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Arts Push me-pull you 

The tourism and hospitality industries are ready to embrace the arts, but the arts want to make sure no strings are attached

During an August 15 meeting for Destination:SA, the Convention and Visitors Bureau strategic-planning process chaired by District 1 Councilman Roger Flores, Centro Cultural Aztlán Director MaLena Gonzalez-Cid and CVB Commissioner Henry Feldman had an exchange that many observers saw as a watershed moment. Feldman told the audience that the hospitality industry and the arts community often have been at odds and that the two forces need to work together. Gonzalez-Cid responded that it is time for the tourism business to embrace arts organizations as equal partners at the economic table.

San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau Vice President of Marketing and Communication Robert Salluce and Acting Executive Director Janis Schmees stand outside of the CVB's headquarters in the International Center. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

According to Feldman, chairman of the San Antonio Hotel & Lodging Association and former president of La Mansión del Rio Hospitality Group, that time has come. “The hospitality and tourism industry recognizes the great worth of the arts and the importance of the cultural heart of this community, not only to enhance the tourism products,” he says, “but also it makes for a better quality of life for the community.”

Perhaps culture’s intrinsic value has never been in great dispute among Feldman and his peers, but whether the hotel-motel industry ought to support arts and culture through the Hotel Occupancy Tax has been a frequent source of contention in local and state politics. Since 1977, when the Texas legislature passed the Lalor Law, municipalities have been able to use a portion of the revenue from taxing local hotel and motel rents to fund arts programming. But since 1983, various forces have worked to limit its use, curtailing the percentage of the tax that can be spent on arts and culture and requiring any HOT-funded organizations to “directly” enhance and promote tourism. In 2001, the legislature added language that requires cities to report all HOT-tax expenditures.

Nonetheless, cities retain a great deal of authority in deciding how much and how to apply their HOT-tax revenues. The law allows local governments to spend as much as 15 percent of the proceeds on arts and culture, and although they must justify their use of the HOT tax, they are not required to provide research or documentation backing up their assertions. “This allows municipalities considerable leeway to determine how to best promote tourism in their own community,” concluded a 2004 UT-Austin report for the Texas Commission on the Arts.

In San Antonio, the HOT arts allocation has fluctuated between 7.5 and 9.5 percent for the past eight years. For fiscal year 2006, however, Mayor Phil Hardberger and City Council approved a significant increase in HOT funding for the arts, to 12 percent. In politics nothing comes without strings, and while it may not be a direct orchestration it is certainly a convenient coincidence that OCA’s proposed new arts-funding guidelines add language that scores applicants on demonstrating outreach to cultural tourists. “That’s standard procedure now,” says OCA Director Felix Padrón. The Texas Council on the Arts application has much the same requirements, and the UT report found that more than 30 percent of the local arts agencies it interviewed had added tourism-related requirements to their funding processes in the past four years.

“Cultural tourism” isn’t a brand-new phrase, but it’s a hot one, especially since the Travel Industry Association of America reported in 2001 that cultural tourists travelers who are seeking authentic local experiences when they travel, whether through museums, performances, historical sites, or other experiences are one of the fastest-growing segments of the market. Cultural tourists are also more likely to fly, stay in a hotel, and, on average, spend more money per trip. The majority of San Antonio tourists, according to a 2003-04 Visitor Profile prepared by an independent firm for the CVB, come to visit family, or for entertainment, dining, sightseeing, and shopping. A comparably tiny 6 percent apiece report coming for museums and art exhibits or performances, although a new study for Destination:SA puts the combined total for arts at 15 percent.

While San Antonio’s tourism industry has remained fairly stable over the past two decades, notes Feldman, almost 90 percent of visitors to the Alamo City come from Texas and, by and large, they drive. “We’ve been reliant from a pure tourism standpoint on a very regional appeal,” Feldman notes.

While San Antonio has held its own with tourists and conventions for a generation, the immediate future does not look so rosy. Hotel bookings for 2007 are down almost 30 percent, according to the CVB, and the CVB’s counterparts in comparable cities often have much larger PR budgets with which to compete. The bureau has wrung more money out of City Council for 2006, but they need a fresh angle to lure both large conventions and leisure tourists to town.

“We think the arts is one of the best ways to position San Antonio,” says Robert Salluce, vice president of marketing and communication at the CVB.

“I always say what makes a good leisure destination is a good convention destination and what makes a good convention destination makes a good leisure destination.” Salluce and his boss, Acting Executive Director Janis Schmees, say they are enthusiastic about promoting the local arts that already are flourishing here as a top reason to visit the Alamo City. “If we promise the visitor they’re going to get a genuine cultural experience, can we deliver that?” Schmees asks. “And, yes, we can.”

Salluce and Schmees emphasize the CVB’s role in promoting the arts and, they say, they want to partner with local organizations to grow the national and international audience for hotels, restaurants, theaters, and museums alike. Once CVB’s Destination:SA re-branding campaign is complete (they expect to begin floating three trial balloons next month), they will upgrade the website, which, says Schmees, already gets “several hundred thousand” visitors a month. In March, the CVB plans to launch a new twice-yearly travel guide, and Schmees says the CVB would like arts organizations to see them as a resource. “The ones that really partner and stretch their dollar, together we can reach a much larger audience.”

But like the longtime spurned suitor who suddenly finds himself first in line, some arts advocates are cautious about embracing a partnership with the hospitality industry. “You’re talking about an organization that’s community-based that `was` started to fill a need that was lacking in the community,” says Gonzalez-Cid of Centro Cultural Aztlán, which promotes the West Side’s indigenous culture through the Low Rider Festival and the Low and Slow Classic Car Show, among other activities. She says she is concerned that the city already sacrifices too much local authenticity for a straw man with a suitcase. “The spirit of the river itself was for it to be like a community park, and we’ve given it up to hotels and restaurants.”

District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle shares Gonzalez-Cid’s concerns. “I think people who are into tourism just need to realize that if they want to bring tourists, one of the things that they could do is just to fund the arts,” says Radle, “not to tell the arts, Do this or that in this way in order that we can get tourists in.’”

Feldman says he agrees: “My feeling is that `the HOT tax`, wherever we can use it legally for programming we should do so, so that it enhances the overall arts and culture community.” And the CVB says the fear that they or the Hotel & Lodging Association wants to tell arts organizations what to program is misplaced, or, at any rate, outdated. “We don’t make the product, we promote it, and with the arts we really have the best product,” says Salluce.

Don’t cue the credits and music just yet. Despite the hospitality industry’s embrace of the arts and OCA’s expanded budget, challenges loom on the horizon. It remains to be seen, for instance, how local arts organizations will feel about the additional cultural-tourism requirements included in the proposed funding guidelines. “There needs to be accountability for these monies being spent,” says Feldman. “There’s got to be justification, whether it be programs of the arts community, or the River Walk, or the CVB. In the private business world, when you go out and do some advertising and marketing, you want to know how well that advertising and marketing has done, so you can make a decision whether you want to continue it next year, not just continue to fund something because we funded it last year.”

On the other side of that debate stands Radle, who believes that the value of art is unquantifiable and speaks for itself, no matter how it’s funded. “It makes a lot of sense to fund it out of `the HOT tax`,” argues Radle, “but for the essence of what art is, not that art is what serves tourism.”

For more information on Destination:SA and the latest city budget, see Artifacts, August 25-31, 2005 and September 22-28, 2005. For more information on proposed changes to OCA’s arts-funding process, see “Target in sight,” September 29-October 5, 2005.

By Elaine Wolff

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