Terri Welch’s job is to sell the San Diego Zoo, and one recent morning in a posh New York City hotel, she was ready for action. Welch, who is a very good looking woman of twenty-nine, wore a two-piece cotton dress, expensive nylons embossed with little blue designs, high heels, and deftly applied make-up. “I’m not just selling bus tours. I’m selling full-blown theme parties,” she said confidently. ‘‘This can be very lucrative. Very, very lucrative.”
In a few moments, into the exhibition hall where Welch was standing would stream a thousand or so professional meeting planners, people who routinely organize gatherings of thousands of corporate managers, youth groups, professional association members, and other people with the money and desire to flock to one geographical location. The meeting planners pick the cities, the hotels, the tour bus operators. They decide if the San Diego Zoo will be on the itinerary of large groups of people.
So Welch was ready to make her pitch, along with representatives for Sea World, a half-dozen San Diego hotels, and two San Diego tour operators. Each organization had paid its own way to New York, but they had been brought together as a group by the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. The ConVis bureau, supported primarily by tax money, every year spends millions of dollars on the task of getting people to travel to San Diego. Some of the bureau’s employees say friends tease them that the job of drawing visitors here must be the easiest work there is.
In response, the ConVis people say travel is the most competitive business in the world. “It’s the one business everyone can get into,’’ says Al Reese, ConVis vice president of public affairs. “The first thing every underdeveloped country does is to establish a travel bureau and open a state airline.’’
At the recent “Meeting World” gathering in Manhattan, that competition brought hundreds of exhibitors to booths spread over three hotel floors. Some flaunted displays reeking of money. The New York Hilton, for example, erected a miniature replica of the Manhattan skyline, constructed out of silver and gray freestanding “skyscrapers.” The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, richest in the country with an annual budget of more than $40 million, hustled business against a curved blue Plexiglas backdrop that suggested racy excitements.
Giveaways were popular: Cracker Jack from the Mesa (Arizona) Convention and Visitors Bureau; orange juice from the Miami bureau; “Don’t Mess With Texas” bumpier stickers from the booth rented by Corpus Christi (“The Texas Riviera!”). Ladies in colonial dress pitched the attractions of Williamsburg. A friendly saleswoman from Columbus, Georgia, “Meeting World” exhibition hall asserted that one of the finest convention centers in the country was the 70,000-square-foot facility created out of a Civil War cannon factory in the center of the Georgian city.
Amid this head-spinning variety, the San Diegans were a little difficult to find, located in a far comer of the giant exhibit ballroom. But the ConVis organizers had worked hard to overcome that handicap. Since the dozen San Diego businesses had agreed to share with the bureau the $7000 cost of renting six eight-by-ten-foot booths, San Diego seemed to command one of the latest exhibit areas in the entire show. Six big bunches of red and blue “San Diego” balloons helped mark the perimeter of this floor space. As the piece de resistance, ConVis had hired the Zoo’s ‘‘goodwill ambassador,” Joan Embery, and her husband Duane Pillsbury to transport a boa constrictor, a toucan, and an exotic Asian tree-dwelling mammal called a binturong to this space six stories above Times Square. As people paraded by, Embery answered questions about the animals; the crowd around her never thinned. ‘‘What a gimmick!” chortled one observer. ‘‘It makes people slow down just for long enough to let you eyeball their badge and decide if you want to give them the hard sell.”
Although hard sells abounded, no one seriously expected any meeting planner to stroll down the aisle, see Embery’s boa constrictor, and decide on the spot to bring 800 conventioneers to San Diego. Instead ConVis and its members spend the money to attend trade shows like this with a much simpler goal: they want the meeting planners’ names. As further bait at the recent New York show, ConVis set up a poster announcing the giveaway of a San Diego weekend that would include round-trip air transportation here, accommodations at Vacation Village, a full-size sailboard and lessons in how to use it, and admission to the zoo, Sea World, and the Wild Animal Park. “Would you like to participate in our drawing?” Welch and the other sales people would ask brightly, offering passers-by “entry forms” that asked for their names, businesses, and any meeting plans. ConVis would leave the show with a fat stack of such cards, all of which would be photocopied and passed out to the other San Diego businesses attending the trade show. Once back in San Diego, the ConVis staff members also would mine the cards further, calling the respondents who had mentioned they might consider San Diego for specific meetings. The hottest prospects of all would be those involving a planner with a definite date, a definite interest in San Diego, and the need to make a final decision within the next twelve months. ConVis boasts that through various means, it unearthed 727 such leads last year — and in fifty-two percent of those cases, San Diego won the business.
Conventioneers mean big bucks. ConVis figured that in 1985, the mean expenditure per business visitor or conventioneer was seventy-six dollars per person per day, compared to only thirty-nine dollars per day spent by all pleasure travelers here. That’s why ConVis courts the meeting business so aggressively; even though business travelers and meeting attendees make up only about a quarter of all visitors to San Diego, they account for a much greater percentage of the total money spent. That total monetary pie is a hefty one: visitors of all categories spent some $2.25 billion in San Diego County last year. That makes tourism San Diego’s third most important industry, only subordinate to manufacturing and the military.
Most San Diego residents realize that tourism is an important component of the economy. But what’s less well known is how long this enterprise of hustling to lure visitors here has existed. A case can be made, in fact, that San Diego was the first city in the world to mount a major mass-market campaign to attract visitors. .
The moving force behind that first mass campaign was a real estate developer named Oscar W. Cotton, and in his autobiography. The Good Old Days, Cotton explained how it came about. The son of a San Francisco vaudeville family, Cotton settled in San Diego in 1903 and quickly put down roots here by paying $5000 for a one-third interest in 200 Pacific Beach lots.
Before long. Cotton took to the road to help stimulate the lot sales. Armed with a stereopticon lantern and 225 slides, many hand-colored, depicting various San Diego scenes, “I presented these lectures in style,” Cotton wrote. “I had an assistant to change the slides as I signaled with an electric buzzer, while I stood outside the picture in full dress and tails.”
Cotton carried his slide show over much of the country, and he returned to see his real estate business flourish. He formed a home-building company, and for years it boasted phenomenal activity. But with the advent of World War I, Cotton and the rest of the San Diego business community watched commercial activity virtually stop. By the end of the war, the situation was bleak. With a population of some 85,000 people, San Diego counted about 3500 vacant houses and apartments. “In our then small downtown district there were possibly 300 empty stores,” Cotton wrote in his autobiography. “We had no manufacturing to attract newcomers ... and there was no sale whatsoever for any real estate, vacant or improved. The few houses that were sold from time to time brought less than half of what they had cost to build.” Yet Cotton was undiscouraged; he had a plan.
It “was complete to the last detail,” Cotton explained. “I would get the San Diego businessmen to subscribe a large cash fund — $100,000 or more — to be spent in systematically advertising San Diego’s marvelous advantages as a place to live. Each ad would carry a coupon asking for more information. Each person signing a coupon would receive a personal letter in reply, together with warm, friendly, alluring literature that he or she would not be able to resist reading.” The crucial point was that the campaign be sustained and systematic. Cotton argued. Other cities had advertised their attractions in magazines or newspapers, but “all these ads were merely a ‘flash in the pan.’ The city would run one or two ads and stop. To what extent the city profited, if at all, no one ever knew.”
Cotton’s plan became reality in November of 1919. The time seemed propitious. Midwestern wheat farmers who had received unprecedented prices for their crops during the war were getting $300 an acre for the sale of farms that previously would have commanded forty dollars per acre. Many other people had made quick fortunes during the war, and Americans generally were eager to take to the road as wartime travel restrictions were lifted. The carefully detailed plan of the “San Diego-California Club” was to spend $100,000 printing quarter-page newspaper ads in selected Midwestern papers every week for eight months. (Cotton and his peers in the San Diego establishment most coveted those nouveau riche Midwestern farmers as new residents.) “The real object of every ad will be to get a live prospect to send in his or her name,” Cotton wrote. “This is a direct selling campaign. Its object is to attract the attention of the retiring man and to get his name; and then, by our ‘follow-up,’ actually to bring him to San Diego with his family.” Within a few weeks after the ads began running, a force of thirteen stenographers was churning out the follow-up letters. Among other things, the letters advised respondents that San Diego boasted “a climate free from winds and storms, never hot and never cold, with sunshine on 356 days of each year.... Our people live much out of doors the year round, among their rose gardens and shady lawns, motoring, swimming, yachting, playing baseball, tennis, and golf, and it seems to make them more joyous than where life is hard. We are spared the grim tragedies of heat and cold, and it is easy to live long and happily, and for less money than elsewhere.”
Who could resist such honeyed words, or the personal hospitality that committees of San Diegans lavished upon those respondents who traveled here? One year after the campaign began, Cotton was able to report that 46,151 inquiries had come in response to the ads, with more than 6000 of them pledging to relocate in San Diego. By the fall of 1920, a housing shortage had developed in the city. The sale price on homes had doubled. Such success soon bred imitation. Within a year and a half, Los Angeles undertook a similar national advertising campaign. Before long, San Francisco followed suit, and by the late 1930s, cities and states all across the country were touting their charms far and wide.
Having accomplished its short-term goals, the San Diego-California Club saw its budget shrink during the early 1920s, and in 1925 the club became an arm of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. Visitor promotion activities . continued under a variety of guises and finally were consolidated in 1954 into an independent organization called the San Diego Convention and Tourist Bureau (sensitive to the slightly negative connotations of the word “tourist,” ConTour became ConVis in 1965). Although the San Diego-California Club had begun its life supported entirely by private donations, by the early 1960s, the bureau had gotten at least one leg onto the bandwagon of public funding, receiving fifty cents from city taxpayers for every dollar the bureau raised from private sources. Although that public subsidy amounted to about $80,000 annually, in 1962 the bureau asked the city for an increase to a dollar in tax money for every dollar raised privately. But the city countered with another idea. Instead of subsidizing the tourist bureau with more monies raised from San Diego residents, why not impose a tax on hotel rooms? Tourists brought to San Diego by ConVis’s efforts would then be carrying the financial burden of tourist promotion.
This idea wasn’t original. Las Vegas had adopted such a room I tax in 1957. San Francisco had followed in 1961 and immediately began raking in almost a million dollars a year. By 1964, after lengthy study, the San Diego city manager enthusiastically recommended a four-percent room tax here, proceeds from which would go into a special fund, with up to sixty percent of that jackpot — expected to be at least half a million dollars per year — to go to ConVis.
Today it seems ironic, but both Con-Vis and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce opposed the transient occupancy tax, or TOT. Even fiercer opposition came from San Diego hoteliers, who argued that such a tax would be discriminatory and hard to collect. It would penalize tourism, and San Diegans would have no guarantee that future city councils would continue to use the money to promote visitors. When the city council went ahead and levied the tax anyway, the hotel owners, led by Atlas Hotels president Charles Brown, persevered in a long and difficult fight to allow the citizenry to decide the issue. Fifty-two percent of San Diego’s registered voters trooped to the polls in February of 1965. But the TOT supporters triumphed, garnering approval of the tax from sixty-two percent of those voting.
More than twenty years have passed since that vote, and the charges and countercharges that preceded it have been tested by time. Clearly, Brown and his fellow innkeepers were wrong about the TOT killing San Diego tourism. Over the years, the tax rate has risen from the original four percent to a current seven percent. Today the tourist who stays in the average-priced San Diego hotel room (sixty-seven dollars per night) is contributing to the city coffers $4.69 for every single day of his stay. And still the number of tourists — and the pot generated by the TOT — continues to grow. In the 1976 fiscal year, ten years after the tax was imposed, it brought the city more than four million dollars. For the fiscal year that just ended, the city predicts it will wind up collecting about $21,250,000 from the hotel guests.
Another of the initial tax opponents’ predictions seems to have been more prescient, however. They said that future city councils would fail to give the majority of the money to the convention and visitors’ bureau, instead using it for other pet projects. ConVis’s share of the 1965-66 tax was almost fifty-nine percent, but over the years, that cut has gradually shrunk. Finally, last year the city council institutionalized the minimum portion Con-Vis should receive from the TOT money; it passed a law requiring that the bureau get twenty percent of the total hotel tax collected — after administrative costs and the money collected by hotels on Navy Field are first subtracted from that total. (The Navy Field revenues have been committed to paying off the operating deficit of the new convention center.)
If that sounds relatively straightforward, there’s still plenty of room for political intrigue and histrionics during ConVis’s annual budget-setting process, as anyone who watched it this year can testify- According to the twenty-percent rule, ConVis’s share of the 1985-86 room taxes was close to $3.9 million. In addition to that amount, the city gave the tourist bureau an extra $398,310 to spend on marketing the new (as yet unbuilt) convention center. Together, those allocations totaled $4,286,310, about seventy percent of ConVis’s total budget for fiscal 1986. Another $278,000 came from the county and other local government agencies, with a final $1,496,000 coming from private sources such as membership fees. (The bureau’s more than 1500 members range from obvious candidates like hotels and visitor attractions to businesses as diverse as accountants and building contractors who think a healthy tourism industry will help their businesses prosper. The annual membership fees range from $225 to $20,000, depending on the extent to which the member will benefit from the bureau’s work. Among the membership benefits are various advisories from the bureau about potential sources of tourist business.)
This past December, when the 1986-87 budget-setting process began, ConVis started by taking the city’s estimate (at that time) of the 1986-87 hotel room taxes and applying the twenty-percent rule to get $4,935,090. In addition to asking for that amount, ConVis also requested $600,000 to market the new convention center (instead of the $398,310 it had received the previous year). In sum, ConVis was asking for $5,535,090 from the city for this coming fiscal year, a hefty twenty-nine percent increase over its 1985-86 budget.
Then in April, the city began saying it had overestimated the coming year’s hotel tax revenues. As a result, when City Manager Sylvester Murray presented his recommendations to the city council committee that decides how to divvy up the TOT funds, he recommended a lower figure ($4,558,732) for ConVis’s basic budget and only $418,624 for convention marketing funds (instead of the $600,000 ConVis had asked for). This would have resulted in an increase in ConVis’s budget of about sixteen percent. However, for most of the other groups funded by TOT funds — a mixed crew ranging from the Cabrillo Festival, Inc., to the chamber of commerce’s Economic Research Bureau — the manager recommended only a 5.1 percent budget increase. And for the many groups clamoring to receive TOT funds for the first time, the manager recommended nothing at all. So when ConVis representatives walked into the public services and safety committee meeting May 21, they couldn’t feel too bad about the budget increase they were being recommended to receive, and they felt very confident about their chances of actually getting it.
They were stunned, then, by the committee’s actions. The council members ignored the city manager’s recommendation and doled out money to six groups that had not previously received any TOT money at all, groups ranging from the Balboa Stadium Track Restoration ($78,000) to the Downtown Marketing Consortium ($200,000). The committee also bestowed more than a 5.1 percent budget increase on the Dr. Martin Luther King Day Parade organizers, the chamber of commerce’s Motion Picture and Television Bureau, the International Hospitality Council of San Diego, La Jolla Playhouse, and the Mission Beach-Pacific Beach shuttle. But to support this spate of generosity, the committee had to take money from elsewhere. The members noted that the twenty-percent rule had enabled ConVis’s basic promotional budget to climb by seventeen percent, and suddenly ConVis looked as though it could stand a little belt tightening. Although the committee couldn’t give ConVis less than the twenty percent, it did something that upset ConVis almost as much as if it had. The members said they wanted ConVis to continue promoting the new convention center — but that this year ConVis would get no extra money for this task. Instead, the agency should promote the center using funds from its regular budget. The committee ordered that ConVis should shoulder an added $199,500 financial burden, a subsidy to the city’s Convention and Performing Arts Center to defray discounts on center facilities used by conventions for which the city had never before made ConVis pay.
In the two weeks that followed, ConVis officials urgently lobbied city council members, and finally at the end of a very long Tuesday-afternoon full city council session, the grim-faced bureau representatives tried to catch the attention of the entire city council before the committee budget recommendations became permanent. The ConVis representatives hinted darkly of drastic cuts in programs and personnel; they tried to remind the council of past ConVis accomplishments. They mentioned what happened in San Francisco between 1979 and 1983 when that city cut back on advertising citywide attractions to concentrate on promoting its (then-new) Moscone convention center: total visitors declined by fourteen percent in that period, with hotel occupancy dropping from eighty-one to sixty-nine percent. If something similar happened in San Diego, that seemingly ever-expanding fund of hotel taxes could actually shrink, the ConVis representatives warned.
What they heard in response must have sent a chill down the bureaucrats’ spines. Although none of the city council members criticized the bureau openly, several made oblique comments that hinted at simmering resentments. The council members declined to give Con-Vis any more money than the committee had recommended; the city budget that went into effect July I included less than a two percent increase in ConVis’s city funding. City councilman Mike Gotch later privately expressed the opinion that the funding decision was “at least in part” a message from the council that the tourist bureau needs to work harder at explaining what it does and convincing the council that ConVis’-s budget is being well spent. Gotch is not asserting that ConVis is spending its money badly, just that the bureau tends to operate by itself and doesn’t give the council members enough information to judge ConVis one way or the other. Gotch says several of his fellow council members feel some “real serious reservations” about last year’s decision to give ConVis a flat twenty percent of the TOT annually. He predicts the council may reconsider the action this year and make ConVis act like all other TOT recipients, who must annually reconvince the city council of their worthiness to receive the money.
Although its funding allocation this year may displease the ConVis staff, the bureau nonetheless commands a budget of $6.3 million dollars. In past years, it has ranked among the top ten best-funded convention and visitors’ bureaus in the nation, and though current rankings aren’t available yet, they probably haven’t changed too drastically, ConVis officials concede. The local bureau occupies a suite of offices that fill most of the eighth floor of the Security Pacific Bank building on the community concourse plaza downtown. Though not opulent, the offices are comfortable, many commanding the kind of picture-postcard views of San Diego that ConVis tries so aggressively to sell.
One of the offices with a view belongs to Terry Cahill, a tall, thin man who exudes a purposeful sense of energy. Cahill is in charge of marketing; he’s the man most directly concerned with the fine-tuning of San Diego’s image as it’s perceived outside this city. On a recent morning, he seemed delighted to talk about one of the most powerful image-making tools the bureau has ever used: the first television commercial selling San Diego. Produced this spring, it aired in Phoenix during May, then appeared on Los Angeles television throughout June.
Few travel destinations can afford to use TV commercials, Cahill says, because they cost so much to produce and run. Yet in recent years, the number of places appearing on TV, though small, has been growing: now Las Vegas, Hawaii, Vancouver, Alaska, Florida, and New York (state and city) all boast televised sales pitches. So there was pressure on San Diego to keep up with the industry frontrunners, Cahill says. The other reason the San Diego bureau wanted a television commercial of its own is because of the medium’s inherent ability to depict a multitude of images in a very brief time. From the earliest planning stages, ConVis knew its commercial would be selling San Diego as a place offering visitors multiple benefits.
Cahill says as part of the planning process, he and other staff members carefully analyzed the other existing TV travel commercials. “They’re all basically going with their strengths. With Alaska it’s the pristine wilderness, all the beauty in the environment. With Hawaii it’s the tropical paradise.” When strategy sessions for the San Diego commercial began last fall, Cahill says the ConVis staff was well aware of San Diego’s place in the market. “We’re positioned as a water-oriented paradise with something for everyone to do.” Still, the commercial’s creators decided to seek more reassurance for how to craft the electronic image by organizing three “focus group” sessions this past January and February. For each group, ConVis found typical tourists and conventioneers in the twenty-five-to fifty-five-year-old range who were visiting the city; ConVis asked them to discuss their impressions of San Diego for two or three hours, in exchange for a fifty-dollar fee. Cahill says, “Once you get them together, you basically just listen very carefully to what they say. And in their vernacular, ‘climate’ was more important than the weather. They’d refer to things like the ‘research climate’ here. Or someone said, ‘This is the kind of climate where you can do anything.’ Somebody else actually said. ‘This is a friendly climate.’ ”
ConVis had its angle. The script that was prepared and shot this spring shows a fast-paced succession of handsome, energetic people doing everything from viewing pictures at the San Diego Museum of Art to rowing on Mission Bay, while in the background a jingle burbles on about how San Diego has “got the climate for you!” Financially, Cahill says the commercial was a coup. Made by a local company, Cinira Corporation, it cost about $93,000, a price Cahill says was roughly half that bid by unionized Los Angeles production companies. It’s harder to evaluate the commercial’s effect on the million Phoenix residents who were exposed to it, or on the Los Angeles TV viewers who saw it in June. In one attempt at such an evaluation, ConVis randomly called Phoenix residents before the commercial ran and asked them various questions about San Diego. Those responses will be compared to another Phoenix telephone survey just now being completed. Cahill says an even more concrete indication of success has come from American West Airlines, which split the costs of airing the commercial in Phoenix with ConVis in exchange for having information about American West intercut with the San Diego footage. “We’ve had word from American West that their load factors are up and they’re even adding a flight to San Diego,” Cahill says. “That’s a pretty good sign.”
Television commercials are aimed straight at the ultimate travel consumer — the individual sitting at home who will one day be mulling over possible vacation spots. Such “personal pleasure” travelers (as ConVis calls them) are crucial to San Diego’s economy. They make up fully three-quarters of all the visitors who come here, and ConVis has studied them exhaustively. Bureau statistics show that though they come from all over the world, the majority — some fifty-five percent — hail from California and the western United States. Nearly half of those come from Southern California alone, most often in the summer months. More than forty percent of all of San Diego’s visitors come just for the day, and as a group, these people are among some of the lowest spenders of all, parting with an average of only seventeen dollars per person per day (compared with sixty dollars per day for those who stay in a hotel). Besides the fact that the day visitors leave behind relatively little money, there are other problems with trying to woo them. Most of them already know and like San Diego, and they make their plans on short notice, influenced by factors like the weather and holiday events. But the biggest problem by far with trying directly to persuade the personal pleasure traveler (both the day-trippers and hotel guests) is the very great expense of mass-media advertising, not only television but also the publications that reach the traveling masses. The problem, Cahill explains, is not so much that the absolute costs of such media are so astronomical, but that consumers today are barraged by such a jumble of competing products. “To try to pierce that wall of noise requires a certain amount of tenacity,” Cahill says. Paying for all the ads you need to get the consumer’s attention is what costs so much.
So even though the personal pleasure travelers make up the bulk of San Diego’s visitors, ConVis doesn’t spend the bulk of its money and effort trying to court them directly. The bureau looks more to the tour-group packagers and travel agents through whom many of the higher-spending personal pleasure travelers will make their arrangements. (These days some seventy to seventy-five of all domestic tickets and eighty-five to ninety percent of international tickets are written by travel agents, rather than bought directly from the airlines.)
“We deal with the middleman,” says Susan Webb, the bureau’s tourism promotions manager. In contrast with the amorphous task of creating a certain image of San Diego in the minds of faceless potential vacation consumers, her work is far more personal, a matter of cultivating friendships with the tour packagers so they’ll include San Diego in their pretty brochures of California destinations; of sending thousands of travel agents little presents like exquisite full-color posters of Anza-Borrego wildflowers or La Jolla’s underwater preserve. In exchange for those kinds of favors, Webb says Con-Vis doesn’t expect the travel agents to browbeat their clients into scheduling San Diego vacations. But when a client asks, “Gee, what’s a good place to go in California?” ConVis would like San Diego to be one of the cities the travel agent mentions. The task of currying favor with the travel vendors gets even chummier. Last year, ConVis organized forty different so-called familiarization tours, three- and four-day trips in which travel agents and tour operators from all over the country are flown here free (courtesy of various airlines), then are wined, dined, and shown the town for a total cost of less than a hundred dollars per person. ConVis also regularly organizes similar junkets for journalists from daily newspapers, radio and television stations, and magazines located all over the country and beyond. (Although some news organs such as the San Diego Union forbid their writers from accepting such seductive freebies, many do not.) ConVis then zealously watches for the results. For 1985, for example, the bureau could boast of having netted 33,344 column inches of (overwhelmingly favorable) “news stories” in more than 1000 publications.
Once again, the value of those news stories is hard to quantify; some clearly must motivate more tourists to travel here than others. “If someone does a story in the Chicago Tribune on San Diego in November, that’s more beneficial to us than a story in the Miami Herald,” one ConVis staffer comments. But how beneficial?
At least one department within the bureau does measure its successes with a precision that seems almost scientific compared to some of the rest of the bureau’s work. That’s the group that woos meetings and conventions and is directed by Sandra Butler. A three-year veteran of the ConVis staff, Butler has the soft, girlish voice of a third-grade teacher and the no-nonsense manner of a trader on the New York Stock exchange. “We track these things twenty years out,” she says of the meetings that associations and corporations are constantly scheduling. “We know when they’re coming west, and we’re in touch with them way in advance, so we try to have them seriously consider us. We know how to point out what San Diego offers that a competitor may not. We don’t ever downgrade our competitor. But let’s say Portland, Las Vegas, and San Diego were the choices for some group’s meeting in the West. We would really key our pitch on our dependable, year-round wonderful climate — knowing that we have a better climate than our two competitors. We’d talk about the variety of attractions and, specifically, how wonderful it is to enhance their attendance-building through family events — because we have a competitor who doesn’t have the nice wholesome family events that we have. We’re always going in on what they don’t have that we have.”
Until recently, ConVis maintained files on some 30,000 different groups that meet on a regular schedule. As part of a streamlining effort, the bureau recently cut that number down to about 10,000, and Butler estimates that as many as eighty percent of them are planned by professionals ‘‘who wouldn’t have their jobs for long if they made their decisions on whim. It’s quite scientific to them.”
From the ConVis files, from trade shows of professional meeting planners like the recent one in New York, from a half-dozen other varied sources, the ConVis staff tries to ferret out information about who might possibly be considering bringing a group of people to San Diego. Butler’s staff then issues bulletins to fifty-five of its member hotels that might be interested in pursuing the business. Not every bulletin is sent to every hotel, Butler says, grasping a thick volume full of such recently issued leads. And not every hotel would be interested in every meeting. She pointed, for example, to one page alerting the hotels to a meeting of national aerospace writers; this group specified that it was interested only in hotels located on the water.
“This was an urgent,” Butler said, turning to another page announcing a meeting of the Adult Children of Alcoholics, who were seeking 400 “room nights” (the total number of rooms needed throughout an event). Although the group will not be meeting until next January, it had a deadline of June 15 by which it wanted to pick the hotel facility. No other city was being considered by the alcoholics’ children, “so this was a very hot lead to our members,” Butler explained. “They knew that some [San Diego hotel] was going to be picked, so they would want to respond very fast.” As a contrast, she flipped to another page listing the American Atheists’ desire for 125 room nights in either San Diego, Minneapolis, Chicago, or Atlanta.
Butler says for most meetings, ConVis leaves to the hotels the job of actually making the sale. The exception arises when meeting planners are considering using either the Convention and Performing Arts Center or the new convention center; in the case of the latter, the meetings are so large that participants would have to be lodged at several hotels. The ConVis staff itself tries to sell these affairs; one recent example was the Alcoholics Anonymous convention scheduled to bring together some 55,000 delegates in 1990. “Just about every major city in the United States was bidding on that thing,” Butler says. “Every city that bid had to have 17,000 rooms reserved.” Butler says ConVis worked with the local AA chapter and spent close to a year putting together a bid. “We had to get information on the number of seats coming into the airport every day. We had to find out how many international connections there would be from L.A.” The national chapter eventually narrowed the competition down to nine finalists, in which the San Diego bureau was included. “We flew to New York at our expense, along with the other finalists, and we presented our case. And we were selected as the number-one choice.” Then the port district commissioners decided to seek new bids on the construction of the convention center. Alcoholics Anonymous became nervous and canceled its reservation here, and now it’s choosing between Seattle, Vancouver, and Houston. Despite that souring and costly experience (an estimated $30 million in revenues was lost), the CoriVis staff has booked almost 200 other groups into the still-unfinished facility between late 1988 and the year 2000.
Besides the hunting for meetings that Butler’s staff conducts, the other work of the San Diego bureau that appears most scientific is the statistical information ConVis gathers about the visitor industry. ConVis staff members can dig out numbers that show, for example, that Western Canadians (who compose a quarter of San Diego’s international visitors) are also among our most tight-fisted guests, spending an average of about $360 per person during their (average) nine-day stay. (Australians and New Zealanders, who rank among the biggest spenders, drop some $870 per visit per person, in comparison.) Or the ConVis staff can point out how San Diego is the eighth most popular destination for bus tours in the United States (after Washington, D.C., Orlando, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Montreal, Hollywood, and Nashville.) They can go into exhaustive detail about what San Diego sights visitors see and how much money they spend as they make the rounds. Much of these statistical reports originate with the work done by a researcher named Steve Leighton.
A contract employee who also works for the Los Angeles and Orange County tourist bureaus, Leighton’s full-time job is intercepting tourists and gathering basic information about them. Of the three Southern California areas, Leighton says he strongly prefers the work in San Diego. “The interviews are much easier because people tend to be so much more relaxed,’’ he states. Every month his mission here is to talk to fifteen out-of-towners in the Embarcadero area, thirty each at the zoo, Wild Animal Park, and Sea World, thirty at the border, seventy-five at various hotels, thirty at the airport, fifteen at Seaport Village or Horton Plaza, thirty at Old Town, and fifteen each in Balboa Park, the Cabrillo Monument, and the Shelter Island fishing areas.
On paper, the twenty-one questions Leighton is supposed to put to each of them look formidable, particularly number seventeen: “Thinking about all the things you did yesterday, how much did you and your party spend on lodging (rate/night), meals or snacks out, alcoholic beverages, amusements or attraction admission fees, daily transportation/gas, grocers/food shopping; non-food shopping items; and other items?” Yet Leighton has polished the art of speeding through the questions and detaining his subjects for no more than a minute or two. That, plus a breezily friendly attitude, seems to minimize annoyance from most of the people he stops. Despite the repetitiousness of the job, Leighton says every week or so he encounters something interesting enough to relate to friends. There were the two young women Leighton stopped recently. “I was kind of in a hurry, so I really didn’t pay much attention to the way they were dressed,” he recalls. The women told him they were from Detroit and that the purpose of their visit was “business, and a little pleasure ” When Leighton asked how much they had spent on amusement, one of the women chuckled. “Honey, we don’t pay for our amusements. We get paid.” Only then did the embarrassed interviewer notice that the women were obviously prostitutes — much to the delight of some of the other tourists who had overheard the exchange.
One recent afternoon at the Embarcadero, Leighton was meeting with much more ordinary visitors. “Right now we’re getting a lot of our Arizona people,” he said. “Somebody just told me in Phoenix it’s 110 degrees.” This particular day, San Diego’s weather, uncharacteristically muggy, seemed little better. Leighton headed for a group of five people sitting in some shade across from the harbor excursion landings. One of the women, it turned out, was from Italy, visiting relatives here. Using a mixture of sign language and help from the relatives, Leighton extracted answers for several of the key questions.
Leighton moved on to a middle-aged couple from Riverside, down for a morning at the beach and an afternoon of antique-hunting. Then to a man from Scotland visiting a girlfriend here. Then to a bronzed and fit-looking pair of grandparents who had brought their granddaughter down from Orange County on Amtrak to experience Sea World and a train ride. None of the tourists showed the least sign of recognition when Leighton mentioned that he was doing a survey for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. They all acted as if they were here solely because San Diego is a pleasant place to be.