By: Randy Diamond,
June 27, 2021
Last week, the CEO of the American Association of Orthodontists saw San Antonio in a way few tourists do.
Lynne Thomas Gordon enjoyed meals personally cooked by San Antonio’s celebrity chefs, sampled the Hill Country’s finest wines and sat in the front row at the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, one of Fiesta’s premier happenings.
Her visit, paid for by tourism marketing organization Visit San Antonio, even included a moment she said endeared the region to her.
On a tour of Hill Country wineries, the charter bus she was on broke down near Fredericksburg.
“The bus driver jumped out and said, ‘I can take care of this,’” Thomas Gordon said. He fixed a broken fan belt, and they were back on the road to their first winery.
To her, the driver represented the helpful side of people in San Antonio and its surroundings.
“Everyone wants to make your trip a wonderful experience and is very kind,” she said.
Her fond recollections are the kind of payback Visit San Antonio officials were hoping for.
The public-private nonprofit spent tens of thousands of dollars — or more — to bring Thomas Gordon and the heads of 19 other associations to San Antonio from Monday through Wednesday. Some association executives brought along their spouse.
Visit San Antonio declined to disclose how much it spent on the excursions.
It was a familiarization tour — a FAM in industry parlance. Visit San Antonio and most other major-city tourism marketing groups in the U.S. invite officials from industry associations on such all-expenses-paid FAM tours as they compete to land as many conventions as possible.
The groups also host travel journalists, bloggers and social media influencers, hoping they’ll write glowing reviews of their destinations.
The trips are a long-running practice. But this year — as cities across the country struggle to rebuild convention industries laid low by COVID-19 — the urgency to make a good impression on convention planners is palpable.
Working for Future Wins
For Visit San Antonio, which is funded primarily by a tax on hotel rooms, snaring the orthodontists — the association Thomas Gordon leads — would be a big win.
The group’s annual meetings attracted about 17,000 people each year before COVID-19 effectively shut down the hospitality industry. A convention that large would fill every hotel room in downtown San Antonio and many in the surrounding area.
But the FAM tours sponsored by Visit San Antonio are a long-term play — not an immediate fix to the city’s beleaguered convention trade. Most associations choose their convention sites years in advance.
The orthodontists group is booking its conventions nine years out, Thomas Gordon said.
The association had to relocate its 2022 convention, but it isn’t coming to San Antonio.
On June 18, the orthodontists association announced it would move its gathering next May to South Florida from Honolulu after learning that Hawaii state agencies needed to use the city’s convention center on the same dates.
Thomas Gordon said she would consider San Antonio for future conventions, but she made no commitments.
Making Up Lost Business
San Antonio lost 43 conventions in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, but tourism officials are optimistic that the 38 meetings scheduled from July to December at the Convention Center will go on as planned.
Many of those meetings will follow a hybrid format, with a mix of in-person and online participants. A large number of conventioneers are expected to attend virtually, a reality that will cut into the city’s revenue.
Because of such factors, the city’s convention business is not forecast to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.
Despite the downbeat short-term forecast — or because of it — Visit San Antonio officials worked hard to woo Christine Pepper, CEO of the National Funeral Directors Association, another member of last week’s FAM tour.
While its convention isn’t as big as the orthodontists’, the association has attracted 5,000 to 7,000 attendees to past gatherings.
Pepper had not visited San Antonio in 15 years and said she viewed the trip as a way to refamiliarize herself with the area and determine whether to have a future convention in San Antonio.
She said she enjoyed everything about the tour — she mentioned the River Walk cruise from downtown to the Pearl, the tour of the Alamo and Hill Country wineries.
But she especially liked the people of San Antonio.
“I guess what really struck me is the passion everyone has,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you run into. It can be the folks on the street. Everyone has a smile on their face, and everyone is excited to be out and about.”
While numerous Visit San Antonio officials joined the group to tout the city’s charms, Pepper said she gathered many of her impressions independently before the tour started.
“One of the things I do when I go to a city is I walk,” she said. “So my first day I walked 6 miles.”
The 20 associations on the tour represented a total of 133,000 convention attendees a year — at least before the pandemic. Usually, Visit San Antonio would host three such tour groups a year, but the June trip was the first since the pandemic began in March 2020.
The marketing group needs the in-person trips to sell the city, said Marc Anderson, the new president and CEO of Visit San Antonio.
“While marketing the destination is a vital part of driving visitation and meetings and trade shows, nothing beats the power of face-to-face engagement and firsthand exposure to San Antonio,” he said.
Visit San Antonio officials made sure no one went away hungry. Gourmet food is a common feature of familiarization trips.
On Tuesday, three top San Antonio chefs collaborated on a dinner at Becker Vineyards in Fredericksburg: Bruce Auden of Biga on the Banks; Steve McHugh of Cured and the new Landrace; and Jason Dady of Two Bros BBQ Market.
Auden prepared the first course of Gulf Shrimp and Crab on Farro with Grilled Fredericksburg Peaches. For the second course, McHugh served Hill Country Rabbit Roulade with corn pudding, charred okra and pickled radish. Dady offered his Smoked Beef Short Rib “Bahi Mi” with crispy toast, cucumber-carrot salad and Thai Bali for the third course.
At the Pearl, the tour group had breakfast at Brasserie Mon Chou Chou. The five-course meal included lobster bisque in puff pastry, smoked Ora King salmon and potato pave, and a French omellette with Gruyere cheese.
Another member of the tour, Debra BenAvram, CEO of the American Association of Blood Banks, said she was particularly impressed with the final breakfast at the Alamo. It was catered by chef Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria fame. BenAvram said the blue corn tortilla made by Hernandez — featuring queso and poblano peppers — “was simply the best tortilla I’ve had in my whole life.”
“I don’t think I’ll eat for a week or so after leaving,” she added.
Appealing to Foodies
The FAM trip had been in the works since February. That’s when Visit San Antonio officials saw that COVID-19 restrictions would continue to be eased and that a twice-postponed Fiesta would take place this month.
When Anderson became head of Visit San Antonio last month, he invited Kris Moon, president and chief operating officer of the New York-based James Beard Foundation, along for the trip.
Anderson wants to build San Antonio’s culinary reputation nationally and internationally to attract more visitors.
The Beard organization honors chefs and conducts Taste of America dinners featuring top chefs across the country. Moon, who had never been to San Antonio, said he was surprised by its “bigness” and came away impressed with the “dynamic food and wine scene.”
Visit San Antonio didn’t have to do much persuading for Moon to decide to have future food events in the city. He’s already planning to bring San Antonio its first Taste of America between October and March.
San Antonio has its share of chefs who have won James Beard awards, though none have won top honors for the best chef in Texas or the Southwest.
Another guest Anderson added to the trip was Michelle Mason, who is scheduled to become president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives on Sept. 1. The group represents hundreds of associations, and positive comments about San Antonio by Mason to her members could help the city land convention business.
Mason and Anderson have a direct connection. Chicago-based Mason sits on the board of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism marketing organization. Anderson served as the group’s chief operating officer before joining Visit San Antonio.
Speaking on Thursday after returning to Chicago, Mason had nothing but praise for San Antonio. She said she was impressed with efforts to open an Alamo museum and tell the site’s history.
Mason said she would encourage her members to look at the city for future meetings and conventions. But she noted that ultimately it’s up to each association to determine where to stage conventions.
She said the Hill County and its wineries could be a draw for San Antonio conventions.
“Experiencing Texas wine country was a highlight,” she said. “I didn’t realize the large number of vineyards.”
Anderson said the addition of Mason and the James Beard Foundation’s Moon to the FAM trip will help San Antonio reap “national recognition” in the meetings industry and in the culinary arena.
It’s a statement that many in San Antonio’s tourism industry hope is right as they continue to plot its recovery from COVID-19.