There are 140,000 people working in San Antonio’s visitor and tourism industry. Starting in June, there will be one fewer when Marco Barros retires from his role as president and CEO of the San Antonio Area Tourism Council.
But, in keeping with Barros’ style, he’s already formulating a plan for his own future and that of San Antonio and giving it wings.
“People have ideas. I implement them,” said Barros, 62, on Thursday while talking with the Rivard Report at a downtown sports bar popular with tourists. “I’m a problem solver.”
It is a skill he plans to apply while serving on the Airport Advisory Commission and at several area nonprofits, while advising future Council candidates, and helping small businesses looking to grow. Though his last official day at the Tourism Council is May 31, Barros also will stay on in a consulting role until October.
A native of Chile, Barros came to the United States as a 16-year-old after winning a scholarship to a Fort Worth high school. He earned another scholarship, this time for college, and pursued a journalism degree from the University of Texas at El Paso, where he felt he could also focus on his love of foreign languages.
His work on the college newspaper led him to advertising sales and then a job with American Airlines talking to travel agencies. By 1984, he had turned his salesmanship acumen and ability to get things done into a position establishing shopping malls in Texas. That led him, in 1987, to a job working on the Rivercenter Mall concept – now known as the Shops at Rivercenter – in San Antonio.
Barros later served as the director of marketing for VIA Metropolitan Transit, helping to develop the Park & Ride system and VIAinfo, and then spent three years working for Mexico Express, a retail catalog business designed to attract shoppers from Mexico in the mid-1990s.
Born of a committee within the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the Tourism Council opened in 1995 and Barros was hired to lead the advocacy group in 1997. The council’s first task was to develop a report demonstrating the tourism industry’s economic impact, which has grown to $15.2 billion today.
“Marco’s devotion to the betterment of San Antonio throughout his career … is a true inspiration to me and our industry,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio, one of several tourism-related organizations that collaborates with the Tourism Council. “Marco was a key player in developing the biannual economic impact report for the industry. This report is critical to help illustrate the value of the hospitality and tourism industry in San Antonio. Marco has been a wonderful partner to Visit San Antonio and a notable constant for our industry and community.”
Barros is one of only two full-time staffers at the Tourism Council, which primarily relies on volunteers, and operates with funds from member fees, advertising and marketing sales, and proceeds from an annual gala.
Over the years, Barros also worked with City departments on various ordinances affecting the tourism business, assisted in the process to obtain the UNESCO World Heritage designation for the San Antonio Missions, and led a board that worked to convert the City-run convention and visitors bureau into a private entity that became known as Visit San Antonio.
But Barros is most proud of his work with Bexar County in using the venue tax to support River Walk improvements, Tobin Center development, expansion of the Freeman Coliseum, and building sports facilities across the city.
He also points to his efforts to bring the Global Entry program to San Antonio in 2013 as a highlight of his career. “We were not even on the list,” Barros said of the Texas airports slated for the program at the time. But now that the program is in place here, international arrivals at the San Antonio airport are processed faster, improving the experience for visitors from outside the country.
In 2017, Barros ran for the District 9 seat on City Council, but lost in a runoff to the current councilman, John Courage. He has no plans to run for office again. “You get more accomplished from the outside,” he said. “I learned that from talking to other business people.” And soon he’ll go from serving 145 business owners, who are members of the Tourism Council, to something like five in his consulting role.
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Dan Decker, chief operations officer of the Texas Travel Industry Association, will serve as interim leader of the Tourism Council until a replacement for Barros can be found.
Barros had two pieces of advice for those who come after him: never forget how important safety and security is in protecting the city’s image and its tourism industry, and never stop working on airline service.
Though Barros’ departure from the Tourism Council comes just as San Antonio’s tourism industry faces major issues such as the Alamo Redevelopment Plan and a proposed entertainment district downtown, as well as potential growth through the City’s new Tourism Public Improvement District, he remains devoted to working with local business owners and nonprofits he clearly admires. The feeling is mutual.
“You shouldn’t write an article about Marco,” said Terry Corless, CEO of the Mad Dogs Restaurant Group, which operates several River Walk restaurants. “You should write a book.”