The Grand Del Mar in San Diego (above)
Earlier this week I was in San Diego for three days attending a conference. It was what folks who promote tourism refer to as “Chamber of Commerce weather.” I don’t get out there much anymore, but I have fond memories from when I lived in Los Angeles in the late 80s. Back then, I came down regularly on business and even spent my honeymoon on Coronado Island.
Depending on what’s happening on your local news cycle you may or may not be aware that the embattled Mayor Bob Filner is right now on leave getting treatment after he admitted “intimidating” women. It’s big news there. I was staying at the same hotel as super lawyer Gloria Allred (she represents several of Filner’s now 13 accusers) and during lunch was able to watch her prep clients for the ongoing string of her news conferences. She was at the next table. The local television stations were covering her press conferences live.
Unrelated to the Mayor’s current problems he has also been at war with the San Diego Tourism Authority since coming into office last December. He has been withholding his signature from an operating document (a formality supposed to be signed by the former, outgoing Mayor) that enables the majority of funding for the bureau to be dispensed. It means promotional and marketing campaigns have been killed, sales reps who call on the important group business and convention buyers market have been laid off, and marketing firms in Korea and Japan that support the new daily nonstop flight on Japan Airlines from Tokyo had their contracts suspended.
Beyond these fog banks which have enveloped the local chatter, San Diego is looking harder at drawing elite travelers who will not only come to enjoy the California sunshine, but have the potential to be investors in the community. A recent article in Forbes described how Ultra High Net Worth consumers end up investing in places they first visit on vacation. Investments by elite travelers after visiting a destination can range from single millions up to the $100 million plus category, according to Russ Alan Prince, author of over 40 books on various topics about the super rich.
Tying together tourism promotion and investment “is a symbiotic relationship,” said Joe Terzi, CEO of San Diego Tourism Authority during an interview at his office.
“Energy, Biotech, Life Sciences are a key economic base, and San Diego is the center of the creation side of these industries. The creation of the idea, the research and development is coming out of San Diego,” Terzi said. The military also remains a core part of the local economy and from that are numerous opportunities for businesses as well.
Steve Pelzer, a veteran hotel executive who has spent the past 25 years in San Diego, opened The Lodge at Torrey Pines and during the Nineties ran marketing for the tourist board noted, “For companies today, the competition for brainpower is high. The largest number of Nobel prize winners in the world live in San Diego. We have surfing Nobel laureates. There is a tremendous amount of brainpower in San Diego.”
Terzi said many who have started businesses in the area initially came as a result of visiting on vacation or for a meeting, then viewed the region as a place they wanted to plant a flag. “There is a very strong education system at the university level. You can drive the canyons and find hundreds of small companies developing new technologies. Go there and you’ll find the next Qualcomm.”
While brain matter may be a selling point for San Diego, if your business involves the brawn of manufacturing, Terzi has a pitch as well: “We have the proximity to Mexico. Mexico is becoming an influence on production so more companies are using San Diego as a base and doing production in Mexico as an alternative to Asia.”
When you get off the plane, sunshine is always a good thing. “It starts with the weather,” Terzi said. “We’ve got a wide variety of products. San Diego is a city that has a lot to offer. It’s easy to navigate. It’s got great attractions. It’s got a strong arts and entertainment scene, unique neighborhoods.”
Being the top tourism promoter, it’s not surprising that Terzi said, “We’re not know for arts and culture, but we don’t take a back seat to anybody.” However a well know travel writer who recently penned a piece on San Diego said she was surprised to learn that the city sends more plays to Broadway than any other U.S. cities (Tommy Boy and Jersey Boys both started there). The San Diego Symphony is playing Carnegie Hall later this year before touring China.
Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre “urban, cultural park” (Central Park in New York is 700 acres) that is home to over a dozen museums, including Air & Space, Railroad, Automotive, Photographic Arts, History and Science, plus an all sports Hall of Fame.
Terzi proudly stated, “It’s the largest collection of museums west of the Mississippi. It’s called the Smithsonian of the West.”
The list of tourist attractions for San Diego County is extensive and diverse. Its namesake zoo is the only West Coast venue to see Chinese Pandas among its 800 species and 4,000 animals. There is Sea World, the USS Midway Museum (you might remember last year University of North Carolina and Michigan State played a collegiate basketball game on its deck), La Jolla Playhouse and The Old Globe Theatre. San Diego is “the craft brewery capital of the World,” Terzi said with over 80 breweries.
Speaking about elite travelers, he noted that all of the previously mentioned venues can be bought out for full takeovers if you are looking for a spectacular party spot. And there is more: Terzi pointed to the beach at the classic Hotel Del Coronado accommodating groups up to 1,000 while Pelzer sites Evans Garage, a highly acclaimed private auto museum owned by his former boss, the owner of The Lodge at Torrey Pines.
From the tourist perspective, there are the beaches, and San Diego’s patchwork of different communities, each with a different vibe ranging from beach bum to hipster to historical, arts, design and silver spoon. There is hiking and soft adventure in the mountains, spas and spa resorts, championship golf courses (Torrey Pines hosts and annual PGA event and hosted the U.S. Open) and a burgeoning fine dining scene, although you may opt for fresh from the hook fish tacos as you sip a local brew in your shorts with sand between your toes. You can even charter sailboats that competed in the America’s Cup. Winning skipper Dennis Connor calls the city his homeport.
While San Diego has multiple options for private jet travelers (Palomar in Carlsbad is the fourth busiest single runway airport in the U.S., there is also Brown Field that can handle GIVs and Montgomery Field up to a Citation Excel), San Diego International is making the destination one stop from virtually anywhere in the World. The aforementioned Japan Airlines flight has put San Diego one stop from numerous cities in China and Southeast Asia. Going the opposite direction British Airways’ daily nonstop to London means the Middle East, Africa, former Soviet republics, Russia and all of Europe have easy access.
Luxury accommodations are not in short supply either. Five Star Alliance, an online booking service for top end properties lists nearly two dozen choices in addition to those already sited, including La Costa, Four Seasons Aviara, Park Hyatt Aviara, L’Auberge del Mar, Loews Coronado Bay, W San Diego, Manchester Grand Hyatt, Rancho Bernardo Inn, Rancho Valencia, The Westgate, Kimpton’s Palomar and US Grant, a Luxury Collection hotel.
The current shiniest star based on recent awards is The Grand Del Mar, the vision of locally based international business whiz Douglas Manchester who reportedly spent $300 million building the place. The resort is a five-star Forbes pick for hotel, spa and dining. It’s also AAA five diamond and recently claimed the number one spot for California (fourth in the U.S.) in Travel + Leisure’s 2013 World’s Best Awards.
“San Diego is really about what Southern California is about,” said Terzi summing up why you should visit, at least on vacation. “It’s what you think about when you think about Highway One, the Beach Boys, the experience. You come here and you kick back. It’s not very pretentious. People are friendly. You have billionaires in shorts and t-shirts. Play a Beach Boys song, take the top down on your convertible, drive up and down the coast and that’s San Diego.”
During a visit to The Grand Del Mar, Thomas J. Voss, President of the resort put it succinctly: “People who come to San Diego want to come back. Some come back and don’t leave.” Chamber of Commerce weather for sure. Perhaps some business opportunities as well.