Advocacy Summit? Yea, I love the event and want to be there -- but it’s in Texas

by: Jack Johnson, Destinations International

I have heard that, or something like that, from a few people over the last few weeks. Whether it is the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor’s attempt to make political points at the border, or the string of controversial legislation introduced, debated and enacted, or whether it is the specific abortion law that basically outlawed the procedure in the state, there are reasons for some to, at least, raise an eyebrow and, at most, express outrage and declare that they would not set foot in the state.

Greetings from Texas

Look, I get it. Texas at times seems to be bending over backwards to make some segments of people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. There are times when they even seem to be determined to make people question their safety while in the state. But I am asking that you do not do that. Do not take the easy route and take a pass. Instead, come and see a piece of Texas for yourself, because I think you will find it looks different than you expect. Come and understand what Texans are thinking and doing and you will find that Texans represent a wide spectrum of beliefs and priorities. And if you are so inclined, come and advocate for the future you want to see because if Texas is anything – it is political and it is active.

Before I get started, I need to point out that Texas is one other thing – it is big. I know Texans say that quite a bit, but you cannot appreciate how big it is until you start driving from one major city to another, from one part of the state to another, and realize how different they all are, the richness in diversity and how geographically (and politically) far apart they are. I recently drove with my partner from the Washington, DC metro area to San Antonio, Texas. The longest leg of that trip was within the state, from Texarkana to San Antonio.

The COVID-19 Pandemic: The Numbers Are Better in Houston Than in Texas

COVID-19 stats in Houston

Statewide in Texas, the highly transmissible delta variant has spread rampantly, driving a third surge of cases in August and September. COVID-19 hospitalizations are now declining after nearing the pandemic’s winter peak. This surge has led to an increase in deaths — nearly 12,000 Texans have died from COVID-19 since August, many of them under the age of 60. But things are getting better. Statewide hospitalizations, average new cases, and average new deaths are decreasing.

Houston COVID-19 cases

Vaccinations increased in late summer and early fall compared with the second half of the summer, but have seen some decreases recently. As of Oct. 3, 17.3 million people have received at least one dose, which is 59.5% of Texas’ population, and 14.9 million people, or 51.3%, are fully vaccinated. A total of 31.7 million doses have been administered, including booster shots. So far, 608,332 people have received booster shots.

Texas vaccination rates

Remember, Texas is big and the numbers above are statewide averages. When you look at the county numbers you will find a 90.4% vaccination rate in Hudspeth County along the Rio Grande and 15.1% in King County up north toward the panhandle. Houston is in Harris County where 53.6% are fully vaccinated and 62.5% have received at least one shot – both above the state average.

Texas vaccinations by county

In other stats, Harris County and Houston are doing better than the rest of the state. Their 14-day trend is strong and their cases and deaths per 1,000 are lower than the state average.

14-day COVID trend in Texas by county

In other words, I think you will find that the situation in Houston looks better than other parts of the state.

The COVID-19 Pandemic: The Governor's Ban on Mask Mandates Doesn't Mean People Are Not Wearing Masks

Gov. Greg Abbott is locked in several pitched legal battles with cities, counties and school districts over their bids to require masks in public schools. The U.S. Department of Justice is backing a federal lawsuit filed by a disabilities advocacy group, arguing that the Texas ban on school mask mandates violates disabled students’ rights. That said, no one is stopping anyone from wearing a mask. Private businesses can still require masks. Many Texans, particularly those in places like Houston, are wearing masks. Is it universal? No. But, and I say this as someone who lives in Texas, it is way more than what you would think based on the general media coverage of the Texas mask mandate issue.

In other words, what Texans are thinking and doing represents a wide spectrum of beliefs and priorities. Some do not wear masks. Some wear masks some of the time. And a whole lot wear masks most of the time.

Abortion, Voting, Immigration and Other Legislative Issues: Don't Join the Boycotters - There Are Better Ways

I have said this a lot over the past few years. Texas is the Petri dish of American politics. Texan politicians will talk about anything and everything. They will turn anything and everything into a bill. And often, they will turn them into laws.  Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins once said two things that might apply here. The first is “I think of Texas as the laboratory for bad government.” You can make that argument from both sides of the political spectrum at one point or another. The other quote is that “Politics is not a picture on a wall or a television sitcom that you can decide you don’t much care for.” To me that means, forgive the bluntness, not coming to Texas because they passed legislation you disagree with, no matter how important or personal that disagreement is, doesn’t achieve anything. Only you will know that you are not there; let me explain why.

We have spent a lot of time researching and discussing travel bans. They are rarely effective. Unless you can identify the entity that can change the situation and apply significant pressure to them, change will not occur. You not coming to Houston will not pressure Governor Greg Abbott or those legislators who voted for the bill. It will hurt the constituents of those legislators who opposed the bill. It will hurt the mayor who is, not only a supporter of our industry, but sits on the board of Houston First. It will hurt those who can make a difference. To affect change, you should show up for the Advocacy Summit, find out in-person how this bill passed and became law, and support and empower those who are here opposing those who enacted the bill, who have a vote in next year’s election and can affect change.

From the outside, the state of Texas looks solidly conservative Republican.  In reality, it only leans Republican. The Republicans carried the state by only 5% points in the last presidential election. The extremely conservative Lt. Governor won by only 5% last time. Texas’ most famous senator, Republican Ted Cruz, won by only 4% points in his last election. Houston on the other hand leans clearly Democratic. Texas is on the verge of becoming a swing state. If this is the side on which you find yourself, then come to Houston. Come and learn and advocate for the future you want to see because if Texas is anything – it is political, it is active and it is becoming the frontline of many of today’s political battles.

Why Houston is a Not-To-Be-Missed Destination

So, here are some great things about Houston. Houston is a dynamic, growing city, rich in culture and diversity. This past summer, Time magazine included Houston among the World’s Greatest Places 2021, noting Houston is distinctive in their “ingenuity, creativity, revitalization and reopening.” Houston has been one of the fastest-growing cities in North America. It has become more racially and ethnically diverse over the past 30 years and, as of 2010, the Houston metropolitan area surpassed New York as the most racially and ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the United States.

Houston’s vision statement is “Houston offers opportunity for all and celebrates its diversity of people, economy, culture, and places. Houston promotes healthy and resilient communities through smart civic investments, dynamic partnerships, education, and innovation. Houston is the place where anyone can prosper and feel at home.” The city’s key words for Houston are “opportunity, diversity, community, and home.”

Houston’s food scene is legendary. While Houston’s TexMex and BBQ options are every bit as good as any other Texas city, Houston has so much more to offer. Anthony Bourdain called Houston, “a Wonderland of Strange and Diverse.” The city features ethnic cuisine from all over the world, James Beard award-winning chefs, and dishes so unique you’ll only find them here. Not too long-ago Pete Wells, chief food critic of the New York Times, gave glowing reviews to some of the innovative Houston restaurants, writing that Houston is becoming "one of the country's most exciting places to eat." Time magazine recently gave a big shoutout to Houston restaurant Musaafer, the luxurious Indian fine dining palace in the Galleria. Time also praised Chef Dawn Burrell, the recent “Top Chef” finalist who is opening a new restaurant, Late August, this year.

Check out the Thrillist list and the Eater list for more of the restaurant scene. And get ready to watch Season 19 of Top Chef in 2022 which is filming now and is set against the city’s vibrant multicultural food scene.

Finally, check out recent Destinations International Foundation Spirit of Hospitality Awardee Samantha Brown talk about Houston as a place to love and check out the Visit Houston website and look at Houston in a whole new way.

About the Author

Jack JohnsonChief Advocacy OfficerDestinations International

About the Author

Jack manages the overall public policy operations at Destinations International including member advocacy education and training, development of destination tools and best practices, coalition work with peer organizations, industry research and related public affairs activities. Jack is a 2021 Smart Meetings Magazine’s Catalyst Award winner and one of Successful Meetings’ 25 Most Influential People in the Meetings Industry in 2018.

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