Phillip Jones can finally spend more time at home. The president and CEO of VisitDallas, as well as other convention leaders involved in the Texas Welcomes All coalition, had been investing a great deal of time in Austin over the past four months to make sure that lawmakers recognized the economic ramifications of passing discriminatory legislation around bathroom use. “The days of assuming that our leaders automatically understand the importance of tourism are no longer,” Jones told PCMA the day after the so-called “bathroom bill” failed to pass in a special legislative session in the state capital on Aug. 15. “We have to be more vocal and more visible and support candidates who understand the value of our industry.”
Other Texas CVB execs are also breathing a sigh of relief. “The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau is pleased the so-called ‘bathroom bill’ did not become law in the state of Texas,” Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, told PCMA. “We consider this a victory not only for the State, but also for those of us in the travel, tourism, and hospitality industry who aggressively worked together to defeat this unnecessary legislation.”
Convention and travel industry executives didn’t defeat the bill by themselves. Jones pointed out that the support of 51 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies was a key ingredient in articulating the bill’s potentially catastrophic economic impact. Maura Allen Gast, FCDME, executive director, Irving Convention & Visitors Bureau, agreed that big business made a big difference.
“It was important that we all come together as an industry to tackle this issue, but it is equally important to understand that our voices alone weren’t enough,” Gast said. “It took the added weight and influence of the Texas Association for Business, and then the amplified voices of the state’s largest corporations weighing in to ultimately get it done. When those voices began to be heard — voices that were much broader than the convention and tourism industry — it allowed our elected officials to see the far-reaching impact of this issue and to see it as an economic issue.”
Visit San Antonio President and CEO Casandra Matej concurred. “The effort against the bathroom bill wasn’t about a single organization, community, or industry,” she said. “This fight truly was a united front ensuring a bright future for Texas.”
Repairing the Damage
While Texas convention and tourism leaders are celebrating that bright future, they also recognize that the past few months have taken a toll on the state’s reputation. “We’ve been keeping a close tally on the potential lost business,” Jones said. “We do know that approximately $40 million worth of business [for Dallas alone] already decided to go elsewhere because Texas lawmakers were even talking about a bathroom bill.”
Jones said that organizers of another $200-million worth of convention business for the city had been closely watching the decision on the bill, and VisitDallas is now working to make sure that those clients — and other prospective clients — know that the bill has been defeated.
Waterman said that no groups that had already booked business in Houston had canceled because of the legislation. “However, we are certain if the bill had passed,” Waterman said, “there would have been harmful economic repercussions to our industry.”
In Irving, Gast said that several groups had indicated concerns about the bill, and some of them took Texas out of contention for certain meetings. “If the window is still open, we’ll be working to get back in [their] consideration,” she said. “But we’ll also be making sure that all of our customers and prospects know that Texas remains open to all, and open for business.”
Nearly 300 miles south, Matej felt a similar impact. “San Antonio saw at least three meetings groups that canceled their event in the city because of the discussion of the proposed bathroom bill,” she said. “While this number may seem small, it does not tell the entire story as we do not fully know how many other potential meetings did not even knock on San Antonio’s — or other Texas cities’ — doors because of the bathroom bill.”
As Jones, Waterman, Gast, Matej, and their colleagues around the state aim to repair their lost business, they also know that their advocacy work is not done. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick — one of the main architects of the bathroom bill — highlighted that the issue will still be on the agenda when legislators convene again in January 2019. “You know why it’s going to be back next session?” Patrick told The New York Times. “Because the people will demand it. The issue is not going to go away.”
If the issue does indeed return, the Texas Welcomes All coalition will be out in front of it. “This was a real wake-up call for our industry about the importance of being politically active,” Jones said. “We have to stay engaged in the process, and we must continuously monitor this issue and other issues that can stand in the way of attendees feelin