A view of La Antorcha de la Amistad, located in the traffic rotary of Losoya, Commerce, Market and Alamo streets in downtown San Antonio, one if the busiest spots for tourism. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A view of the Torch of Friendship, located in the traffic rotary of Losoya, Commerce, Market and Alamo Streets in downtown San Antonio. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Answer all three of these questions correctly and you’ll stand taller than the North Star Mall boots:

1) Take a wild guess at how many visitors San Antonio hosts each year.

2) We all know that our convention center is named after the legendary San Antonio congressman affectionately known as “Henry B.” What was Henry B’s full name?

3) Finally, once and for all, does the Alamo have a basement?

WHAT IS A CTA?

My name is Joe Van Wyk, CTA. I recently graduated from San Antonio’s “Certified Tourism Ambassador” program. The San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) launched the CTA program in 2012 as part of a nationally acclaimed certification curriculum aimed at enhancing tourism by inspiring service industry individuals.

The premise is simple: Front line employees and volunteers provide quality service. As a result, visitors have a positive experience. Then, visitors tell their friends, who decide to come to San Antonio. Everyone benefits, including our region’s $12-billion dollar a year tourism economy.

Those are some big bucks, and, the dollars ripple into every part of our economy, including our tax base.

MY STORY

I learned about the CTA program while doing research for my own business. I have owned a graphic design and publishing company in San Antonio for 20 years. In recent times I have sought to learn more about the needs of San Antonio tourism businesses. We all have access to more social media, email, blogging, and website tools than we know what to do with. Consistently publishing helpful marketing content to these destinations is a challenge, however. To meet this need, I created Content Destination. Our program shows clients how to create and publish stories and videos that entertain and attract tourism customers.

I am a born tourist. Even here in my own town, I’m always doing touristy things. Just the other day I was rambling on and on with a buddy, telling him about the new lock system for the barges on the River Walk extension. A week before that I drove a friend down to Mission San José, and we marvelled at the fresco at the bottom of the bell tower, wondering what it must have looked like hundreds of years ago.

When I came across the CVB’s video on the Certified Tourism Ambassador program, I immediately knew I wanted to take the course. I recognized that I needed education and credibility in my new field and becoming a CTA was a good start.

THE PROCESS

Earning the Certified Tourism Ambassador distinction was simple. I signed up via the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website, picked up my binder, studied the material, and then took a four-hour course with 30 people from a variety of industries. At the end of the course there was a straightforward test.

At this point, I earned my way into the CTA portal and news area. This is where I can pick and choose from any number of ongoing events and destinations throughout the year to fulfill the CTA’s required certification hours of involvement.

The material in the binder we received is very well thought out and current. While there are many facts and figures throughout, certain key concepts provide insight into tourism.

For instance, we learned that the concept of choosing to travel is the backbone of the tourism industry. Let’s say I have a client from out of town whom I need to visit. A business trip like that isn’t really about a choice. Whether my client is in Poughkeepsie or Portland, I have to go to that city. On the other hand, let’s say I’m a golfer in Nebraska and it’s in the middle of a bone-chilling January. I have some time off and I’m ready to hit the links. I have a choice, and San Antonio is in a high-stakes competition for my golfing tourism business.

The La Cantera Golf Course. Courtesy photo.
The La Cantera Golf Course. Courtesy photo.

Especially being in my line of work, I enjoyed how the program teaches branding. What comes to your mind when I say “Orlando?” Or, how about “Las Vegas?” A city’s brand encompasses its “personality.” It evokes emotions in visitors about what they remember most, and what they tell their friends.

While flipping through the course binder, I thought it would be fascinating to see the pages evolve into an interactive multimedia experience. Imagine clicking through brief, narrated chapters on San Antonio’s rich history, using existing videos and historical photos from sources such as the Institute of Texan Cultures’ massive archives. Or, a chapter on our city’s branding explained by one of our many “ad guy” statesmen.

Jeff Quin, the instructor for the course, presented with a fun mix of humor and practical education. He has been a tour guide, special events coordinator, academic dean, and training expert. He was personally trained by Zig Ziglar, and became a certified “Disney Way” trainer. Quin is currently a river barge captain, so he is a walking encyclopedia of downtown trivia and cheesy jokes.

Joe Van Wyk (left) with Content Destination and Jeff Quin, Certified Tourism Ambassador instructor
Content Destination’s Joe Van Wyk (left) and Jeff Quin, Certified Tourism Ambassador instructor.

In the course material and presentation, considerable time is spent on how to use the printed “San Antonio — The Official Pocket Guide.” The guide is packed with maps and destinations of interest. In theory, front line people such as servers, concierge, taxi cab drivers, and hospitality workers would have the guides on hand when asked questions by San Antonio tourists. Since that may not always be the case, I think it would be helpful to demonstrate a mobile app version during the course.

THE DIFFERENCE ONE SINGLE PERSON CAN MAKE

When I went downtown to snap the above photo with Jeff, I had such a learning moment about this idea of “front line” workers and volunteers, and how much difference a single person can make. Picture this: I am just hanging out, waiting for my friend Jeff to arrive. I am near a restaurant’s outside podium-type desk, with a young woman working as a hostess for the restaurant. About one out of 10 people who approached her wanted to be seated at the restaurant. The rest? You guessed it. “Where is the nearest restroom?” or “How do I get on a river barge cruise?” (We were 20 feet from both the river barge cruise cue and a ticket counter).

Even though the young woman was employed by the restaurant, she cheerfully answered all questions in this chaotic bottleneck on the River Walk. Then, I noticed that when she went on a break, another woman who was not so tourist-minded took her place. As I observed the whole scene, I cringed when I saw stressed-out visitors not being greeted with a smile, and not getting answers to those basic questions. Playing out in front of me was the great need for CTA training.

A street vendor pulls his cart of merchandise amid tourists and locals in front of the Alamo before the 2013 Battle of the Flowers Parade. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A street vendor pulls his cart of merchandise amid tourists and locals in front of the Alamo before the 2013 Battle of the Flowers Parade. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

FUNKY TOURISM

I would love to see the CVB weave into the training an awareness of some “off the beaten path” destinations in the region. Most tourists already know about the River Walk, the Alamo, and the big amusement parks. But, how many of them are able to discover more “funky” destinations? How can we draw people from the River Walk, Texas’ No. 1 tourist attraction, into the rich, less scripted parts of the city?

To its credit, the Convention and Visitors bureau has a “browse and book” section on its website with several destinations. And, the CVB participates in a program and mobile app called SAVE, offering discounts to local attractions.

During the curriculum, I kept trying to put myself into the position of a visitor less interested in discount books and crowds, and more interested in where the locals go.

I am big into the local music and dance scene. With all of the sites and social media that I follow, it is still frustrating to find a definitive list of gigs. We have tremendous talent and entertainment on this end of I-35, and tourists should be able to pursue all hot spots in one place. 

Take shopping, for instance. San Antonio malls are fantastic, but many of those stores can be visited back home. There are so many new and unique stores up and down the Broadway Reach and the Pearl. Cigar lounges, high fashion, boutique bikes, and decadent sweets can all be found up Broadway Street. The offerings of Southtown could also easily entertain a visitor for a day. How could we raise tourists’ awareness of these small businesses?

Adelante Boutique at the Pearl. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Adelante Boutique at the Pearl. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

While I was taking the CTA course, I thought about how helpful it would be to have a unique directory. Some sort of resource for visitors looking to get beyond the River Walk to experience the true San Antonio. Call it something like “Funky Tourism.” It might be a curated directory of “out of the ordinary” places to visit. Rather than chains and franchises, people who thirst for authenticity could rely on unbiased reviews of classic places that meet certain local criteria.

THE BIGGEST TAKEAWAY

For me, the greatest takeaway of the CTA program was a renewed sense of what a fascinating city we live in. Archaeologists have found 11,000 year-old ruins where the Olmos Dam now sits. From those ancient beginnings have grown our unique, diverse, and prosperous home. As our tourism numbers continue to grow, it is great to know that San Antonio’s Tourism Ambassador Program is helping to make their experience something to write home about.

ANSWERS

Ready to find out how you did on your San Antonio trivia? 1) No less than 35 million visitors come to San Antonio per year. 2) Our colorful Henry B’s full name? Enrique Barbosa González. 3) Lastly, is there a basement in the Alamo? Of course not. There are two. Poor Pee Wee Herman was right after all. Technically, there are two in the Alamo compound. One is under the Alamo Hall, and the second is under the gift shop.

*Featured/top image: A view of the Torch of Friendship, located in the traffic rotary of Losoya, Commerce, Market and Alamo Streets in downtown San Antonio. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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Joe Van Wyk

Joe Van Wyk has used his twenty years of graphic design, marketing, and publishing experience to create  Content Destination. Content Destination is a program that shows San Antonio tourism-related businesses...