Houstonians can pat themselves on the back, according to Mike Gallagher, president of CityPass. A pre-paid package of passes to local attractions such as Space Center Houston and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, CityPass is one way to measure H-town's tourist trade. And even with Hurricane Ike effectively shutting everything down for a couple of weeks, CityPass sales exceeded their goal for 2008.
"We were hoping to get to 30,000 and we beat that," Gallagher told Hair Balls. "You beat Boston, you beat Philadelphia and you beat Hollywood. On our list of 10 cities, you're number 7." (Other CityPass locations are New York, Chicago and Toronto.)
CityPass packages cost $39 and save visitors more than $30 in admission fees. There are eight participating attractions and visitors can chose up to six. Sales figures show that 74 percent of purchases were by out-of-towners, but surprisingly 26 percent were by Houstonians. Gallagher says some of those Houstonians were buying passes for their out-of-town guests, but he suspects that at least some of those are for 'hometown tourists' looking for deals on prices.
So how's the current economy crunch affecting Houston tourism? Not much, according to Gallagher.
"We sold twice as much in March this year as we did last year [during the same month]," he says. "The first thing that businesses do is cut business travel; no more meetings, no more face-to-face visits. That opens up hotel rooms for leisure travelers, at attractive discounts and packages that the hotel has to offer in order to fill those rooms. It's a great time to go to cities right now, because you can find such deals. Last year, gas prices were $4 a gallon, hotel prices were $500 a night in New York. Now everything is about half that so people are able to take the same trip for less."
Still, it's not all good news. "We are seeing is that once they get to the attraction, people are spending less in the attraction, less in the gift shop, in the restaurant, but they are visiting the attractions."
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Does Gallagher have any advice for Houston?
"You've got to believe in yourself as a leisure destination. You've got to start telling yourself that you have a lot to offer visitors, that you're an attractive destination -- I've got 31,000 people to prove that's true. There's a tendency to badmouth yourself, saying, 'We're not as good as ... or as ...' and that's not correct. If you look at the good in Houston, at the downtown area and [museum district], I think you underestimate yourself.
"I haven't been here in the summer, so I don't know about that, but you have a lot to offer. The Space Center is a one of a kind. The museums are wonderful. You don't have to go to Europe for vacation, to see history or to see art. You can do that right here in Houston."
(Possible key words in the last quote: "I haven't been here in the summer.")