Monday, July 25, 2011

Attracting national and global tourists to Houston

PWC ranked Houston #11 *in the world* for business, life, and innovation - a really amazingly high ranking when you think about it.  Here's what they said:
Best : #2 in cost of owning business space, entrepreneurial environment and life satisfaction, #3 in commute time and cost of living  
Worst : Last in foreign job-creating investment and international tourists  
Details: Houstonians love Houston. So do US business owners. The rest of the world ... not so much. With lax zoning laws and plentiful space, Houston's low cost of living and doing business is a dream for American businesses and middle class workers, but the rest of the world pretends as though the city doesn't exist. The city has fewer international tourists than any other comparable global city.
That sparked an interesting debate started over at HAIF on how to improve Houston's tourism, especially for foreign visitors.  This has always been a tough issue for Houston.  We just don't get tourism proportionate to our global economic standing, and out-of-sight is out-of-mind.  But what would a realistic strategy possibly be?
  • Out family-fun Orlando?
  • Out weather California?
  • Out beach Florida or Hawaii?
  • Out culture New York?
  • Out museum DC or New York?
  • Out gamble/adult-fun Las Vegas? (or South Beach?)
  • Out ski Denver or Salt Lake City?
  • Out history New Orleans, Boston, Savannah or Charleston? (or even San Antonio)
See what I mean?  People choose vacation locations for specific reasons, and the winners are pretty damn dominant.  We're stuck as a local/regional "big city" tourism destination like Chicago is for the midwest and Atlanta is for the southeast, with our share of great museums, restaurants, shopping, and a few attractions - but not enough to pull people from across the country - much less the world - to vacation here.  Our one niche exception - something with some global pull - has been NASA JSC and Space Center Houston, but who knows what the future is there.

Here's a long-shot proposal I made a few years ago on this blog, one that would build on the NASA niche:
Finally, Houston needs to upgrade its tourism experience. All great, world-class cities offer a compelling tourism experience, even if only for a short trip. Even with NASA, the Galleria, and solid museum and theater districts, this has been one of Houston’s most glaring weaknesses, and one that has kept us off the radar for educated, well-traveled professionals. Again, the light rail network and some vibrant pedestrian districts will help greatly, but we really need one powerful, anchor “mega-attraction” that will actually draw people to Houston for at least a long weekend. One niche where I think Houston could be distinctive would be the world’s largest engineering and technology museum – something along the lines of DC’s National Air & Space Museum, Munich’s Deutsches Museum, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It could even be one of the Smithsonian’s network of National Museums, which have started to move out beyond Washington DC (Design in NYC, Industrial History planned for Pittsburgh). Think of it as Houston’s version of Paris’ Louvre or London’s British Museum. The combination with Space Center Houston could create a national draw, not to mention a wonderful source of educational and career inspiration for our youth. As far as sites, 109 acres just became available at the end of the light rail line with the closing of Astroworld – not to mention the old Astrodome - both easily accessible to downtown and Reliant Park conventioneers. Any well-heeled philanthropists out there?
Done on a large enough scale, I could see it attracting not just the usual tourists, but multi-day student group field trips from all over like Space Camp does in Huntsville or the Smithsonian complex in DC - inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers.  It should not just focus on history, but articulate the great engineering and technology challenges we face going forward.  It would be a big, bold, expensive gamble - but could be just the ticket to move us up to the next level in tourism and international recognition.

Update: this concept is expanded in a newer post, A targeted tourism strategy for Houston

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Houston leading the rise of America's third coast

Just a few small items this week:
The one thing he grants is truly weird about Austin was the population's hatred of ease of transit, an antipathy manifested by residents' refusal to do anything to alleviate their woes."More highways will make us just like Houston and Dallas!" is the rallying cry, and to be like those towns would not be weird. 
But to people who have actually been to all three cities recently, it's apparent that they are already more alike than different. "I cannot truck people who say they don't want Austin to become Dallas or Houston, because it is," says Patoski. 
Nowhere is that more apparent than downtown, where the past ten years have been home to a crass real estate boom that would shame even Donald Trump. Austin's downtown was once home to much that was funky, family-owned and attitude-free.
Writing on the Web site, Aaron Renn wonders if they have earned the right to such snobbery. He believes that what they see as progressivism could also be interpreted as "White Flight writ large." Say you grew up in the suburbs of Dallas or Houston and would love to be in the middle of the action of the big city, but places like Oak Cliff or Houston's East End are just a little too real for you, with their methadone clinics, police sirens and 24-hour cantinas.

In Renn's view, that's where places like Austin come in. Why move to or stay in the suburbs of your square city to escape minorities and get slammed as a bigot for doing so, when you can move to some hep place like Austin and win praise for your progressivism?

"They often think that by moving to Austin they have done something great for humanity," notes Youssefnia.

Smugness about their monochromatic progressivism is just one aspect of "Austitude," a collective municipal narcissism shared by so many Austinites. To them, Austin is better, smarter, friendlier and utterly unlike everywhere else in Texas. Austitude is very prevalent not only in Austin but also in California, a prime source of migrants to Austin since the 1990s tech boom.

Tell Austinites that you live in Houston, and some will actually say to your face, "Oh, I'm so sorry." Delia Swanner, a Houston native now living in California, says she is sick of hearing Californians — even ones who've never been to any city in Texas — tell her Austin is the only place in Texas they'd consider living. 
Today's Houston finds more rising young rock bands choosing to stay here than at any time since the 1960s. Fitzgerald's is back as a cutting-edge venue after years in lunk-core alt-rock purgatory. The Heights, Houston's own mini-Austin, is filling up with fun beer gardens and low-key restaurants, and there are other scattered pockets of cool in Montrose, the Museum District and the East End. Taking in a concert in Discovery Green can trick you into thinking you are in Chicago, only with better weather, and Austin so loved our Art Car Parade, they've attempted to steal the entire concept, just as they've attempted to steal the memory of our Townes Van Zandt/Guy Clark/Steve Earle/Rodney Crowell songwriting history.

What's more, Houston is a city and proud of it. Masliyah loves living in the kind of city where it's easy for her to buy her dressmaking supplies and also to travel the world without leaving home. "The other day I went shopping at Phoenicia and it was like I'd gone around the world," she says. Youssefnia also loves Houston's cosmopolitan atmosphere and realistic sense of itself.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Htown Bingo, beaucoup Hou kudos, not living downtown, fixing the airport shuttle, and more

And the smaller misc items just keep piling up...
    A few random items from the Houston Digital Ambassador newsletter:
    And, finally, our anchor item...

    With SeeClickFix, Houstonians can aid local police by reporting suspicious activity in their neighborhoods. SeeClickFix is an online tool that lets residents report non-emergency problems, like potholes or illegal dumping. The reports can be made in seconds, so residents have real-time interaction with police and other city departments. Such collaboration is already working in cities like D.C., Tucson and New Haven.

    To help get this powerful tool on its feet in our city, Htown Bingo is putting a competitive twist on SeeClickFix! Each bingo square is an issue to report or improvement to suggest. Not only will the most active citizens win a prize, they'll see their neighborhood transformed. Visit to learn more about SeeClickFix and start playing Houston's community-building game.

    And for all you players out there, here's the newest piece:

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    Tuesday, July 05, 2011

    Spring 2Q11 Highlights

    It's time for the Spring 2Q11 quarterly highlights post. These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search).  They're not quite as useful as they were when I was still doing multiple posts each week, but still have some value (at least for me).

    Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link is also available in the right sidebar. As always, thanks for your readership.

    And from Winter 1Q11:




    And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the 5th birthday retrospective.