Starting Saturday, more than 5,000 travel industry professionals will visit San Antonio for the nation’s largest travel trade show. 

The U.S. Travel Association’s annual IPW Conference will be hosted at the Henry B. González Convention Center May 20-24. Its focus is inbound tourism, which means attendees are in the business of attracting international tourists to the U.S.

The convention is a rare opportunity to put a spotlight on San Antonio and its history, culture and culinary offerings, while boosting visitation and spending, city and tourism officials have said.

Thousands of travel agents, tour operators and hotel sellers are registered to attend the conference along with 500 travel journalists with the power to tell the rest of the world why San Antonio is a worthy destination.

The city is ready, officials say, having already spent millions of dollars to show off San Antonio in its best light.

When the U.S. Travel Association selected San Antonio for its 2023 conference seven years ago, the city’s tourism bureau started planning for it, said David Gonzalez, ​​vice president of media relations and communications for the city’s tourism bureau, Visit San Antonio.

“But the big planning shifted up actually right as the pandemic kicked off in 2020,” he said.

This is the first time the conference has been held in San Antonio and the first time since 2000 the four-day event has come to Texas. It was held in Dallas that year. 

Last year, Orlando was the host city, and prior to that, Las Vegas, where it was scheduled to be hosted in 2020 before being canceled.

The number of people registering for this year’s event marks a return to pre-pandemic attendance levels, stated the U.S. Travel Association.

IPW brings people from around the world to learn more about what cities and travel companies in the U.S. can offer international tourists. But while they’re here, San Antonio will take center stage. 

At the San Antonio International Airport, for instance, signs will welcome IPW attendees to the city, and downtown hotels are ready to roll out the red carpet with food and beverage stations, Gonzalez said. 

On Saturday and Sunday, Visit SA is providing tours to places across San Antonio. “They’re going to hit every single of the council districts,” he said. 

At the convention center, various groups will host special events. The first is a traditional cowboy breakfast by the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. Another will be hosted by the San Antonio Zoo.

On Tuesday, the Main Plaza Conservancy will mark the return of The Saga, the video art installation projected onto the façade of San Fernando Cathedral, with a celebration. The Saga was on pause earlier this year while repairs were made to the cathedral’s roof.

In all, Visit SA is spending $6.3 million to put out the welcome mat.

The bulk of the funds are coming from hotel occupancy tax revenue, $1 million from the Tourism Public Improvement District, which is paid for by hotel stays, and $200,000 from private fundraising and Visit SA member fees. 

IPW’s estimated economic impact on San Antonio is $614 million, with the meeting to eventually lead to about 400,000 more visitors than usual expected from countries besides Mexico, Gonzalez said.  

Tourism and hospitality is a key economic driver in San Antonio. In 2021, the industry generated more than $16 billion in economic impact and supported 128,000 local jobs, according to Visit SA. 

The City of San Antonio itself is also working to put its best foot forward during IPW. In anticipation of the conference, City Council allocated half a million dollars in the 2023 city budget for beautification, wayfinding and other improvements. 

In addition to special art activations, permanent lighting has been installed at the Torch of Friendship sculpture on East Commerce Street, and portable Wi-Fi units, landscaping and enhanced lighting have been added throughout downtown, said a city spokeswoman. 

Numerous city departments had the event on their work calendars for months, coordinating already-budgeted work so that it would be done in time for the conference. 

Those improvements include sidewalk repairs, updated signage, pavement markings, painting and other clean-up.

Officials with Alamo Trust, the nonprofit overseeing improvements to Alamo Plaza and its national historic landmark, confirmed that the new interpretive mission gate and lunette will be completed in time for IPW.

Downtown accommodations also are filling up for IPW, Gonzalez said. Room blocks for the conference are so full that conference planners were forced to add another host hotel to its lineup, the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk. 

Up to 600 volunteers are being recruited to direct conference delegates at the convention center. 

“It’s going to be a city effort,” he said. 

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.