Monday, November 28, 2011

A targeted tourism strategy for Houston

I recently got engaged on an interesting discussion thread on HAIF about making Houston more of a tourism magnet, an area where we are sadly lacking compared to other global cities of our stature.  In that thread I reposted my July post on attracting national and international tourists to Houston, where I talked about converting the Astrodome and empty land nearby into the world's largest engineering and technology museum.  But the more interesting thing to come out of the HAIF conversation was a bigger picture tourism strategy for Houston.  It starts with this list from the post of areas where we really can't compete:
  • 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.
And here's my new insight that came out of the discussion:

From a marketing analysis, there is an unfilled niche, and here's my articulation of it: parents plan family trips, and they often want to educate their kids as well as have fun. There are plenty of opportunities to do this with history - Colonial Williamsburg, Boston, New Orleans, San Antonio and the Alamo, etc. - not to mention Europe. DC is where you learn about our great country's history and political system. The national parks for learning about nature and the environment. San Diego for every type of animal in the mega-zoo (and SeaWorld for aquatic animals).

But there's bit of a hole in the tourism market when it comes to teaching kids about and inspiring them into STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). On a national level there's the Air and Space Museum in DC and a couple of NASA sites (inc. Houston JSC), but it's pretty limited. On a local level it's pretty small science and children's museums. We could aspire to be one of those "must-do" vacations for all families that want to broadly educate their kids. "A DC/Smithsonian of STEM" might be a way to think of it. Maybe that's one mega-museum, or a collection of medium-sized ones. The Astrodome is a huge opportunity, as is the giant empty field to the south of it and the easy rail connection to our Museum District. And we already have a starting pull with Space Center Houston. Build on that, and we can create a differentiated niche from other tourist destinations.

By creating a very future-oriented, big challenge-focused, STEM-based tech/engi/science museum complex (including energy) as a compliment to NASA, we become one of those destinations families will want to visit for the benefit of their kids. I'm not saying they won't also have some fun when they get here (Kemah, Galveston, shopping, eating, etc.), but the core reason they will add it to their vacation plans will be to inspire their kids into STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) - just like I'm sure plenty of DC trips have inspired kids into public service careers.

The short description would be like the National Air and Space museum (the 2nd most popular museum in the world after Paris' Louvre), but covering a broader range of STEM subject areas and giving not just history, but articulate the big challenges facing those fields going forward. The goal is to not just look backward, but inspire kids to study hard so they can contribute to working on the big problems of the future in their careers. The original vision of Epcot might be another example. Include lots of interactivity and summer camps, with school field trip groups on multi-day visits.  It should address the Grand Challenges of Engineering, with maybe a wing for each.

I think most of the museum would be the history of engineering and technology, maybe grouped into themes like "transportation", "computing", "health/medicine" (link to the world's largest medical center, anyone?), "energy", etc. but then shifting at the end of their timelines to broad, long-term challenges. The goal is for the kid to get swept up in the great people and innovations of the past and then get them excited about being contributors to future progress.

I wonder if a better name might be "The Museum of Progress", showing how human civilization has advanced with science, engineering, and technology and the great challenges we face going forward.

Definitely take some time to browse the thread - there are some good ideas and graphics from others in there.  And I'd love to hear your thoughts on the strategy, the specific museum concept, and potential names in the comments.  And if you're one of Houston's political or financial power-players interested in supporting something like this, please drop me an email (tgattis (at)

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At 7:15 PM, November 28, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this and the discussion over at HAIF and one of the comments there prompted a response of mine. I believe Simbha commented about not trying to compete with the Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago. I think this is a good comparison to what you are proposing. I see that your proposal is significantly different than the MST, but as has been mentioned, Chicago is not really a tourist destination either. Anecdotally, I have visited Chicago 4 times in the last five years for non-business reasons with my family. We did the typical tourist spots there; Cubs game, Navy Pier, Sears/Willis Tower, Miracle Mile, Grant Park, etc.... Each of these spots are nice, but are similar to the type of destinations in Houston. None are end-point destinations in and of themselves.

Personally, I am an engineer who also loves to go to museums. However, at no point could I convince any of my kids to even entertain the notion of visiting the MST. They are interested in science and engineering. They just didn't want to go to that museum, no matter how interesting it appeared.

I think these are grand ideas and nice to consider. I don't think they will appreciably increase the tourist draw in Houston.

At 11:53 AM, November 29, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the deutches museum in munich. They have a floor for every field of science and engineering.

At 12:09 PM, November 29, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

With a few exceptions, the Smithsonian, the Met, et al.; museums are local attractions for local people. They are rarely drivers of tourism.

I am opposed to tourism as an economic develop tool. In cities where tourism is or becomes a significant part of the local economy, there develop elites who, in the interest of tourism, will stymie other types of economic change and development.

Tourism is not an engine for growth. As an employment source it produces mainly entry level, low wage service type jobs.

At 1:19 PM, November 29, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston is at it's best when it finds a new project, a new goal and a new everything. This city responds to the future it always has if Houston has a chance it is in the future not in glorifing an old stadium that has turned out it's lights.

At 5:29 PM, November 29, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Love the Munich museum. Amazing place. Definitely part of the inspiration for this one. As is the Chicago Museum of Industry.

I agree tourism is not a great industry - and I would not want us to be anything like an Orlando, Vegas, or New Orleans - but if we care about our world stature (and many people may not), it is important to develop. Otherwise we're just one of those cities most people have heard of (usually bad things) rather than a place many people have actually been.

There's also an aspect of building the brand and identity of the city around a STEM future, which I think could be a very valuable thing.

At 9:04 PM, November 29, 2011, Blogger Algosome said...

Space Center Houston had the potential to become a great museum, but it turned into a poor excuse for a theme park. The Deutsches Museum and the Chicago Museum of Industry are quite cool for people with technical interests, but somewhat boring for non-geeks. You'll need an Omnimax domed theater, too. But no other science museum compares to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Sadly, it takes a genius like Frank Oppenheimer to create one of those.

I'd rather that Houston be "great place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there" than the reverse.

At 12:51 PM, January 19, 2012, Anonymous PA said...

I like the idea about being a hub for STEM type activities for the family I just wish Houston would get on the ball and do something, anything, with the Astrodome.


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