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Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau Sees Global Gold

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
By Melonie Magruder
Staff Writer

May 13, 2013 -- Nearly 60 percent of Santa Monica’s overnight guests last year were from foreign countries, and the number is growing thanks to the use of new tools and initiatives to tap a global market, officials at the 4th annual Travel & Tourism Summit said Thursday.

The move to “think global” -- bolstered by social media and a major federal campaign to push the U.S. as a travel destination worldwide -- has paid off, according to The Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau (SMCVB), which hosted the event to celebrate National Tourism Week.

“Overnight hotel visitors provide the highest spending levels with minimal impact to a destination,” said Misti Kerns, SMCVB’s president and CEO. “It seems that those strategies are working in Santa Monica.

“In 2012, 57 percent of our visitors were from outside the U.S,” Kerns said.  “This is great news for our city as international visitors tend to stay in the destination longer, use public transportation and spend more money while they are here.”

The results of the 2012 Santa Monica Tourism Economic Impact Study, conducted regularly since 1982, showed that 12,200 local jobs are supported by tourism, an increase of 7.4 percent since 2011.

The Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) from Santa Monica hotels increased by 12.3 percent, throwing $39.3 million into the city’s general fund. And retail taxes generated by visitor spending increased by 10.6 percent.

"We have 12,200 local jobs supported by tourism in 2012, jobs that can't be exported," said Santa Monica Mayor Pam O'Connor. "Nine hundred of those jobs were added this year, coming out of a recession."

O’Connor touted the city’s $1 million prize in the Bloomberg Challenge, a national competition that saw 400 cities participate across the country. The Award was given for Santa Monica’s development of the Wellbeing Project, an index that measures the community’s health – physical, mental, economical and cultural.

"Our Wellness Project asked the question, 'Why are people here?'" O'Connor said. "Santa Monica is a place of well being. It's not just our brand, it's intrinsic to our way of life."

O’Connor also announced the opening of a new Pier Shop and Visitor Center, located in the historic Looff Hippodrome.

“This is for visitors to our city, of course,” O’Connor said. “But it’s also for our residents. You’d be surprised what you don’t know about Santa Monica.”

International tourism was boosted by the 2010 Travel Promotion Act to create Brand USA, whose goal is to attract 100 million international visitors to the country annually by 2021.

An executive order from President Obama calling for faster visa processing times in target countries like Brazil, China and India reduced visa application waits from an average 45 days down to one week.

“The role of the travel industry in any city is to promote, advise and advocate,” said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California. “Our mission is to create a desire for the California experience.”

Working with Brand USA, the SMCVB has done just that. In December 2012, local hotels established – and the City Council unanimously passed – a Tourism Marketing District (TMD) to increase tourism revenues and hotel stays.

With Santa Monica’s average hotel occupancy running about 85 percent (compared to the national average of 61 percent), the idea is to encourage longer stays by international visitors -- who spend more each day and travel less by car than local visitors do.

But there is competition. Beteta said that the U.S. spends less on attracting tourists than Mexico, Australia or the UK – top markets for U.S. tourism.

“Next year, we expect China will be the top travel spot,” Beteta said. “So we’re going after new demographics with ‘Experience Pillars’ – family fun, culinary, culture, recreation and luxury.”

In an effort to catch up with the rest of the global hot spots, SMCVB has hit social media hard on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, generating advertising equivalency of $1.6 million.

Non-traditional platforms like Hulu, Pandora and the Daily Buzz are all featuring a “Kids at Play” campaign that stars some animated favorites, including Phineas & Ferb and Spongebob Squarepants. Clearly, the kids have a say in vacation time these days.

“People in other countries think about California and they think Hollywood,” said Ann Madison, Brand USA’s Chief Communications Officer. “We’re saying to them, ‘Oh, there’s so much more.’”

But once you draw the quality international visitors, you have to work to retain them. Denise Pirrotti Hummel is founder and CEO of Universal Consensus, a company that basically acts as a field guide for cross cultural strategies to finding and keeping international visitors. She said that foreigners return where they feel welcome and where their hosts display a modicum of familiarity with their native customs.

“You know 70 percent of Americans don’t hold passports,” Hummel said. “For most of the rest of the developed world, that is unfathomable. So the message is to try different things. Step outside of yourself.”

That includes having a concierge who knows visitors from China are not keen on sun or riding bikes (they have a history). But they value wellness. Spa days and museum tours fit their bill.

“Being U.S.-centric will not give us a competitive edge,” Hummel warned.

SMCVB President and CEO Misti Kerns assured guests that their primary job is to protect “your investment in a healthy environment while building tourism.”

While nearly all current city construction is for housing units and schools, several hotel construction and improvement plans will add 779 rooms, expanding the tight hotel room market, Kerns said.

“Twelve percent of our city’s funds come from tourism,” Kerns said. “Improvements to our local hotels will bring in, conservatively, $20 million to TOT alone and 4,178 more jobs. All in all, we’re looking at $218 million in direct economic impact from additional hotel units.”

Kerns was also happy to present the Thelma Parks Tourism Spirit Awards to two individuals that epitomize the best of the hospitality industry: Elizabeth Wilson-Hoyles, director of guest services at Huntley Santa Monica, and Mickey Barnes, server at The Red Lobster Restaurant.

To read more about the SMCVB, visit

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