San Diego, California: Weathering Through the Storm

A destination organization’s budget often comes under scrutiny, but San Diego Tourism Authority found its funding suddenly held hostage during a political stand-off in 2013 with the city’s mayor. The organization launched a multi-faceted, integrated campaign called “Why Travel Matters” that framed the discussion, coordinated stakeholder efforts, and drove attention to the crisis.

Pioneering the Tourism Marketing District

Tourism Marketing Districts (TMD), which are also known as Tourism Improvement Districts or Tourism Business Improvement Districts, are considered quite common with over 80 in California alone, and hundreds across the U.S. supporting destination marketing efforts.

However, in 2007, San Diego, California was one of the first large cities to establish a TMD. The City Council approved the district as a way to bolster the shrinking pot of tourism marketing funds. The original agreement was for five years, with renewal in 2012. The renewal was approved by City Council and outgoing Mayor Jerry Sanders, but unfortunately, the proper paperwork for the new, fiveyear operating agreement was not filed on time.

Caught in a Political Stand Off

In December that year, a new mayor, Bob Filner, took office and as “the People’s Mayor,” publicly stood against the TMD. Filner witheld his signature from the agreement unless the following concessions were met:

  • Living wage ordinance.
  • More funding for public safety.
  • Indemnification for the City against legal challenges.
  • Shorter period for the contract.

The dispute caught the attention of local and national media throughout the start of 2013, which damaged the image of the San Diego TMD and in turn, the San Diego Tourism Authority. TMD funding for tourism marketing fell from $23 million in 2012 to $4 million in 2013. As a result, the organization was forced to lay off 40% of its staff and cancel advertising for San Diego tourism.

“We believe that [destination organizations] have a responsibility to advocate for issues that have an impact on the health of the hospitality industry."

Joe Terzi, President & CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

“We have a responsibility to continue to educate our community and elected officials on the economic value of tourism and the positive impact it has on creating jobs,” continued Terzi. "Unfortunately, [this was] a great example of how fragile tourism promotion is when the community and elected officials do not understand the direct link between tourism and economic health, quality of life, and other larger issues that impact the community."

Orchestrating Advocacy

In the midst of the crisis, the San Diego Tourism Authority pulled together a local campaign in support of travel and tourism industry called “Why Travel Matters.” The campaign was supported by an online resource library for members and staff to achieve three goals:

  1.  Work in coordination with industry stakeholders to change the the mayor’s attitude toward destination marketing.
  2. Educate the general public about the value of tourism and its impact on San Diego’s economy.
  3. Create a longer-term conversation about the work the DMO does and the importance of funding its mission.

“Why Travel Matters” employed several channels to not only communicate the positive economic impact of destination promotion, but also put a face to the industry. This crisis communication plan included:

  • City Council outreach.
  • White paper to frame the conversation.
  • Public relations campaign. 
  • Digital communications to drive traffic to the microsite and foster online discussion.
  • “Tourism Works for Me” contests and “I am Tourism” profiles during National Travel and Tourism Week.

In late March, City Council voted to require Filner to sign the operating agreement, and by May, the two parties finally reached a compromise. Filner ultimately agreed to release the organization’s funds after negotiating greater legal protection and funding for the centennial celebration of San Diego’s Balboa Park.

Following Filner’s resignation in August 2013 in the wake of a sexual harrassment scandal, City Council voted eight-to-one in November to release 2014 TMD funds and restore the organization’s program of work, and San Diego was finally “back in the game,” as quoted by Interim Mayor Todd Gloria in a press conference.

Keeping Up the Cause

Through this experience, the San Diego Tourism Authority discovered that the tourism economy is complex and often not well understood by stakeholders. Therefore, the organization continues to educate elected officials and local residents on the huge economic impact that the tourism industry has on San Diego. The organization relies on the support of publicprivate partnerships and coalitions to achieve this, and continues to encourage locals to share their hometown pride and how tourism touches their lives.