Viva San Antonio!
How Three San Antonio Women are Working To Rebuild Travel and Tourism
By Bonny Osterhage
Photography by David Teran
San Antonio, with its historic sites, Riverwalk, and family-friendly vibe, has been recognized by both National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazines as one of the top places to visit, drawing more than 34 million tourists per year. Then COVID-19 took the entire country by storm, and our once-bustling downtown grew eerily quiet. The following three women have worked tirelessly to help San Antonio’s hard-hit hospitality and tourism industries through promotion, advocacy, and education, with the goal of helping our city survive and once again thrive in a post-pandemic world.
President & CEO, San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association
Like a mini chamber of commerce for the hotel industry, the San Antonio Hotel and Lodging Association serves as an advocate for its nearly 200 members among local and state government officials. Port Naches native Michelle Madson joined the non-profit in 2016 as the Vice President and Communications Director before stepping into her current role of President and CEO in January 2021. At the onset of the pandemic, she spent much of her time keeping members informed of the ordinances and rules that seemed to change almost daily.
“It was like a game of ‘Whack-A-Mole,'” she describes. “We had to stay closely connected to city leadership to make sure we not only understood the latest guidelines, but that we effectively communicated them to our members.”
Communication is a two-way street, and Madson continues to make sure that the city and community leaders understand the importance of the industry and the impact COVID has had.
“Ours was the first and hardest hit,” she says. “We have to continue to develop relationships with the city, county, and community leaders to make sure our best interests are represented.”
Part of those interests includes taking care of their own. The association held employee food distribution events through a partnership with the San Antonio Food Bank, and provided employees with $100 HEB gift cards.
“The hospitality industry really is a family, and letting employees go is hard. We decided it would be part of our mission to provide compassion and relief to those people and hopefully spread a little good cheer.”
Although times have been tough, Madson says that she sees the light at the end of the tunnel where the industry is concerned.
“I definitely think it will come back, but it will be tiered with leisure travel first, then business and convention,” she says.
When it does happen, Madson says San Antonio will be ready thanks to programs including the Tourism Public Improvement District that was established in 2019 and allows hotel owners to assess a fee on room night bills that is donated to Visit SA for marketing purposes.
“That dedicated revenue will be crucial as we move forward from the pandemic because it is earmarked to promote San Antonio as a destination, which is something we will really need as leisure travel becomes more of the focus.”
Madson says San Antonio’s reputation as a warm, welcoming community is well known and that she expects to see the Riverwalk once again filled with tourists as more people are vaccinated, and restrictions begin to ease.
“We are so fortunate that our reputation as a warm, welcoming community is pervasive throughout the country,” she says optimistically. “San Antonio is an easy sell.”
President & CEO, San Antonio Visitor Alliance
“Trial by fire.” That’s how Sharon Aguillen describes her role as President and CEO of the San Antonio Visitor’s Alliance, a position she’s held since August 2019.
“My first passion was on the entertainment and customer service side of the hospitality industry, which led me to theme parks,” explains the Niagara Falls native who came to San Antonio in 2007 with Sea World Parks and Entertainment (formerly Busch Gardens). “I was still relatively new in this role when the pandemic hit.”
The San Antonio Visitor Alliance is a non-profit made of members ranging from hoteliers to restauranteurs, cultural attractions, museums, theme parks, destination marketing agencies, and more. When COVID struck, Aguillen’s focus was two-fold. First, she had to make sure the association as a whole survived. That meant putting cost-containment measures in place right away that would allow the association to remain financially healthy. Second, she had to make sure that everything was being done to help the members, from championing certain entities like theme parks that were not being represented to helping smaller operations research and navigate the latest information.
“This was all new and uncharted territory,” she recalls. “We were completely focused on how to function as an association along with keeping up with what our members needed from us. We were wearing more hats than ever, and with fewer resources.”
The role of the alliance is not to market San Antonio as a destination but to promote the variety of things to do within the city. With the popular “coupon book” and the launch of the consumer-facing website www.inSAnow.com, locals and visitors alike have plenty of incentive to enjoy all their favorite places or to explore something new. And while there’s no denying the recovery will be slow, Aguillen says she thinks that the pandemic made us take a closer look at everything we do and that some of the changes businesses were forced to implement might actually be for the best.
“There have been some really cool, innovative things that have come out of this,” she says, citing paperless menus at restaurants and one example. “We have been forced to think differently about some things that are now here to stay, and maybe that’s for the better.”
Like Madsen, Aguillen is optimistic about San Antonio’s travel and tourism picking up, especially in light of recent studies that suggest that people are planning more “road trip” destinations and “staycations.”
“There are many locals who haven’t even begun to experience everything that’s right here in our own backyards,” she says. “We are here to remind them of what’s available.”
Chair of the Board, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce
A San Antonio native and entrepreneur with more than 40 years of experience under her belt, former Secretary of State for Texas Hope Andrade has enjoyed a career in both the private and public sectors. As one of the partners in Go Rio San Antonio River Cruises, she has seen first-hand the effects of COVID on the city’s tourism revenue.
“We closed the week of spring break 2020, and it was devastating because that is one of our busiest weeks,” she says. “Everyone who had prepared for that rush of business was left holding the bag.”
It was time for a plan. Andrade and her fellow chamber members put their collective experience together and came up with the One City Effort to help downtown get back on its feet.
Andrade leads the charge with a staff that devotes their time and energy to facilitating and coordinating the effort. They work with other local chambers, downtown businesses, and stakeholders to determine what is needed and then identify and prioritize the goals.
“It’s always hard to get your arms around something this big that needs to get done, but we believe the coordinator role is what we as a chamber can do best.”
With a special hospitality committee led by Laura Vacarro, VP of Community Investment and Engagement at Valero, and Robert Thrailkill, VP of Operations for Zachery Hospitality, the Chamber is working with city leaders to “spiff up” the downtown area with the goal of attracting locals back to the heart of the city. A heart-tugging video on the Chamber’s website details the history and growth of San Antonio and is designed to create a spirit of community and a “we’re all in this together” approach.
“We need to remind our locals to fill the void,” says Andrade. “We are functioning at only 35% of business from 2019, but we believe that it will come back if the locals will start exploring all the things that downtown San Antonio has to offer.”
As an entrepreneur, Andrade says she finds the One City Effort exciting, and she is proud to be part of something designed to help her hometown return to its former glory.
“It is important to me to give back to this community that has given my family and me so much,” she says fondly. “I want to make sure we all work together so that San Antonio remains a great place to live, work, and play.”