08 JAN 2019: “Houston doesn’t have an image problem,” says Mike Waterman. “It just doesn’t have an image.” It’s a situation the president and CEO of Visit Houston is hoping to remedy. And spend any time with the affable and engaging tourism exec and you get the sense he most certainly will.

Waterman’s rare straight talk stems perhaps from the fact that he was appointed Visit Houston boss only four years ago, coming from a lengthy tenure in the hotel industry (Marriott) and out of town/state (he grew up in Boston), thereby providing the tourism boss with a clean slate in a city that now ranks as America’s fourth largest city.

“I had never been to Houston before I was recruited [to the Visit Houston job], but now I’m totally sold, and in love,” Waterman says, adding, “You see all the stuff that’s going on and it just blew my mind.”

Waterman discovered a place that couldn’t be further from Texas’s typical cowpoke, redneck image, but rather a city with a chic, cosmopolitan atmosphere, vibrant arts scene, more than 10,000 dining venues representing every corner of the globe, 18 first-rate museums, and one out-of-this-world attraction: the Space Center Houston (NASA).

But he also quickly discovered what the metropolis lacks: a dazzling image like New York, Los Angeles or not-so-far-away New Orleans. And a place situated uniquely not quite on the Gulf of Mexico coast, but close enough to both benefit (the beaches) and suffer (the hurricanes) from its location.

Travel Industry Today recently sat down with Waterman to talk all things Houston – “hard questions, easy questions, whatever you want to ask.” So, ask away, we did:

Q: What’s the latest on Hurricane Harvey, which hammered Houston in August 2017, with 1,300 mm of rain that caused “catastrophic” flooding and, from a tourism perspective, closed some hotels and venues in the theatre district?

A: When all was said and done, Harvey was fundamentally a residential impact from a storm perspective. More than 10,000 homes were flooded, and the vast majority of those people are back in their homes. From a business perspective, the central business district never lost power, never lost water and we hosted our first convention 21 days after the storm hit. We were actually fully back by the time of the World Series (Nov., 2017), which, by the way, was probably the most remarkable saving grace post Harvey as it showed the country and the world that Houston was back in business. I would say we’re 95 percent [recovered].

Many international visitors are being turned off visiting the US by the current political climate in the country and particularly president Trump. As the biggest city in a famously “red state,” is Houston suffering?

[Texas] is a red state moving purple… I will tell you, at the national level, it gives us some angst, the rhetoric out there. The reality is, Houston, and every major city in Texas by the way, with the exception of Fort Worth, is Democrat. So, the cities are all democratic; the State, which is more rural, is ultimately red. [But] we have an amazing mayor who has been extremely helpful in his message that our borders are always going to be open and we are always going to be welcoming. Mexico, for example, is our largest international market and, unlike many of our sister cities, our international business coming out of Mexico is actually up. That does give us some positive. I sit on the US travel board and we’re working with [US Travel Association president] Roger Dow and that group and Brand USA to try to work with the Trump administration to sort of tone down the rhetoric a little bit, which, clearly everybody can see, he’s not really a guy who listens to advice.

The annual US travel trade show IPW would seem to be a natural fit to show off the city to international buyers and media…

Already on it! The bid is in process.

You said Houston has no image. What should it be?

If it wasn’t already taken, I would own the fact that Houston is ‘the friendliest place on earth.’ I’ve lived in 13 other cities and I’ve never lived in a city that was more welcoming. A quarter of everybody living in the city is foreign-born and that’s a pretty remarkable statistic – we speak 144 languages. This is total mixing pot of cultures and diversity that is a truly remarkable experience, from both a culinary and cultural perspective. Our tagline is “culinary and cultural capital of the south,” but I actually just leave the south part out, because I honestly think we can compete at any level with a New York or San Francisco or LA from a quality of product and offerings perspective, whether it’s theatre, museum or restaurants.

I must say, I’ve never thought about Houston in that way.

When I got here 3-1/2 years ago, we didn’t even use the words Houston and staycation or leisure in the same sentence because everybody looked at Houston as a pretty strong convention city, but we really didn’t have the infrastructure to support a true leisure stay… There are actually 60 new restaurants in the central business district that were not here pre-Super Bowl (Feb., 2017), so there’s all these new restaurants, and 3,000 new hotel rooms. So, really, the metamorphosis of Houston, even though we’re the fourth largest city and most diverse city in the country, is that there’s this true offering where there’s really a lot to do where, candidly, it wasn’t really here five years ago. I feel like it’s our time. Austin had its time, Dallas had its time; Houston has been working at this for a long time. Our tourism numbers are up 54 percent since 2014.

Houston is also a big-time sports town, with major league teams in baseball, football, basketball and soccer – all the biggies, except hockey. Gordie Howe used to play here.

We’re in the process of trying to figure out a way to lure an NHL franchise to Houston – we’re already in conversation with several local business leaders who potentially have access to teams. It’s very preliminary. The fan base in Houston is rabid, so we know there’s a fan base to do it. We know it would make sense. Unrelated to that, we’re also trying to figure out how to play in the esports space – that’s a huge opportunity for us. Sports is such a big deal for tourism; look what it’s done for Dallas, for Chicago, Boston. It’s huge – especially when you’re winning. It elevates the brand, and the World Series [that Houston won in 2017] is a classic example of that. That was the best brand builder for Houston that we ever could have had.

So, give us the pitch. Why should Canadians visit Houston?

If you’re looking for culinary, culture and friendly southern experience, there’s no better accessible city than Houston. The beauty of Houston is that it’s a gem where you can come and experience literally world-class experiences. We have the second most theatrical seats [in the country] behind New York, so, great theatres, great museums and great food, and a great hotel experience is here.

Canadian visitations are booming. Any insights?

There were 245,000 Canadians who visited in 2017, up 37 percent on 2016. I want to take all the credit for that [laughs], but I think it’s a combination of things. I think Houston has become, well, we’ve been to New Orleans and Dallas and Austin or San Antonio, and people are looking for new experiences, and Houston has done a pretty good job of organically showcasing the city. It’s still a relatively inexpensive place to come and visit, so its value. And don’t forget, the city over the last five years has spent over $4 billion in infrastructure improvements (including hotels, restaurants and light rail expansion), so really, we feel this is Houston 2.0. If you haven’t been to Houston in the past four years, you haven’t been to Houston. We know that when you come in, you’re going to see what we see, which is this really remarkable, special city, where everybody wants to go out of their way to welcome you.

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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