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The Mayor and the majority of San Antonio City Council took a cringeworthy step backwards and endorsed mediocrity last week by voting 9-1 for Go Rio San Antonio to receive our city’s river barge concession contract.
If you’re reading this, you probably know the river barge story up to this point, so I will not bore you with a recap. I’ve read most every article written about the vote (including Robert Rivard’s spot-on commentary), watched the four-hour session where both teams made their final presentations, and I spoke as a citizen before Council in favor of San Antonio River Cruises, which would have been owned by Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises. Below are points that I planned to make but could not in the interest of time.
City staff, led by City Manager Sheryl Sculley, was going for the right experience to continue the upward momentum of our city.
The Request For Proposals for operators laid out requirements that fit right in line with the other successful initiatives that have been developed and promoted over the last few years, including SA2020, the 2017 Municipal Bond initiative, Hemisfair redevelopment, our downtown Tech District, and the San Pedro Creek Project. These projects all represent a confident stride forward towards a modern, competitive city that is no longer on the rise but has, in fact, arrived. In seeking a river operator, the City was clearly looking for someone with class and innovation. Sculley’s staff knew the stakes for this contract and how the river had the potential to be another component of the San Antonio renaissance. Unfortunately, the Mayor and most of Council have ensured that it will continue to be something that many locals tolerate but are ultimately not proud of and avoid.
The marketing and programming concepts put forth by Go Rio were hackneyed and tone-deaf.
Talk to anyone who knows anything about marketing and they will tell you that Millennials (if you subscribe to such generational groupings) value authenticity. In fact, Millennials represented one of the key groups that Go Rio said it was trying to capture, and the team cited research from its own “in-house” Millennials.
Those must be the most un-Millennial Millennials ever.
In addition to the much-maligned duck mascot, I saw in Go Rio’s presentation a mockup of what appeared to be a Snapchat-like filter that added a duckbill to your face for selfies, undoubtedly added to the pitch in a misguided attempt to appeal to today’s youth. (I rounded up some Millennials myself and did a little impromptu field research on the concept — the results were not positive.)
The zeal to invent a mascot reveals a larger problem: The Go Rio team seemed to not understand that there is already tremendous momentum and funding behind our existing San Antonio branding. There is no need to muddy the water (apologies for the pun) with the addition of a tacky sub-brand.
The nods to San Antonio culinary culture in their presentation were also tired: pan dulce, margaritas, chips and salsa. Can’t we move past the stereotypes? Does anyone doubt that Chef Johnny Hernandez would not have brought his unique style and class to this endeavor? Yes, he would have offered those items, but in his own inimitable, authentic way. My personal feeling is that San Antonio River Cruises’ presentation offered the local expertise and personal support of a chef, while Go Rio’s felt more like a restauranteur’s business plan.
Landry’s is not a good partner for the river barge operation.
Aside from Houston-based Landry’s decidedly pedestrian track record in food service, I was troubled that the Go Rio presentation implied that Landry’s helped pioneer the MagicBand concept at Disney World. Indeed, there is a prominent photo of a MagicBand device in its presentation (you can see the image here from a Google image search), and Go Rio strongly suggested that this technology would be utilized in its service. Given that the cost to create and execute a system like Disney’s MagicBands could realistically eclipse the entire contract’s budget for the 10-year period, it feels misleading for it to have been included in the presentation.
What’s more, what wasn’t included in the presentation was that in 2014 and 2015, Landry’s experienced a credit card breach that affected a large number of its properties. Credit card numbers began being stolen in March 2014 and continued through December 2015. The breach likely occurred because of a lack of end-to-end security, a measure that such a large operator should have invested in. (Landry’s did so after the breach occurred.) I could not find a final tally of people affected, but you can read Landry’s response here.
Our Mayor and most of City Council have chosen a company that put millions of customers at risk because of substandard point-of-sale security systems to handle our river barge transactions. If such a breach were to occur with our river barge system, who do you think will be blamed? I fear this would be a public relations nightmare for our city.
As a final note regarding technology, I found it interesting that Hope Andrade, chair of the VIA Metropolitan Transit board and member of the Go Rio team, spoke at length how each boat would be trackable via GPS in real time, yet that sort of functionality is completely absent from VIA’s bus system despite other bus systems, including Waco‘s, having had it for years. The best we have is a SMS-based tracking system that works miserably. I know this because I tried to use it for several months before giving up.
The success of the river barge enterprise is predicated on its employees.
Specifically, the front-line employees: the barge operators, the food service workers — the crews that do the hardest work. These people are San Antonio’s most precious resource. They have the toughest and often most thankless jobs, and they are the ones that will make or break the customer experience. If a company takes good care of those employees, then that inspires genuine buy-in from those employees, and they will shine as the best ambassadors for your business, and in this case, for our city.
If you take a look at the company reviews of both Landry’s and Entertainment Cruises (the company that would have operated San Antonio River Cruises) on Glassdoor, you will see that there is significantly greater job satisfaction with Entertainment Cruises. If you dive down into the ratings, you’ll see that they are distributed such that employees of Landry’s give it almost universally medium or poor ratings with an occasional above-average, and Entertainment Cruises earns mostly medium to high ratings, with some bad ones thrown in.
Couple this indication of greater job satisfaction with SARC along with the fact that their plan included full benefits for part-time as well as full-time employees, and it’s clear that San Antonio River Cruises would have provided a better opportunity for our citizens whose living depends on the tourism industry.
The invocation of the Small Business Economic Development Advocacy program was completely inappropriate, and the ordinance needs revision.
In his column, Rivard covered this topic, but it bears repeating: Andrade and Lisa Wong of Go Rio are not the business owners for which SBEDA was written. Andrade and Wong are already successful by any measure; by their own admission, they have over $30 million at their disposal. The ordinance was drafted to help new and rising minority-owned and woman-owned small businesses level the playing field, not to be used as a gambit to make up for points unearned in quality of proposal. Especially egregious is the fact that a several-point increase was awarded because of a reclassification of Andrade as a sole proprietor of several businesses that are in fields completely unrelated to this contract.
Several Council members alluded to the fact that the SARC team could have created partnerships with locals, including Hernandez, to obtain the same SBEDA points.
So SBEDA is a series of hoops that can be jumped through to gain an advantage in the bidding process to make up for points lost in quality of product? If so, I pity the time and effort that has gone into its creation and mourn its utter uselessness. I’m sure there are examples of SBEDA at work where deserving, truly “small” businesses have been able to secure contracts with the city. Maybe I will look those up to restore my faith.
What will not be restored is my faith in our Mayor or the majority of our City Council. The Council’s actions have shown me that ugly, back-room dealings still exist in our local government. The exploitation of a program designed to help the disadvantaged by the advantaged Andrade and Wong casts a long shadow on this city. Maybe we haven’t risen as far as we think.
With this decision, San Antonio is sending a clear message to the world – talented enterprises with excellent track records need not apply. As the municipal runoff elections approach, it is imperative that we tell our Mayor and City Council that they – except for Councilman Ron Nirenberg – made the wrong choice for the future of our city. We should tell them with our voices and our letters, but also with our votes.