Tourism bureau wants rep in Mexico

Posted 10/29/2012
by Neal Morton

As convention bookings and hotel occupancy rates inch closer to pre-recession levels, the city's Convention & Visitors Bureau plans to place a representative in Mexico City to increase foreign travel to San Antonio.

The move would underscore the contribution that affluent Mexican nationals make to the regional economy and their growing appreciation for the city as an attractive retail hub and second-home destination.

Casandra Matej, executive director of the CVB, will release details of the Mexico City liaison, a new "tourism ambassador" program and efforts to capitalize on the $325 million expansion to the Convention Center at the organization's annual business meeting today.

She said Monday that the Mexico City official will heighten the city's image in that country, adding to San Antonio's appeal as a place where foreign companies can host a convention.

"Because we are such a sought-after destination for the leisure (and) convention traveler, we want to make sure we maintain that level with a competitive advantage," Matej said. "Our future is definitely bright."

San Antonio's hotel and tourism industry has made slow progress since it suffered a double hit from the recession and a surge in supply of new hotels downtown.

In July 2009, the year-to-date downtown occupancy rate sank to 66 percent from a pre-recession level of 73 percent for that period in 2007 as businesses cut their travel budgets and vacationers stayed close to home.

Additionally, about 8,400 rooms were added to the city's supply from the beginning of 2008 to 2010 - 2,000 of them just in downtown, according to Colliers PKF Consulting USA. That diluted the market further.

So far, 2012 is looking strong. The year-to-date downtown occupancy rate hit 75 percent in August, according to the CVB's most recent monthly report. CVB-booked meetings increased 9 percent to 408 meetings held in January through August, compared with 375 for the same period in 2011.

The CVB also expects year-to-date attendance for meetings at the Convention Center to hit 375,335 next year - the highest rate since a five-year high of 420,452 in 2008 and up 13 percent from attendance so far this year.

"When you look beyond, when the Convention Center is completed (in 2016), things look even brighter," Matej said.

In the short term, CVB officials will spend the next year training 1,000 participants, including hotel concierges, taxi drivers, airport employees and other industry workers in the Certified Tourism Ambassador (CTA) program, which trains front-line hotel and tourism employees on customer service and the city's amenities.

CTA trainees start prepping by reading up on the city's history and attractions, customer service lessons and the economic effect of tourism here. Afterward, they take a four-hour course and test, and then they're certified. Costs range from $25 to $40.

In May, the City Council approved a $47,000 contract with Mickey Schaefer & Associates to develop the CTA program, and per-person fees will go toward covering a $10,000 annual licensing fee with the company, based in Tucson, Ariz.

Bill Petrella, general manager of the Westin River Walk, participated in Tucson's CTA program before he moved to San Antonio and said it transformed the visitor experience of the city. Nearly 75 of employees he managed at the Westin in Tucson completed the training.

"From the second (tourists) landed, the greeters at the airport, rental car company workers, hotel associates ... all along the way, they were just a little more informed, and (workers) had more pride in their destination than they might have had before the training," Petrella said. "(Visitors) could feel the difference when they visited Tucson."

He said he will send about 25 of his employees through the CTA program, which starts today.

Matej said the CVB will spend the next few years partnering with local companies who have membership in national and international associations to bring those groups' conferences to San Antonio.

On flights to San Antonio, the number of international passengers, the majority of whom were from Mexico, increased 164 percent from 19,222 in July 2011 to 50,764 in July 2012, according to the CVB.

The CVB also plans to improve its social media campaign, which Matej said increased its "likes" on Facebook from 23,000 in April to more than 200,000 as of Monday.

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