The Westin La Cantera Resort sits at the center of a well-coordinated plan to promote San Antonio as a golf, group and family-vacation destination.
In the music business, San Antonio would be described as “#7—with a bullet,” to denote how it has rocketed up the rankings of the largest U.S. cities. After more than doubling its size since 1970, San Antonio was recognized as a smash—and surprising—hit when it emerged as the seventh-largest city in the 2010 U.S. Census—not only ahead of popular meeting and vacation spots such as Las Vegas, Denver, Boston, San Francisco and San Diego, but now second-biggest (behind only Houston) in Texas itself.
AT A GLANCE
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Those in charge of promoting San Antonio aren’t sitting back and thinking that the city’s fast climb up the charts means their work is done, however. Much of the city’s growth over the past 40 years has coincided with aggressive promotional efforts to raise its profile by the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau (SACVB), which was created in the late 1960s and stands today as the largest public agency of its type in the U.S. The SACVB’s connection to city management can’t be threatened by municipal cost squeezes, either; the bureau’s nearly $20 million operating budget is funded through a “hot tax” that collects hotel/motel occupancy fees, and can’t be touched for other purposes.
More than ever, the efforts of the SACVB are needed to continue to extol the virtues, and dispel the myths, about a top-ten city that still has only one major pro sports team, and is too often perceived in the world beyond Texas as a place known primarily for prolonged heat, drought, wildfires or other issues that often don’t even apply to San Antonio—or if they do, aren’t nearly as bad as they’re made to seem, and are far outweighed by the city’s abundance of unique appeal and all that it’s grown to offer.
As part of its ongoing efforts to tell the real, and full, San Antonio story, the SACVB works closely with a number of club and resort properties within the extensive city limits (over 460 square miles). For golf, that includes historic places like Brackenridge Park Golf Course, the oldest public course in Texas (1916) and also one of A. W. Tillinghast’s first designs; unique layouts such as The Quarry Golf Club, featuring a back nine submerged in a century-old gravel pit; and high-profile properties such as TPC San Antonio, which came on the scene last year with Pete Dye and Greg Norman designs, and now hosts the Valero Texas Open.
Among all of the properties it works with, the SACVB’s most long-standing, all-purpose and go-to partner has been The Westin La Cantera, a resort developed at the end of the 1990s in the city’s northwest section, about 15 miles from downtown, 12 miles from the airport, and at the edge of the Texas Hill Country that contains a wide variety of outdoor and cultural activities.
In addition to the considerable promotional and operational resources that The Westin La Cantera can provide through Starwood Hotels and Resorts, this particular property also brings some other big players into the mix. La Cantera (the name translates to “The Quarry,” in this case referring to a limestone pit in the area) was developed by USAA, the San Antonio-based firm that specializes in providing insurance and financial services to military families. Through the La Cantera Development Company, USAA first acquired land around the quarry site to develop residential communities, and then partnered with Gaylord Entertainment to open a new theme park that would eventually become Six Flags Fiesta Park.
The resort property then took shape with development of a Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morris-designed course that originally opened as the public La Cantera Golf Club (it is now the Resort Course of the Westin La Cantera). At the end of the ‘90s, a second, Arnold Palmer-designed course opened, along with the 500-room resort. And another big gun, Troon Golf, was brought in to manage the golf sides of the operation and add even more firepower to how the SACVB and its partners would seek to promote all that south-central Texas now had to offer.
“We’ve been trying to get the word out that San Antonio is a good golf destination, with a portfolio of quality courses, and a lot of other advantages to offer, in terms of weather, family activities and accessibility,” says Steve Shields, La Cantera’s Director of Golf. “The Troon brand has been a great help in that marketing, because it’s recognized for great playing conditions and great customer service. And we can expand our reach and exposure for the area through our annual pass program.”
Even though the new TPC San Antonio came on stream as part of the directly competitive JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country resort, and took the Valero Texas Open from La Cantera, Shields welcomes it as a positive part of the area’s golf story, too. “You have 36 holes of TPC courses, that’s a great addition to the area’s portfolio, and a real asset for helping us to have an even better image as a golf destination,” he says.
A key part of promoting San Antonio, both by the SACVB and independently by properties like The Westin La Cantera, has been aggressive and creative use of the “FAM” concept. “FAMs,” short for familiarization visits, are frequently offered in the tourism and hospitality business to provide meeting/event planners and travel/golf writers with expenses-paid opportunities to come to places or properties they might not otherwise have interest in, or even have on their radar.
These undertakings can prove to have limited value—and payoffs—for FAM sponsors, however, if the right strategies aren’t employed as to who’s invited, and what the visits involve. Skill and experience is needed to first target influential decision-makers and communicators, versus those who will just want to take advantage of a free trip but can’t make an impact. Then, once a group’s assembled, the challenge for the hosts is to find ways to go beyond the usual wining and dining to provide distinctive experiences that create lasting impressions about what makes an area or property unique, while also providing assurance that it can stand up to world-class scrutiny for what’s expected from a top-level meeting or vacation destination.
The SACVB has proved adept at this by developing strong ties with local businesses, so it can incorporate a full range of special attractions and activities as it shows off the city. A recent FAM that included writers representing publications from around the world included a dinner, catered by one of the city’s leading restaurants, that was served on a barge as it cruised throughout San Antonio’s River Walk section, as well as the opportunity to attend a cooking demonstration/class at the new (and only third existing) campus of the Culinary Institute of America that opened in San Antonio last year.
On its own, The Westin La Cantera has also fine-tuned the FAM into a key and ongoing marketing strategy. Greg Haugland, the resort’s Director of Group Sales, describes La Cantera as a “FAM-happy resort” that now plans at least four such events each year, each targeted to specific groups such as food writers, and each involving different, customized agendas (for the food writers, Executive Chef John Armstrong arranged special “Iron Chef” competitions in a stadium-like venue).
For all such events, Haugland notes, there is a concerted effort to convey all that the area has to offer—and doesn’t— as a top-10 city.
“Even though we are now the seventh-largest city, it still doesn’t feel that way here,” says Haugland. “We emphasize how there are two uniquely different sides to San Antonio—downtown and the Hill Country—and how easy it is to experience both from here.
“The River Walk is something you can’t miss while you’re here, so we make every effort to include a chance to experience that at some point, even if you’re in a golfing group. At the same time, we promote and try to provide exposure to things like the shopping [at the high-end Shops at La Cantera, down the hill from the resort], the new Culinary Institute, and Hill Country attractions like its hunting lodges and wineries.”
Winning Over Mom
The resort’s belief in the power of FAMs has been extended beyond the group side, too. Earlier this year, it targeted a critical new factor that has emerged for earning family vacation business: “Mommy Bloggers.”
In an era when anyone can pose as a “expert,” the La Cantera staff conducted extensive research to identify the most influential and objective “family trip” commentators that now have staked out a site on the Web. It then invited a group of who it felt were the leading “Mommy Bloggers” to come, with their families, to experience the many family-oriented activities offered on the property and in the area. The “Mommy Blogger” FAM resulted in La Cantera receiving a host of favorable reviews, almost all of which sounded the same themes: We didn’t know San Antonio had so much to offer—and we didn’t know a resort property like this could be so family-friendly.
All of these efforts have also helped The Westin La Cantera earn, and retain, top area rankings on TripAdvisor and other ratings services. They have also helped the property keep a steady pace of year-round business and achieve a fairly even balance between group and transient business, with a heavy emphasis on family activities and programs that can help to keep the property busy throughout the summer and holiday periods, when group business falls off.
Making It Work
Of course, all of the effort (and expense) involved with improving the rest of the world’s “familiarization” with San Antonio and La Cantera would fall flat on its face if the resort couldn’t deliver on its promise of easy access to unique experiences. Once guests are on property, the La Cantera staff makes a coordinated and creative effort to provide special and surprising touches, such as the Texas wine tastings offered each evening by Sommelier Steven Krueger in the resort’s Steinheimer’s Lounge.
For $10, Krueger takes guests through his four selections of the day, and at the same time opens their eyes to the extent of the state’s growth in the wine industry (it’s the number-six grape and wine producer in the country, with more than 220 vineyards and nearly 200 wineries, up from under 50 in 2001.)
The resort’s culinary staff, led by Food and Beverage Director Philipe Wilhelm and Armstrong, also incorporates the Texas wines into special dishes and pairings. And a glass of one is also provided as a special final touch for a “Texas Winemaker’s Massage” offered at the property’s Castle Rock Health Club and Spa.
Wilhelm and Armstrong are also doing more to put La Cantera’s six F&B outlets (plus a Starbucks) on the map for locals, too. The resort’s culinary operation includes a full pastry shop and butchering shop, and all soup stocks are made from scratch. The property has been emphasizing indigenous products for three years, and now rotates its farm-to-table menus seasonally.
The F&B department is closely involved with the family-oriented programming that has ramped up considerably, and taken on a year-round profile, over the last two years under Activities Director C.J. Goodwyn. In addition to the s’mores that have become a nightly tradition at the Lost Quarry Pool complex’s fire pit, Armstrong’s staff creates Elmer Fudd pancakes and other Looney Tunes character-inspired items for special kids’ breakfasts.
Goodwyn, who was given the Activities Director position two years ago and told “You have the whole property…create something,” has taken the lead in developing a six-week Hill Country Holidays program that drew 22,000 people over a six-week period, from before Thanksgiving through New Year’s. For a $10 fee (a portion of which goes to charity), families can ice skate on a synthetic rink that’s put over a baby pool.
Other activities and attractions include wooden toy-, ornament- and cookie-making, storytelling and a “snowfall” in the plaza, and theatrical presentations. “We’re expecting a lot more people this year,” Goodwyn says.
Under Goodwyn’s direction, the resort has created a Kids Club and Teen Lounge, along with an outdoor Discovery Junction, using an old tennis court that has been converted to stage inflatable activity equipment and be the site of regular recreational events.
“The Kids Club isn’t day care,” Goodwyn says. “We hire attendants who have educational and pre-school teaching backgrounds, and put a real emphasis on arts and crafts and other learning experiences, and on being outside as much as possible, including excursions to [area attractions].
“Sure, we want to have activities that will be a draw for people to come stay here; but even more, we want to fine-tune every activity that we have to keep guests on the property once they’re here, or to let us be their guide to show them and their kids what else the area has to offer.”