Guests applaud the construction crews and City employees that worked behind the scenes on the Convention Center. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The City of San Antonio owns the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Convention Center. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

When Visit San Antonio’s board met last Wednesday, one agenda item dominated the discussion: Should the nonprofit tourism organization submit a bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention even without support from the City of San Antonio?

There are conflicting reports about how the question made the board’s agenda – whether it was the result of an ask by GOP convention officials, local hoteliers, board members, or some combination. Regardless, the short answer the 21-member VSA board came up with was, no.

“Based on a number of considerations, the VSA board chose not to pursue the convention,” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) confirmed over the weekend.

Despite the VSA board’s choice not to test its boundaries, some members said they’d like to see more engagement and a less political process when the City considers future bids.

Liza Barratachea, president and CEO of the San Antonio Hotel & Lodging Association, said she’d like to see the VSA board have conversations about large bids before City Council takes it up in executive session.

“Typically the board is not involved in bidding discussions,” she said. “But is there a better process moving forward that would make it less political? We still need to engage the City, but how do we learn from this to do better next time?”

The VSA meeting on May 9 came less than one week after Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced San Antonio would not pursue a bid as a result of City Council’s discussion in a private meeting regarding the convention’s economic impact.

Frank Miceli, outgoing VSA board chair, said it would be too difficult to host the GOP convention without partnering with the City – which owns the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the surrounding streets, and other critical infrastructure and services.

“An event of this nature requires the entire community to be unanimously aligned to ensure its success,” Miceli told the Rivard Report Monday. “We didn’t have that … so VSA was not going to submit a bid on [its] own without the City.”

The tourism and marketing organization achieved its independence from the City in September 2016 when Council approved its transition from the City department known as the Convention and Visitors Bureau into a nonprofit.

But the controversy surrounding the RNC bid has some questioning the true autonomy of VSA. While many board members hailing from San Antonio’s tourism and business community supported submitting a bid, there was not enough support on City Council for it – which many attributed to political reasons.

Asked if GOP officials would even consider an independent bid from VSA, Ron Kaufman, Republican National committeeman who heads the RNC’s site selection committee, said, “We’ve kinda moved on … and I can’t imagine anything could change that.”

He spoke to the Rivard Report by telephone Monday while at an airport in an “undisclosed city,” one of seven so far that have expressed interest in hosting, he said.

It takes time and money to bid, he said, so he tries not to lead cities on.

“I wouldn’t have spent as much time talking to people in San Antonio … if I didn’t think [San Antonio] had an outstanding [chance],” Kaufman said. “The truth is, without the city manager and mayor on board it’d be hard to do [the convention] right.”

It’s the first high-profile convention that has come before the VSA board since it became a nonprofit, said Miceli, who is senior vice president of sales and franchise at Spurs Sports & Entertainment. “Once we got consensus [on the board] not to put a separate bid in, that was it … but maybe [the RNC experience] will influence how we go about it in the future. There was a little bit of discussion about that.”

The VSA board will take its annual retreat in July, he added, and likely will discuss how it deals with large events and bids then.

According to several board members the Rivard Report spoke to last week, City Manager Sheryl Sculley at the May 9 VSA meeting gave an overview of the Council’s process and explained that resources and cooperation from the City could not be promised as part of any RNC bid because the Council had signaled opposition to pursuing it. Sculley sits on the VSA board along with Treviño, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), and other civic and business leaders.

Sculley declined to comment on what was discussed during the meeting.

Many in the VSA boardroom last week wanted San Antonio to pursue a bid, said Barratachea, who is a non-voting, ex-officio member of the board, “but moving forward without the City’s support doesn’t make any sense.

“It’s disappointing because we didn’t even get to bid,” she said. “Our industry and community reputation is about being welcoming and hospitable, and this really wasn’t true to that.”

During a controversial closed-door executive session on May 3, most Council members did not support a bid submission. The request for proposals requires a local host committee to raise and guarantee an estimated $65 million to $70 million to pay for the convention that could have a $200 million economic impact, Kaufman said.

That $65 million would have included payments to the City for any street closures and facilities used, Kaufman said, and cost the City “zero” dollars because prominent local business members were dedicated to raising that money.

Nirenberg has said the City is not prepared to subsidize any political convention with taxpayer dollars, including the Democratic National Convention, in the event that local private fundraisers missed their mark.

After the Council meeting earlier this month, Nirenberg also cited concerns about “disruptions” to traffic, infrastructure, neighborhoods, and “life in San Antonio” that protests could cause.

“[There were] many reasons not to do this, in my opinion, but money wasn’t one of them,” Kaufman said Monday. San Antonio experienced “disruption for the Final Four and no one seemed to mind.”

Several local officeholders, including Treviño, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), and County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), said they opposed pursuit of the RNC bid because of President Donald Trump’s policies and attitudes toward Mexican immigrants and vulnerable populations. They noted that “disruptions” such as protests and possible loss of trust in local elected officials could occur if they allowed Trump and the Republican party to celebrate such policies in San Antonio.

Conventions or large meetings come to San Antonio through a number of different avenues, said Richard Oliver, VSA director of partner and community relations. “We rountinely, daily receive leads on meetings and conventions … and we’re very proactive in reaching out and seeing what’s available.”

Sometimes the lead comes directly to the City, like the RNC did, and the City asks VSA to determine if it’s logistically possible, including factors such as conflicting major events and number of available hotel rooms, Oliver said. For August 2020, there’s a substantial dip in convention center reservations. Right now, VSA is considering 120 requests for proposals.

He attributes that dip to the massive redevelopment that took place there for years before the convention center reopened in early 2017.

“We and the City and meeting planners were booking business on spec [during that time],” he said, adding that large conventions typically book venues four to five years ahead of the event.

Casandra Matej, president and CEO of VSA, and at least one board member didn’t get the impression from the board meeting that there was concern over the bidding process, Oliver said. Matej could not be reached directly for comment.

There was consensus to move on, Miceli said. “Let’s use our energy, resources, time, and commitment to move on to the text big thing.”

Outgoing VSA board member Justin Holley, who owns a hotel management company and is board chair of the San Antonio Hotel & Lodging Association, said the financial benefit of hosting the convention wasn’t clearly or comprehensively communicated to elected officials.

“We can’t have a litmus test for conventions here,” Holley said, adding that perhaps a blind process should occur at the board and City Council levels.

Others said the board should have been notified of the offer sooner. The RNC’s site search committee sent out letters in early December, but most board members weren’t aware until Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted about San Antonio’s lack of response to the GOP’s request for proposals.

“As soon as [City officials] got the letter,” said one board member who asked to remain anonymous, “[they] should have pulled this group together … if [the City] ever does get a bid this large, they should reach out to us.”

This situation was out of the ordinary, Viagran told the Rivard Report last week, but the VSA board and City Council should have a “more robust conversation …. when things like this pop up.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com