With Rebranding and New CEO, Tourism Industry Group Turns Focus to Local Issues

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Sharon Aguillen is the San Antonio Visitor Alliance's new president and CEO.

Tourism advocacy in San Antonio has a new face and a new name its leaders say heralds a fresh start and a focus on local issues.

The San Antonio Area Tourism Council, which has represented the region’s travel and tourism industry since 1995, is now called the San Antonio Visitor Alliance.

With 150 members among the city’s restaurants, museums, hotels, attractions, and others serving the visitor industry, the Alliance is one of several groups in San Antonio that supports an industry that in 2017 had a $15.3 billion economic impact on the city, which hosted 37 million visitors that year. 

The new name is intended to signal a change in strategy for the organization, said San Antonio Visitor Alliance Board Chairman Davis Phillips, president and CEO of Phillips Entertainment Inc. Phillips operates Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, Guinness World Records Museum, and Tomb Rider 3D Adventure Ride and Arcade at Alamo Plaza, the looming redevelopment of which will have a major impact on tourism.

“It was time for a new strategic plan, vision, and direction,” Phillips said. “The name change is symbolic of that. Either you’re getting better or you’re getting worse. If you don’t have a strategic plan, you end up chasing the shiny object of the moment, and there’s always going to be a shiny object for an association that helps with advocacy.”

With help from a consultant and member surveys, the Alliance came up with four areas to which it would devote future resources: advocating and protecting members’ interests, providing members opportunities to network and collaborate, driving visitors to member businesses, and leading a year-round charge to communicate the value of the industry to San Antonio’s economy.

Phillips said that means the group will spend less of its advocacy efforts at the federal and state levels than it did prior to adopting the new vision, becoming “hyper-focused on issues that matter to San Antonio,” such as the Alamo Redevelopment Plan and the paid sick leave ordinance.

Though the Visitor Alliance has not joined a lawsuit filed by a coalition of local business groups to stop the sick leave law from being implemented, he said, it supports legal action. “The city’s poorly thought-out, one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work well.”

“We’re the only entity that looks out for every single segment of the tourism industry,” Phillips said. While there are a number of state and metro tourism-related organizations, including one devoted to hotels and another to restaurants, “nobody is taking care of attractions, caterers, transportation. That’s a niche that the Visitor Alliance fills that no one else is doing.”

The rebranding comes just two months after the group installed a new president and CEO, Sharon Aguillen, who succeeds longtime leader Marco Barros.

Aguillen, who was selected from among 13 applicants, formerly owned a show production and project management firm, TCB Productions, and served as vice president of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando. She was vice president of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment from 2012-18.

“I’ve worked with her now since we hired her and … there’s no doubt we made the right decision, and we all know it,” Phillips said.

The name change for the tourism advocacy organization was in the works before Aguillen started her new job. “My first day was August 29, and this was defined and laid out and when I stepped in,” she said. “I was handed all the puzzle pieces and asked to make this happen.”

One of the first jobs Aguillen is tasked with is developing a new mobile-responsive and website, inSAnow.com, which will inform visitors and residents about events and activities in San Antonio.

She said the website launches in December and will be fully functional before the spring break travel season.

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