Tuesday, July 7, 2009

San Francisco Tourism Ramps Up, Recession or No

SAN FRANCISCO - One of the planet's perennially popular travel destinations is ramping up its $8 billion-plus tourism industry, recession or no. The idea, this city's tourism officials explain, is to innovate and market your way through tough times like these.

The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau - a century-old organization that promotes tourism in the city by the bay - allows that hard economic times present plenty of challenges, yet it managed to announce good news at today's annual luncheon for bureau members and media. Visitors' spending actually went up in 2008, the SFCVB's numbers-crunchers reported, rising to $8.52 billion, an increase of 3.3 percent. Visitor numbers crept up, too; there were 16.4 million visitors to San Francsico in 2008, an increase of 1.7 percent from 2007, a prosperous year till the fourth quarter, when the recession began.

That's not spectacular growth, but the fact that growth happened at all is remarkable given the global economic meltdown that got underway in earnest last year.

Some of San Francisco's experience is specific to this city. But the continuing success of travel and tourism here in the teeth of the Great Recession may hold some lessons - and encouragement - for other places, as well.

Marketing, along with innovation and determination, drove the growth, according to SFCVB officials, who held forth at a packed luncheon today at Moscone West, part of the city's downtown convention center.

Over beef and crab cakes and California wines, the organization's president and chief executive officer, Joe D'Alessandro, ticked off the whys and wherefores of success.

Simply put, San Francisco markets the daylights out of itself. You may have seen San Francisco's advertisements in Conde Nast Traveler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker magazines. Moreover, San Francisco has avidly embraced social media: The city is closing in on 100,000 followers on Twitter and promotes itself on Facebook. The SFCVB also has a lively, richly detailed and easy to navigate Web site: www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com, and created targeted microsites, such as the arty site www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com/artsf.

Of course, San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area have something to sell: Good weather, excellent food and drink, a diverse and lively populace, a lovely location and striking confluence of water and hills. The city continues to undergo a building boom, sprouting new skyscrapers - nothing to rival China or Dubai, but construction is holding steady. The old international terminal at San Francisco International Airport, closed since 2000, is being renovated for reopening as a domestic terminal. The superb California Academy of Sciences opened last year in a sparkling new, eco-friendly building in Golden Gate Park. A $5 billion mass transit center is in the works on the site of the well-worn Transbay Terminal. A long-promised (and long-delayed) cruise ship terminal is in the pipeline (fingers crossed). And a new art museum is set to open in the Presidio, a former military base with spectacular vistas overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

Some of San Francisco's success is just dumb luck - those views, that location - but some comes about through a spirit of innovation and plain hard work that can be duplicated in other places, too. To cite another example - one shared by other smart, pro-active cities - San Francisco is adroit at landing blockbuster tourist attractions. Opening a few days ago at the de Young Museum is a glittering exhibition (through March 29, 2010) of ancient Egyptian artifacts: "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.'' Concurrently, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is another big one: "Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities'' (through Sept. 7), showcasing the work of two great American photographers.

Many elements go into making a success, and getting it right isn't easy. San Francisco does it better than most. But marketing, innovation and determination can work anywhere - and help hurry along the end of hard times.

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