As I walked through downtown Houston to attend a press conference a few months ago at The Grove, where Houston First and the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau were set to announce a major new initiative to lure leisure tourists to the Bayou City, I chuckled at the absurd idea.
Houston has always been a "bidness" town where out-of-towners come to make quick deals and then high tail it out of town as quickly as possible. For a city this size, there doesn't appear to be much to entice a leisure traveler to make H-Town a prime destination.
But as I neared Discovery Green, now wedged between the mammoth Hilton Americas-Houston on one side and a rapidly rising Las Vegas-style Marriott on the other, I thought that it wasn't that long ago that just about everyone pooh-pooed the idea that Houston could become a convention city.
Now, with an expanding George R. Brown Convention Center and thousands of new hotel rooms in downtown Houston, the city indeed can successfully make a play for major conventions and events, with the NCAA Final Four next year and the Super Bowl in 2017 as two prime examples.
So who am I to argue that the same thing can't happen for vacationers?
At the inaugural Houston Tourism Summit at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Thursday, more than 500 local business leaders and travel officials brainstormed ways to attract leisure tourists, with travel journalist Peter Greenberg as the keynote speaker. It's part of a concerted plan to boost the number of visitors to Houston by 30 percent to 20 million by 2018. Right now the city attracts a paltry 14.1 million annual visitors, much lower than such cities as Dallas, San Antonio, Chicago or New York.
"But that’s the highest number we’ve had," said GHCVB senior vice president of tourism Jorge Franz. "And what this merger between Houston First and the Convention and Visitors Bureau was all about, we were going to be able to pool our resources and be able to spend more and it’s happened. We’ve gone from $5.1 million to $8.8 million in terms of promotional dollars in just one year."
Those additional ad dollars are aimed at potential tourists in surrounding Texas cities and Louisiana. Slick TV ads, some of which have been shown in the Houston market, feature dramatic scenes from popular tourist attractions like the Kemah Boardwalk and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
"Right now a lot of the ad buys that we’re doing are in Austin and San Antonio. And we are going to New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette. We’re actually working with Expedia (on travel packages) and that’s really neat," Franz said. "And we’ll be looking to do promotions with partners — packages where people can actually come and experience something like an Astros game, stay a couple of days and go see some of these attractions."
Also included is a launch of the first major advertising campaign in Mexico, which already furnishes around 1 million tourists to Houston each year.
Franz is also touting Citypass.com, a website offering a ticket that allows you to see five major attractions, including Space Center Houston, the Houston Zoo and the Children's Museum of Houston for only $51, or about half off of what the admissions would total. "You can go to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Natural Science, it’s all there. There are these great tools available for tourists that come in and do these great things in Houston," Franz said.
And he is encouraging weekend visits, too. "Our hotels are doing extraordinary business from Sunday to Thursday. However they could use help in terms of business coming in on Friday and Saturday. We feel we have what it takes to promote the city."
Lots to promote
While it may seem like a daunting task, as Houston doesn't appear to have attractions that naturally appeal to the leisure traveler, Franz and his team are undeterred.
"In terms of whether Houston can be promoted or not, absolutely it can," Franz said. "Last year the Kemah Boardwalk received 3 million visitors. The Downtown Aquarium received a million. I encourage you to check out the Museum of Natural Science Trip Advisor page. They’re the No. 1 attraction for visitors from out of town."
"I think what happens is Houstonians are a little cynical sometimes. I think it’s time to stop that. It’s time to stand up and be proud of this city because we are more than that," he said. "We wouldn’t take on this effort if we didn’t think it was possible."
"Probably the last time most people visited the Museum of Natural Science was when they were in 7th grade. That was our last memory of it. Some people don’t realize that the largest Paleontology Hall in the United States is there. That’s amazing. The Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Houston has an amazing collection of African-American wartime memorabilia. The Funeral History Museum is a quirky little attraction — all those things make Houston unique. And at the end of the day, that is what visitors are looking for.
"I always tell people that tourism is about promoting something you have that someone else doesn’t. And we have plenty of that. Not everybody has great theater, great museums or Space Center Houston."
What about a theme park?
Some people — certainly a large number of CultureMap readers — believe one key ingredient that's missing is a big theme park, along the lines of the dearly departed AstroWorld. Franz says the bureau is "committed to identifying what that next big thing will be" and a theme park could fit in the picture.
"There’s no question that something like a theme park could be great, but I honestly believe that there’s no one single silver bullet," he said. "What matters for us is that we all get on the same page about Houston being a city that is a place you can visit. That needs to happen first and that’s kind of what this is all about."