Bob Filner is widely viewed as a flawed political figure. But his brief time as mayor did produce one significant benefit for San Diego.

Filner’s confrontational approach unintentionally set the table for a critical performance test, exposing the hotelier-controlled Tourism Authority for what it actually is, or rather, is not.

fix san diego opinionThe group has long taken credit for San Diego’s tourism successes, and most San Diegans have accepted those claims at face value. The evidence paints a starkly different picture. Our next mayor will have a golden opportunity to address this problem, and in doing so, significantly advance our city’s presence on the global stage.

While keeping San Diego’s long-standing reputation as a desirable tourist destination in mind, let’s also remember that the Tourism Marketing District (TMD) only came into being in 2008. Statistical comparisons may look good, but only because 2008 was an artificially low starting point: a collapsed global economy, the Great Recession in full swing and tourism crippled.


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By 2012, the Tourism Authority’s (formerly ConVis) annual budget for marketing San Diego had grown to $30 million, with $22 million coming from TMD.  In January 2013, the political winds shifted and Filner froze TMD’s funds. Dire warnings for tourism ensued:

U-T San Diego, Jan. 25“The delay could put San Diego at a competitive disadvantage for the all-important summer season.”

TMD report, Feb. 22“Mayor Filner’s unilateral and obstinate objection to policy decisions made before he took office has led ConVis to cancel a multi-million-dollar spring marketing campaign ahead of the busy summer tourism season.” 

U-T San Diego, March 25“Hotel occupancy fell last month, a direct result of San Diego’s lack of advertising promoting the city as a tourist destination, believes the Tourism Authority … Terzi also noted that for a 28-day period ended March 16, hotel occupancy countywide was down 4.8 percent.”

On May 31, Filner released TMD’s funds, with a caveat the city be indemnified from liability. Of 226 marketing district hotels, only 34 signed the indemnification waiver, leaving most TMD money frozen.

READ MORE: What the Tourism Authority Actually Does

The Tourism Authority’s budget has been slashed to $5 million (from $30 million) and staffing cut to 48 (from 100). These cutbacks, coupled with the cancellation of spring and summer ad campaigns, were said to portend a summer tourism catastrophe.  Let’s investigate:

Tourism Authority, July Report (latest published)“The visitor industry saw decent growth in volume and spending in May 2013. Total visitor volume was more than 2.6 million, up almost 4 percent, and total visitor spending rose 7.5 percent to $683 million for the month.”

U-T San Diego, Aug. 27: “More than 2.4 million Southern Californians are expected to travel over Labor Day weekend, and San Diego will be their top target … If that holds, it would be a jump of 6 percent over the number of travelers in 2012.”

U-T San Diego, Sept. 3“San Diego … moved up a notch in a national ranking of top meeting destinations … as the fifth most active city.”

KPBS, Oct. 16“City’s general fund balance sheet for the fiscal year ended June 30 … hotel room tax revenue rose the most, 7.2 percent to $83.9 million.”

Lo and behold, no catastrophe.

In fact, the numbers look great in light of the draconian cutbacks at the Authority – even more so in an economy growing at less than 2 percent. It begs the existential question: Why fund the Tourism Authority at all?

The Tourism Authority has spent more than $100 million of taxpayer dollars promoting San Diego since TMD’s 2008 formation, yet San Diego still lacks a compelling, long-term brand and message. The only thing San Diego has to show for all this time and money is a string of throwaway ad campaigns that have likely done more harm than good – all for the sake of filling hotel rooms in the short term.

A perfect example is the tourism group’s recent “Happiness Happens” ad campaign – a direct play off the slang “Shit Happens.”

What marketing entity worth its salt would subliminally and contextually associate our beautiful city with “shit”? The group’s latest brainstorms include “Yooo Hooo, Big Smiles Are Calling.”

San Diego is slouching toward inanity.

Imagine San Diego’s growth potential if it had a meaningful, long-term marketing message. Think New York City (Big Apple, I NY), Las Vegas (Sin City, What Happens Here Stays Here), Paris (City of Lights), Coca-Cola (Enjoy), Apple (Think Different) and Nike (Just Do It).

How do we bring San Diego to that level? First, admit we have done a poor job marketing our city, our product. Second, marketing San Diego is important for all San Diegans, not just hoteliers – deploy resources as such. Third, dissolve the Tourism Authority and begin anew.

Then, I propose we establish a new and independent entity – Project San Diego. Its mission would be to create a vibrant, bilingual brand and message for San Diego, and project that onto the global stage. There would be no more throwaway ad campaigns – all resources and tourism promotions would build on, reinforce and project our brand. Nike and Las Vegas succeeded using this approach. So too can San Diego.

George Mullen is an artist, writer and occasional economist with StudioRevolution.com in downtown San Diego. Mullen’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

    This article relates to: Fix San Diego, Mayoral Election Issues 2014, Opinion, Tourism, Tourism Economy

    Written by Catherine Green

    Catherine Green is deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handles daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects. You can contact her directly at catherine.green@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. Follow her on Twitter: @c_s_green.

    18 comments
    missgh
    missgh

    When Filner froze these funds I became a fan. I recognized it as a strong move; startling, really. And started worrying about him right then. Its not a matter of where the funds come from but to whom they belong, and Filner was right about that. I miss the Mayor. He also dealt effectively with community issues. While he was in office, for those few months last Spring, a person with a neighborhood concern had a reason to hope to be heard, for the realization of efforts. I couldn't help but be inspired when I saw him on the news, stopping Jack-in-the-box, cutting through red tape and coming up with the funds to stop the stench in La Jolla, and on and on. We will necessarily be going back - have already gone back - to business as usual. Now, if you don't have tremendous resources to put towards a local issue, GOOD LUCK.

    Tinabug
    Tinabug

    The 100 million dollars the writer is referring to does not come from SD taxpayers, unless they happen to spend a night in a SD hotel. Read the laws governing the Business Improvement Districts, by law the money can only go to tourism marketing. The TMD was created to fund San Diego's tourism marketing. Don't complain about the hotel owners, the money that goes into the fund comes only from hotel customers. So don't you think that hotel owners should have a say as to how the money is spent? There has to be an organization to do this and it only makes sense to have tourism professionals in place. You wouldn't hire your hair dresser to handle your stock portfolio would you? I'm just saying, get your facts straight before you start tearing down an organization that has a job to do.

    spoonman
    spoonman

    I agree, San Diego needs to come up with a better, and lasting marketing message. All this crap about the zoo, and sea world, and sun, and happiness happens is why people don't take this city seriously. San Diego is a major city, and is truly a city of innovation. It's time that this city markets itself as not a family destination to hang out on a beach or see some animals, but as a vibrant city with culture that not just kids, but adults can take advantage of. The city NEEDS to market not just to tourists, but to BUSINESSES, as a hub of innovation, culture, and a great place to do business. This is almost like an analogy of "teach a man to fish". Tourism is fleeting, where expanding the corporate base is lasting. WAKE UP!! These ideas are not mutually exclusive.

    Pat McKemy
    Pat McKemy

    I too believe TMD ( Tourism Marketing District) should be dissolved. Why is San Diego not able to keep up with the other U S cities.It has done worse in the last five years,since the TMD was formed.The performance has indeed dipped below average

    Pat McKemy
    Pat McKemy subscriber

    I too believe TMD ( Tourism Marketing District) should be dissolved. Why is San Diego not able to keep up with the other U S cities.It has done worse in the last five years,since the TMD was formed.The performance has indeed dipped below average

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw

    Sounds like we need a new jingle. How's this: Coming soon, Anchorman 2, showing once more why San Diego is America's Funniest City!

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Sounds like we need a new jingle. How's this: Coming soon, Anchorman 2, showing once more why San Diego is America's Funniest City!

    Cory Briggs
    Cory Briggs

    The taxpayer subsidies that the city's tourism industry currently enjoys--what some call corporate welfare--are slowly coming to an end. The city's residents and their neighborhoods have endured substantial cuts to services and infrastructure because of the decrease in tax revenues over the last several years. For the most part, however, the tourism industry's subsidies have continued without similar cuts--until the TMD monies were put on ice. If the hoteliers and convention center care about long-term results, they had better start working on a Plan B for increasing business in their facilities without relying on public assistance. The final pages of that chapter in "The Ongoing Fleecing of America's Finest Taxpayers" will soon be completed, with only a mention of subsidies as a thing of the past. (Or so we should hope. . . .)

    Cory Briggs
    Cory Briggs subscribermember

    The taxpayer subsidies that the city's tourism industry currently enjoys--what some call corporate welfare--are slowly coming to an end. The city's residents and their neighborhoods have endured substantial cuts to services and infrastructure because of the decrease in tax revenues over the last several years. For the most part, however, the tourism industry's subsidies have continued without similar cuts--until the TMD monies were put on ice. If the hoteliers and convention center care about long-term results, they had better start working on a Plan B for increasing business in their facilities without relying on public assistance. The final pages of that chapter in "The Ongoing Fleecing of America's Finest Taxpayers" will soon be completed, with only a mention of subsidies as a thing of the past. (Or so we should hope. . . .)

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage

    Agreed the TMD should be dissolved based upon performance. See Pages 13 through 16 for graphs from Smith Travel Research's (STR) presentation at the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA) Annual Meeting on February 14, 2013. Smith Travel Research (STR) should be consulted to confirm San Diego failure to keep up with other US cities. www.tinyurl.com/20130415a For the 5 years the TMD has been in existence, San Diego did worse than the United States average, and worse for all 5 years than Los Angeles, Seattle, and worse for 4 years than Anaheim and San Francisco. Page 11 shows that out of 162 Markets, at best San Diego ranked 10, and at worse ranked 101. http://industry.visitcalifornia.com/Research/Latest-Research See the monthly California Lodging Report that shows that San Diego increase in EVERY metric for the month of July, and year to date, without spending any funds on advertising.Latest Tourism Researchhttp://industry.visitcalifornia.com/Research/Latest-ResearchHere you will find a wealth of information and researh related to travel and tourism to Califonia from multiple international markets.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    Agreed the TMD should be dissolved based upon performance. See Pages 13 through 16 for graphs from Smith Travel Research's (STR) presentation at the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA) Annual Meeting on February 14, 2013. Smith Travel Research (STR) should be consulted to confirm San Diego failure to keep up with other US cities. www.tinyurl.com/20130415a For the 5 years the TMD has been in existence, San Diego did worse than the United States average, and worse for all 5 years than Los Angeles, Seattle, and worse for 4 years than Anaheim and San Francisco. Page 11 shows that out of 162 Markets, at best San Diego ranked 10, and at worse ranked 101. http://industry.visitcalifornia.com/Research/Latest-Research See the monthly California Lodging Report that shows that San Diego increase in EVERY metric for the month of July, and year to date, without spending any funds on advertising.Latest Tourism Researchhttp://industry.visitcalifornia.com/Research/Latest-ResearchHere you will find a wealth of information and researh related to travel and tourism to Califonia from multiple international markets.

    Joe Jones
    Joe Jones

    Man, everybody's a critic. While not necessarily endorsing recent slogans, I have to laugh at the author's rationale. So it's not okay to riff off of a popular prurient bumper sticker, but it's okay to hold up Nike's "Just Do It" slogan as an example of great advertising--even though Dan Wieden, the slogan's author, proudly told the San Diego Ad Club that he got the idea from the last words of convicted serial killer Gary Gilmore prior to his execution by firing squad ("Let's do it.") And nothing better than defending the honor of our "beautiful city" while simultaneously extolling "sin city" as great civic branding. VOSD doesn't always have a comics section, but it does on the days George Mullen writes an op-ed.

    EZCheeseVandal
    EZCheeseVandal

    Joe, thank you for contributing to this conversation. Google is one heck of a browser huh? On the east coast we call those last lines "sarcasm". What is the purpose of devaluating everyone's opinion here with your own opinion? A child who doesn't think it's time to leave the beach can have a counter argument. So tell us what your solution would be? Should people like George just stop noticing the tarnished facade this city portrays? That we, the community, should blindly accept that those in power have been acting on behalf of our best interests? I'm sure that's how all of the greatest cities developed over time (sarcasm again). You are a perfect example of the overly fermented mindset that still plagues San Diego. The "we need change" voice reeked with a lack of ambition to create and ACT on new ideas. My suggestion to you would be to get out of the sun for a while and look east. There is an entrepreneurial, technological, biological rennaesance taking place in your backyard that yearns to be highlighted. Unpopular opinions like the one written here are a pivotal first step in motivating the change we so desperately need.

    Joe Jones
    Joe Jones subscriber

    Man, everybody's a critic. While not necessarily endorsing recent slogans, I have to laugh at the author's rationale. So it's not okay to riff off of a popular prurient bumper sticker, but it's okay to hold up Nike's "Just Do It" slogan as an example of great advertising--even though Dan Wieden, the slogan's author, proudly told the San Diego Ad Club that he got the idea from the last words of convicted serial killer Gary Gilmore prior to his execution by firing squad ("Let's do it.") And nothing better than defending the honor of our "beautiful city" while simultaneously extolling "sin city" as great civic branding. VOSD doesn't always have a comics section, but it does on the days George Mullen writes an op-ed.

    Manny Papadoulis
    Manny Papadoulis

    While I am not from the US and am not aware of the full story with the Tourism Authority I have been involved with tourism marketing for 30 years and much of that with Destination Marketing. I agree that there must be a meaningful long term tourism message or brand and if this is currently not being done then obviously change is required. However to say by freezing the funds in Jan and sales are still occurring in May therefore the Tourism Authority is not needed is a statement not fully understanding or appreciating how Destination Marketing often has a very long lag effect. If a DMO is doing its job properly and then suddenly closes down it has been documented that a destination can still enjoy the fruits of pervious marketing for up to three years. Destination marketing in the US is often driven by the Accommodation and Conference sector however it obviously benefits a wider cross section of tourism and hospitality business as well as many business not directly involved in the sector. Which is why in Australia every state has a State Tourism Organisation full funded by the government because the government sees it as a investment in industry, supporting small business and as a direct benefit of increased taxes. In my state of Western Australia every dollar spent by Tourism WA( the government organisation whose board is made up of private sector operators) returns $20 to the state and around $4 in taxes. A win for everyone. What has to be remember as well is that Destination Marketing is a skill and a profession. Something which often takes years to learn and has seen experienced business people and advertising companies awash in its wake of failure. Regardless of what structure is put in place and what the budget is if the organisation is not manned by season Tourism Destination Marketers with a track record, a passion for San Diego and the support of the local and country wide tourism industry it is doom for failure.

    SandyEgo
    SandyEgo

    Since coming to San Diego in 1975, I've invested time in several marketing efforts touting San Diego as the perfect vacation destination (as in - spend all your money here and then please, go back home). Early-on monikers included "Sun Diego", "Telecom Beach", "Happy to be here", and the protracted: "From the coast to the inland valleys, from Del Mar to Mexico, you'll find the finest city, Camelot! San Diego." Seriously, I agree with the idea that the greater San Diego region needs a more 'eternal' moniker. Whatever the seemingly idea-void ConVis a.k.a. TMD marketing minds come up is hardly seen locally because it's blasted on billboards and radio ads OUTSIDE of San Diego. And honestly, I've not been impressed - rather embarrassed frankly. Magic is never born from committee. How about a contest to come up with the perfect moniker, statement, tagline, or slogan for our beloved San Diego? Then, don't be shy ... float it out there worldwide for a few years. And not just a bilingual spanglish version either. It must be "zoo global". Whoever/whatever the winner comes up with, it couldn't possibly be worse than "Happy Happens" or “Yooo Hooo, Big Smiles Are Calling.” We have to do better than this. Lately, I've been partial to using: "San Diego: It Doesn't Suck". Whatdya' think?

    Murtaza Baxamusa
    Murtaza Baxamusa

    Hope that this group is not charged with marketing our expanded Convention Center. http://voiceofsandiego.org/2012/03/19/letter-why-kill-the-golden-goose/Letter: 'Why Kill the Golden Goose?'http://voiceofsandiego.org/2012/03/19/letter-why-kill-the-golden-goose/" Boozy schmoozy." That is how the Union-Tribune editorial described the lack of accountability and wasteful spending of tax dollars in booking conventions in 2004. Hawaiian vacations, golf trips, liquor and extravagant executive bonuses had been a r...

    Murtaza Baxamusa
    Murtaza Baxamusa subscribermember

    Hope that this group is not charged with marketing our expanded Convention Center. http://voiceofsandiego.org/2012/03/19/letter-why-kill-the-golden-goose/Letter: 'Why Kill the Golden Goose?'http://voiceofsandiego.org/2012/03/19/letter-why-kill-the-golden-goose/" Boozy schmoozy." That is how the Union-Tribune editorial described the lack of accountability and wasteful spending of tax dollars in booking conventions in 2004. Hawaiian vacations, golf trips, liquor and extravagant executive bonuses had been a r...