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Bob Filner is widely viewed as a flawed political figure. But his brief time as mayor did produce one significant benefit for San Diego.

Filner’s confrontational approach unintentionally set the table for a critical performance test, exposing the hotelier-controlled Tourism Authority for what it actually is, or rather, is not.

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The group has long taken credit for San Diego’s tourism successes, and most San Diegans have accepted those claims at face value. The evidence paints a starkly different picture. Our next mayor will have a golden opportunity to address this problem, and in doing so, significantly advance our city’s presence on the global stage.

While keeping San Diego’s long-standing reputation as a desirable tourist destination in mind, let’s also remember that the Tourism Marketing District (TMD) only came into being in 2008. Statistical comparisons may look good, but only because 2008 was an artificially low starting point: a collapsed global economy, the Great Recession in full swing and tourism crippled.

By 2012, the Tourism Authority’s (formerly ConVis) annual budget for marketing San Diego had grown to $30 million, with $22 million coming from TMD.  In January 2013, the political winds shifted and Filner froze TMD’s funds. Dire warnings for tourism ensued:

U-T San Diego, Jan. 25“The delay could put San Diego at a competitive disadvantage for the all-important summer season.”

TMD report, Feb. 22“Mayor Filner’s unilateral and obstinate objection to policy decisions made before he took office has led ConVis to cancel a multi-million-dollar spring marketing campaign ahead of the busy summer tourism season.” 

U-T San Diego, March 25“Hotel occupancy fell last month, a direct result of San Diego’s lack of advertising promoting the city as a tourist destination, believes the Tourism Authority … Terzi also noted that for a 28-day period ended March 16, hotel occupancy countywide was down 4.8 percent.”

On May 31, Filner released TMD’s funds, with a caveat the city be indemnified from liability. Of 226 marketing district hotels, only 34 signed the indemnification waiver, leaving most TMD money frozen.

READ MORE: What the Tourism Authority Actually Does

The Tourism Authority’s budget has been slashed to $5 million (from $30 million) and staffing cut to 48 (from 100). These cutbacks, coupled with the cancellation of spring and summer ad campaigns, were said to portend a summer tourism catastrophe.  Let’s investigate:

Tourism Authority, July Report (latest published)“The visitor industry saw decent growth in volume and spending in May 2013. Total visitor volume was more than 2.6 million, up almost 4 percent, and total visitor spending rose 7.5 percent to $683 million for the month.”

U-T San Diego, Aug. 27: “More than 2.4 million Southern Californians are expected to travel over Labor Day weekend, and San Diego will be their top target … If that holds, it would be a jump of 6 percent over the number of travelers in 2012.”

U-T San Diego, Sept. 3“San Diego … moved up a notch in a national ranking of top meeting destinations … as the fifth most active city.”

KPBS, Oct. 16“City’s general fund balance sheet for the fiscal year ended June 30 … hotel room tax revenue rose the most, 7.2 percent to $83.9 million.”

Lo and behold, no catastrophe.

In fact, the numbers look great in light of the draconian cutbacks at the Authority – even more so in an economy growing at less than 2 percent. It begs the existential question: Why fund the Tourism Authority at all?

The Tourism Authority has spent more than $100 million of taxpayer dollars promoting San Diego since TMD’s 2008 formation, yet San Diego still lacks a compelling, long-term brand and message. The only thing San Diego has to show for all this time and money is a string of throwaway ad campaigns that have likely done more harm than good – all for the sake of filling hotel rooms in the short term.

A perfect example is the tourism group’s recent “Happiness Happens” ad campaign – a direct play off the slang “Shit Happens.”

What marketing entity worth its salt would subliminally and contextually associate our beautiful city with “shit”? The group’s latest brainstorms include “Yooo Hooo, Big Smiles Are Calling.”

San Diego is slouching toward inanity.

Imagine San Diego’s growth potential if it had a meaningful, long-term marketing message. Think New York City (Big Apple, I NY), Las Vegas (Sin City, What Happens Here Stays Here), Paris (City of Lights), Coca-Cola (Enjoy), Apple (Think Different) and Nike (Just Do It).

How do we bring San Diego to that level? First, admit we have done a poor job marketing our city, our product. Second, marketing San Diego is important for all San Diegans, not just hoteliers – deploy resources as such. Third, dissolve the Tourism Authority and begin anew.

Then, I propose we establish a new and independent entity – Project San Diego. Its mission would be to create a vibrant, bilingual brand and message for San Diego, and project that onto the global stage. There would be no more throwaway ad campaigns – all resources and tourism promotions would build on, reinforce and project our brand. Nike and Las Vegas succeeded using this approach. So too can San Diego.

George Mullen is an artist, writer and occasional economist with in downtown San Diego. Mullen’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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