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2008-01-24

Tourism - good, bad & ugly

By Judith Pannebaker

Douglas Harman, former executive director of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, recently reported on the “good, bad and - sometimes - downright ugly” aspects of Bandera as a tourist draw.

Maximizing tourism
The Bandera County Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsored Harman’s Monday, Jan. 7, presentation, “The Keys to Maximizing Bandera Tourism Success.” The talk emerged from an earlier “mystery shopping tour,” which scrutinized the Cowboy Capital of the World through Harman’s knowledgeable eyes. To ensure an unbiased assessment and experience, the CVB did not plan or make arrangements for his tour of Bandera.

Last fall, Harman, who has been described as “one of the most respected tourism leaders in Texas,” along with Terry King, president of Clayton Consulting, and the pair’s respective spouses visited Bandera “posing” as a quartet of typical tourists. This month Harman offered a 90-minute critique of the visit to community leaders.

His first encounter with Bandera occurred over five years ago when he and his family visited the Mansion in Bandera during a Christmas holiday. “My second visit provided feedback to the CVB,” he said. However, for the past 18 years, Harman had apparently followed the CVB’s marketing of Bandera. Texas friends and “old rodeo people” had also kept him abreast of local happenings.

In addition, as a self-described “long-time collector” of J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times magazine, as well as cowboy gear, Bandera definitely remained on Harman’s radar.

$$$ & cents
Successful tourism, he said, can be measured in dollars and cents. In the best of all tourist worlds, viable destinations understand what visitors want; have unique characteristics of special appeal; are accessible, safe and attractive; market to the right audiences; possess a clear “brand” identity and brand strategies; focus on product improvement; employ cooperative marketing with key regional partners; and have great signage.
“Make Texas heritage fun, interesting and authentic,” Harman urged. “Kick off your events with a boom.”

He also advocated an increased emphasis on Texas’ colorful and diverse heritage, especially the cowboy-vaquero connection. “Most cowboy traditions came from Mexico. Use this as another challenge and marketing opportunity.”

Referencing the twice daily longhorn cattle drives through Fort Worth’s Stockyard District, he added, “Remember, what is ordinary to you and the community may have a tremendous tourist potential.”

To maximize tourism in Bandera, Harman suggested reaching back into the area’s not-too-distant past. An era he considered particularly interesting was that of the “Free State of Bandera.” He called it “an interesting marketing approach, like going back to the natural beginning of the area,” and asked “Does Bandera have a ‘wild side’?”

Additionally, Harman was particularly enthusiastic about the summer program “Cowboys on Main,” which he recommended expanding. He also suggested a more natural setting for the activities, such as on the courthouse lawn, rather than on Highway 16 asphalt in front of the courthouse complex.

Practical suggestions
While praising the unique quality of the visitors’ center, he also pushed for improvements. “You have a great visitors’ center, but put more information on the historical aspect of the building.” In addition, Harman proposed establishing additional information centers throughout the county. “Bandera and Bandera County must be perceived as one large, single destination,” he said, adding, “which should be easy since the city and county share the same name.”

Calling the local music scene “very important to the future of tourism in this area,” Harman said, “Austin might bill itself as the ‘live music capital of Texas,’ but Bandera has a bigger claim to old Texas music.” He also advocated capitalizing more on the area’s western heritage. “Cowboys and cowgirls are a basic appeal. Rodeos are simple to make available to everyone.”
However, he advocated more explanation of the monument on the courthouse lawn and the city’s designation as “The Cowboy Capital of the World.”

“Branding and a sense of humor go together,” said Harman. Citing the intimate lingerie lingering on the ceiling of a local watering hole, he added, “I know Bandera has a sense of humor.”

‘Biggest’ & ‘missed’ opportunity
He presented the Frontier Times Museum as a double-edged sword, calling it Bandera’s “biggest” and “missed” opportunity. He observed, “(J. Marvin) Hunter collected what he collected; however, the collections should be analyzed. There should be good explanations about the history and chronology of the collections.”

In particular, he gave his enthusiastic nod of approval to the newly acquired cowboy hat collection and art of Warren Hunter, son of the museum founder. Warren Hunter also contributed the striking block prints on the covers of the Frontier Times magazines.

“The museum offers a special opportunity to become a high-quality attraction,” Harman said. “It could be one of the top western museums in the state.”

Could stand improving
Other tourist-centric aspects about Bandera that need improving include:

• marked entrances to both the county and city or the county. Harman said, “You need appropriate entrances. There is no excuse for not having good ones.”

• more and better signage - not only in the city, but also on county roads designating points of interest. When queried about current signage, Harman described it unapologetically as “some of the ugliest signage anywhere in Texas.”

• constructing vehicular pull-offs along scenic highways throughout the county.

• avoiding over-commercialization. “Visitors want memories and experiences unique to the area,” Harman said, cautioning the assembly to “avoid the ‘geography of nowhere’.”

• encouraging commercial business owners along Main Street to upgrade and cleanup their establishments. “The number one issue is to clean up Bandera. Trash is a turn-off,” Harman said.

• preserving and restoring the old facades of buildings along Main Street.

• constructing more sidewalks. Harmon said, “It’s critical to make downtown friendly and attractive for pedestrians. There should be sidewalks throughout the town - from the river to Brick’s.”

• exploring possible ways to turn Lake Medina into a major tourism draw. “Why is there no interesting restaurant overlooking the lake?” Harman asked.

• effectively utilizing key historical themes, such as frontier life, Native American culture, historical trails and nature tourism.

• adding a “brand” and lighting to the water tower. “The water tower can be seen for miles and is one of the city’s best means of visibility,” Harman declared. “It needs to stay ‘funky,’ but can certainly be improved to include a brand identification of Bandera. You could just paint ‘Bandera’ in bold old-style letters on the water tower.”

• encouraging establishment of retail businesses along Main Street rather than real estate offices and attorneys.

• upgrading lodging both in and around the city. “Quality lodging is critical to the future of Bandera’s tourism success,” he said, calling current lodging “sub-par and over-priced.” When queried further, Harman said his group “had not had the best experience” in their choice of lodgings - one in the center of town and the other just outside of Bandera.

Future challenges
“Your challenge is getting your house in order before the flood of development that’s on the way arrives,” he told the SRO crowd at the Silver Sage Corral Senior Activity Center. “Strategic planning is needed to ensure Bandera becomes a quality tourist destination spot in Texas.”

Harman deemed nearby natural areas and the Medina River as “critical to the future of tourism. Nature tourism can become one of this area’s greatest opportunities.”

In conclusion, he asked, “Is tourism’s economic importance to Bandera being recognized?”

Quoting the West Texas adage, “A tourist brings in more money than cotton and is easier to pick,” Harman added, “Serving your tourists effectively will make the quality of life better for the people who live here.”