Example of the Convention and Visitor Bureau's 2013 marketing campaign, "Unforgettable." Courtesy image.
Example of the Convention and Visitor Bureau's 2013 marketing campaign, "Unforgettable." Courtesy image.

Earlier this month, Cured restaurant owner Steve McHugh was named a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef-Southwest. It was an important moment, recognizing not only the contributions of Chef McHugh to the national culinary arts, but the amazing growth of the culinary industry in San Antonio.

Fittingly, at the time of the announcement, McHugh was visiting Mexico City with cocktail maestro Jeret Peña and members of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau to discuss San Antonio’s multiple assets as a destination.

McHugh and Peña, who help represent the city’s arts and culture, history, active lifestyle and family fun pillars, are part of the powerful heartbeat behind the SACVB’s ambitious, comprehensive — and successful — marketing campaign. Its focus in recent years: Showcase San Antonio’s evolving, multifaceted tourism landscape and position the city as one of a handful of uniquely experiential destinations you can visit again and again.

“I was able to see first-hand in Mexico City where the dollars are being spent to bring not only tourists to our city, but I was able to meet with different media outlets than the usual that could promote our growing culinary scene,” McHugh said upon his return.

It’s a departure from longstanding presumptions that marketing efforts target only the tried-and-true staples in San Antonio such as family-fun attractions, the Alamo and River Walk.

There has been a lot of discussion recently in this regard. Our mission is to bring visitation to San Antonio, and thanks to Robert Rivard and The Rivard Report for allowing us to share with the community how we work to do just that.

“The CVB’s outreach efforts speak to the needs of today’s increasingly demanding traveler by promoting a new generation of family fun attractions and events,” said Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, CEO of The DoSeum, the remarkable new children’s museum on Broadway. “By supporting The DoSeum and San Antonio’s other newest attractions, the CVB maintains a message that is fresh and relevant to today’s traveler audience.”

That’s a mandate that Rivard endorsed in a recent column, and we take it very seriously. While still cognizant of San Antonio’s dominance as a family-fun market, the CVB recognized some time back the changing face of the city, and reacted accordingly. In a tactical, perceptive move, working alongside its marketing firm, Proof Advertising, the bureau in late 2013 released its “Unforgettable” campaign, which celebrates the familiar even as it embraces the new.

Read more: “Rivard: San Antonio Needs a New Sales Pitch

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It’s an evolving, progressive initiative, and all along the way has been molded in part by input from influential, fresh voices. In recognizing the expanding portfolio of tourism assets, the bureau has brought in many of the community’s brightest minds — both inside and outside the hospitality industry — to provide perspective. Consistently throughout the year, the bureau hosts committees and task forces providing direction on culinary, arts and culture, marketing and World Heritage.

Each has provided an incredible infusion of talent and energy. The broad spectrum of influencers on site, from nearly every sector of the San Antonio community, includes Convention & Visitors Commission chairman Frank Miceli, a Spurs vice-president for sales and franchise operations; marketing committee chair Geoffrey Crabtree, the Senior Vice President and marketing muscle behind Methodist Healthcare; and culinary task force head Michael Cortez, part of the family that brought us historic Mi Tierra, La Margarita and the new Viva Villa.

“As a member of the Marketing Committee at the San Antonio CVB for the past three years, it’s been interesting and heartening to see the evolution of our city messaging to more fully reflect the cultural diversity of our city,” said Elizabeth Fauerso, chief marketing officer at The Pearl. “The campaigns over the past few years, while continuing to message more traditional features of the city as a leisure destination, have incorporated culinary messaging, assets like our missions, parks and museums and have added strategic targets of visitors without children and millennials.” 

In the time since, that “Mix It Up” strategy has worked to create demand for San Antonio as a travel destination by telling the brand story regionally, nationally and internationally. To do so, the CVB utilizes an integrated mix of channels, including digital and print advertising, website, social media, email, broadcast, collateral, public relations and through communications efforts to secure earned media.

Last year alone, the bureau’s communications team drove a record $32 million in earned media value, spreading San Antonio’s story worldwide in such outlets as NBC-TV, The New York Times, USA Today, Travel + Leisure, PBS-TV and publications throughout Asia, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Canada, among others.

Lonely Planet – “Best in the U.S. 2016

Travel + Leisure – “Best Places to Travel in 2016

Budget Travel – “Where to Go in 2016

Huffington Post – “5 Secretly Cool Cities Where You Can Still Get in on the Ground Floor

Over the summer, thanks to the CVB’s efforts, San Antonio was spotlighted in two episodes of ABC-TV’s “The Bachelorette,” which brought the equivalent of more than $40 million in media exposure. In addition to the Alamo and River Walk, the episode highlighted historical and cultural assets, the iconic St. Anthony Hotel, San Antonio Botanical Garden, Enchanted Springs Ranch and Gruene Hall.

To be sure, there’s little doubt that the city, its assets expanding seemingly by the day, has become far more than the traditional family-fun destination of the past. From the World Heritage Site designation to a blossoming arts and culture scene, San Antonio offers a diversity of attractions unlike anything it has experienced before. As a result, it is luring a new type of traveler, interested in the kinds of authentic encounters that are now available in nearly every direction from the established still-popular anchors of Sea World, Fiesta Texas, River Walk and Alamo.

These efforts to showcase the diversity are reflected in several avenues of CVB marketing:

  • The Annual Visitor’s Guide ranks as the primary fulfillment piece for requests for information, including 375,000 printed for U.S. distribution and 25,000 in Spanish for Mexico distribution. The content of the guide covers a wide range of tourism offerings.
  • The primary Destination Video on the VisitSanAntonio.com website highlights San Antonio’s diverse activities and is displayed not only on the website’s home page, but on VisitSanAntonio’s YouTube channel and through social media and consumer events.
  • Multiple asset videos highlight aspects of San Antonio, from the Pearl to Southtown to the Botanical Garden to the Mission Reach. These are displayed throughout the website, on our YouTube channel and through social media and digital advertising.
  • Our TV spots, which run 15 or 30 seconds, highlight arts and culture, theme parks, the River Walk, family fun, nightlife and the culinary scene. These spots have been broadcast the past two years in key Texas markets and this coming summer will be telecast nationally. They’re available on various online video platforms, and were shown during national broadcasts of the Valero Alamo Bowl and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, as well as syndicated telecasts of the San Antonio Holiday River Parade and the San Antonio “Here’s to Our Heroes” Military Parade.
  • The Unforgettable campaign has been showcased in print and digital ads and through an interactive online experience. It uses a unique, photographic approach to reflect multiple assets of the city. The print ads have been displayed in regional and national markets in publications such as Better Homes & Gardens, Family Circle, Midwest Living, Southern Living, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Texas Monthly and Garden & Gun.

Market research confirmed that the Unforgettable campaign was engaging and unique and that it expanded perceptions of San Antonio as a diverse destination. Consumers said they were motivated to visit. That same research confirmed that for every dollar invested in our advertising efforts, there’s a more than $4 return on the investment.

  • Posts and images on VisitSanAntonio’s social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, offer an ongoing view of many aspects of San Antonio.
  • Through e-mail, more than 370,000 consumers receive at least monthly updates on events, festivals and new happenings in San Antonio, providing reasons to come visit.
  • The CVB’s website, VisitSanAntonio.com, welcomes more than 4.4 million visitors annually, and is the home base for marketing efforts. It sports rotating home page banners targeted in various ways (e.g., geographically, seasonally, etc.), plus content for inspiration and exploration, trip ideas, listings and details of events, lodging, restaurants, attractions, shopping and transportation.

According to accepted industry benchmarks, these comprehensive efforts are working. Research firm DK Shiflett reported recently that San Antonio greeted 32.5 million visitors in 2014, up from 31 million the previous year. According to a biennial Trinity University study, tourism and hospitality generates $13.4 billion each year for San Antonio’s economy, making it one of the top five industries in the city.

Source: DK Shiflett
CATEGORY2014 Metro
Total Visitors32.52
Day Business2.81
Day Leisure9.98
Night Business3.42
Night Leisure16.31

But the CVB relies on far more than studies and numbers in its strategy to best market San Antonio to visitors. It solicits constant feedback from nearly every area of the city.

For example, the culinary task force, which also includes such headliners as McHugh, Peña, influential chef and restaurateur Johnny Hernandez, John Brand of Hotel Emma, Chef Elizabeth Johnson of Pharm Table, Shelly Grieshaber of The Pearl and Amanda Garcia of the San Antonio Restaurant Association, is an example of remarkable collaboration. Despite being in competition for the valuable consumer dollar away from the meeting table, the group as a whole recognized immediately the growing strength of the culinary industry — and the CVB’s role in helping promote it worldwide.

McHugh, who will find out in March if he has won a coveted James Beard award, has undoubtedly benefited. He has served on the culinary advisory task force since its inception.

“The CVB has been very transparent with sharing their campaign and goals to positioning San Antonio over the past few years and gathering new faces and voices for the task force, so they can incorporate fresh ideas within the campaign that runs parallel with the national scope regarding food and drink,” McHugh said.

A Sunday edition of the Globe and Mail in Toronto not long ago was titled, “Beyond Tex Mex,” with a huge photo of NAO restaurant. We bring in at least 10 media for Culinaria every year, and up to another five influential journalists every year for the San Antonio Cocktail Conference.

One Canadian publication recently wrote of the city, regarding the Culinary Institute of America and hot emerging chefs, “In San Antonio, the next wave of American cuisine has arrived. And it’s got little to do with nachos and salsa.”

In addition to McHugh and Pena, the force behind The Brooklynite and The Last Word, traveling to Mexico last month to spread the good word about culinary and cocktails in San Antonio, Johnson, the chef and owner of Pharm Table, last week spent time representing San Antonio at a marketing mission in Chicago. While there, she appeared on WGN-TV to showcase the city’s culinary fare.

The SACVB took over a Chicago food truck and introduced a “Chili Not Chilly” campaign that pitched to weather-weary residents that San Antonio, with its 300 days of sunshine a year and year-round culinary attractions, is a desired destination.

It’s why our website talks not only about the traditional Tex-Mex dishes that San Antonio is famous for, but also what the Culinary Task Force came up with: “Tex-Next,” referring to that same growing culinary scene.

San Antonio has seen growth in individual art galleries, the addition of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the expansion of its museum scene and the emergence of local artists. The CVB, in response, has worked to gain more visibility for talents such as Cruz Ortiz — showcased on our New York City media mission last year — and the attractions through a Cultural Arts Advisory Task Force that includes Marise McDermott of the Witte Museum, Grammy Award-winning local musician Henry Brun, urban redevelopment advocate and leading art patron Guillermo Nicolas and Southwest School of Art president Paula Owen, among others.

“The CVB has been a dynamic partner as the Witte Museum and Broadway Reach partners have debuted major exhibitions and expansions,” McDermott said. “We are excited to continue that partnership with the CVB as we grow an ever-broader message for San Antonio as a City on the Rise, with great cultural, culinary, family-friendly destinations.”

That includes potentially the most powerful arrival on the tourism landscape: The World Heritage Site designation for the city’s five Spanish colonial missions. Projected to drive millions of visitors to San Antonio, including the all-important international traveler, the honor now provides the backdrop to pitching to a brand new audience.

“The World Heritage advertising that was developed is award-winning,” said Susan Chandoha, executive director of Los Compadres de San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. “‘Before Texas was Texas or the United States was United,’ is absolutely ingenious. And I liken your broadcast from Bonn (Germany) announcing the inscription as the ‘Missions’ shot that was heard around the world.”

Chandoha noted that after the designation, U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO Crystal Nix Hines said that “San Antonio set the gold standard for the rest of the country to follow.”

It’s all part of a layered marketing approach that works to encompass the strength of San Antonio’s allure in the present as a powerful target for families and its future as an expanding culinary, arts and culture and historic destination for a new type of traveler. Work is already under way to complement the city’s marketing efforts on its Tricentennial in 2018.

“The CVB has done a great job of initiating research with visitors and even locals to get responses to their more diverse work and what they hear has encouraged further exploration into messaging those experiences, places and histories that make San Antonio truly unique,” Fauerso said.

It’s a vital task. While San Antonio works to tell its story, other cities are doing the same — most bolstered by significantly higher marketing dollars. In the competition for tourism dollars, it’s often about who has the loudest voice. Thus the ongoing conversation about increasing our marketing budget — to ensure just that.


Top image: Example of the Convention and Visitor Bureau’s 2013 marketing campaign, “Unforgettable.” Courtesy image.

Related Stories:

Rivard: San Antonio Needs a New Sales Pitch

CVB Headed for Nonprofit Status

Getting Real with the San Antonio Visitor Economy

Inside San Antonio’s Expanded, Updated Convention Center

San Antonio’s Tourism Industry in an Era of ‘Transformation’

Casandra Matej is president and CEO of Visit San Antonio.