg Kowalski is deserving of the Con Corazón award because he, more than anyone, has a lasting impact on more visitors to this city than anyone I know,” stated Chef Johnny Hernandez, last year’s award-winner, in his nomination of Kowalski.


*Top image: The view of the Tower of the Americas from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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