Shari Biediger / Rivard Report
In a move that signaled the full transition of San Antonio’s travel and tourism promotion bureau from a City-owned entity to private destination marketing organization, Visit San Antonio (VSA) introduced a new membership model at its annual meeting Thursday.
San Antonio hotels, museums, restaurants, and attractions seeking to promote their businesses and the city were invited to join Visit San Antonio at membership rates that are based on the services they wish to access and the size of the business.
“Part of our charge from the City Council was to look at additional ways to grow our budget in order to provide more benefit to our partners and to our community,” said Casandra Matej, VSA president and CEO. “Over the past year, we’ve explored in-depth avenues available to us. We’ve sought out expert input. ... The result is the membership model.”
With an annual $14 billion economic impact, tourism is San Antonio’s third-largest industry. It employs 130,000 people serving 34 million visitors to the city every year.
The mission of VSA is to attract those visitors by way of hosting large meetings, conventions, and events like the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball Final Four, which will come to the Alamodome on March 31, bringing an estimated 69,000 visitors to San Antonio. VSA is currently competing for events into the year 2027 and beyond.
Under the agreement made just over a year ago, the City must provide $23 million to VSA from 35 percent of its total Hotel Occupancy Tax funds, and VSA must issue quarterly and annual reports, performance targets, and a revenue enhancement plan to the City.
The revenue enhancement plan includes advertising and partnership services, corporate sponsorships, and now membership dues. The setup is similar to how most other U.S. cities with a privatized tourism promotion are managed.
Membership dues were one source of revenue envisioned when Visit San Antonio transitioned to a 501(c)(6) organization, a change meant to give it greater flexibility with its marketing dollars and maximize its business opportunities.
Michael Woody, vice president of community relations and development for VSA, served as the staff liaison on a committee of local tourism leaders to develop the membership plan.
Standard VSA memberships will start January 2018 at two levels: silver ($500 annually) and gold ($1,150 annually). Hotel memberships are priced at the standard silver level of $550 a year, or gold, which is $15 per room. Strategic partner memberships are offered at $2,000 or $5,000 for major attractions, shopping malls, regional tourism partners, or corporations.
Member benefits are based on the silver and gold tiers with the lower-priced option providing members with access to VSA resources and expanded website listing. Gold membership offers benefits such as lead distribution, partnering and co-op opportunities and more.
Also at the meeting attended by more than 425 of San Antonio’s tourism industry professionals, Matej announced that VSA has taken the first steps toward creating a Tourism Public Improvement District (TPID). Such districts are a relatively new funding model based on self-assessed hotel fees collected beyond the typical Transient Occupant Tax, or hotel bed tax.
Traditional hotel bed taxes are usually collected by governments, which then decide how to invest those funds following annual budget reviews. In contrast, TPIDs ensure that the member hotels have complete control over the management of the collected funds, which are typically dispersed by a destination marketing organization such as VSA.
“It will serve as a true catalyst to position our budget where it needs to be to compete with our strongest competitors," Matej said. “Currently, we are finalizing the services agreement that outlines how the monies can be used. But to be certain there is strong consensus that this fund, these monies, would be used to drive demand to the city.”
VSA is marking its 50th anniversary in 2018, the same year San Antonio celebrates its tricentennial. Tourism here in the last year has remained steady, Matej said, despite a number of challenges she outlined Thursday. Those included legislative issues such as the "bathroom bill," natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, gasoline shortages, economic swings, and a cut in Texas tourism funding. “And awful, unspeakable tragedy,” she said, alluding to the recent massacre in Sutherland Springs.
“Be we also spent a good portion of the year working with our clients, planners and visitors to ensure them that San Antonio is open for business,” Matej added. “We work every day to enhance the visitor experience. That mandate remains as necessary today as it ever has been."