Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Nearby violence is El Paso's latest image problem

by Zahira Torres \ Austin Bureau
Posted: 12/26/2010 01:38:32 AM MST

El Paso Mayor John Cook has said that over the years, El Paso 's proximity to Juarez has brought positive trade relations and economic progress to both. But, Cook said, the violence in Juarez has hurt the image people have of El Paso. (Photo illustration by Mark Lambie / El Paso Times)El Paso has an image problem.

It is the safest big city in the country, yet its neighbor's reputation as the most dangerous place in Mexico is steering some tourists and businesses away from the border.

It is a city that boasts an authentic Mexican culture but is often overshadowed by Santa Fe and San Antonio, which market themselves with flair.

Though El Paso residents tout the scenic mountain vistas and good climate, some out-of-towners say they do not know where El Paso is, let alone what attractions it offers.

Changing El Paso's image has been a daunting task, said Richard Dayoub, the CEO of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce.
"For years we've had a hard time getting national recognition, for people across the country to really figure out what is El Paso, where is it?" Dayoub said. "For all of our efforts, I think we have probably struggled as a community to find the right messages, and we are not consistent enough in getting those messages out."

The latest problems

Now, city leaders say, the difficulties have grown with political rhetoric centering around border security and a national spotlight that has focused on the violence in Juárez.

Juárez has exceeded 3,000 murders this year, compared with only seven homicides in greater El Paso -- five in the city and two in the county.

It is a striking disparity that on one hand has stimulated El Paso's economy through the migration of people and businesses from Mexico. But it has also created misconceptions that hurt El Paso as it looks to draw tourists and businesses from throughout the United States.

That leaves city leaders searching for ways to separate El Paso's image from that of its sister city after years of using the proximity to Mexico as a marketing tool to attract visitors.

"Part of El Paso's image was that it was a binational, international community. That has pluses and minuses, but we have struggled to define an image," City Manager Joyce Wilson said. "We've gone through branding and imaging and it's very hard to get consensus."

The latest numbers

El Paso spends about $680,000 a year from a $2.9 million Convention and Visitors Bureau budget on advertising intended to encourage regional tourism and secure conventions.

Santa Fe's Convention and Visitors Bureau spends about $800,000 of its $2.5 million budget on tourism advertising. The New Mexico city has about 74,000 people, according to census estimates.

Hotel occupancy in El Paso is up this year and is beating out other metro areas of Texas. The number of businesses that have expressed an interest in relocating to the El Paso region has grown from 79 three years ago to 192 this year, according to El Paso's Regional Economic Development Corp.

But, city leaders say, they are battling misconceptions about El Paso when recruiting businesses and marketing the city as a convention site. The subject has even bubbled up for college coaches trying to recruit athletes.

El Paso is not seeing large dips in hotel occupancy because it does not rely heavily on recreational tourism, said Bill Blaziek, the general manager of the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Instead, he said, hotel occupancy has remained steady because of business travelers, overnight stays from Mexican shoppers and people driving through to other destinations.

But, Blaziek said, at least half a dozen state associations have postponed their conventions in El Paso because of concerns about the violence in Juárez. Those decisions have cost El Paso hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

Recruitment efforts

El Paso's Regional Economic Development Corp., which receives about $150,000 annually from the city to help recruit businesses, is also having to combat false impressions.

Bob Cook, the group's president, said his biggest challenge is tackling concerns over security. Cook said he is always prepared with crime statistics that show El Paso is safe. Still, he said, he worries that some businesses may have decided not to consider the city without giving leaders a chance to dispel myths.

Setbacks included a misstatement by Republican Gov. Rick Perry on national television during his bid for re-election this year. Perry incorrectly said bombs were exploding in El Paso. Though his staff later explained that the governor meant to say Juárez, El Paso leaders said his comment was harmful.

Dayoub said city leaders could not have predicted that the corruption and violence in Juárez would escalate to such a degree or that it would have "such a dramatic effect" on El Paso's image.

"I don't think anyone could have been so farseeing, so clairvoyant, as to have recognized that it would escalate to the level that it has," Dayoub said.

What's needed

Billy Vassiliadis, who runs the company responsible for Las Vegas' "What happens here, stays here" campaign, said dispelling misconceptions is important but not enough.

Vassiliadis, the CEO of R&R Partners, said El Paso should start focusing on what makes it different from other communities, and that requires investment.

He said the city must first spend money researching what makes it different, why people visit and whether the violence in Juárez truly had a large negative impact on tourism and business recruitment. That could cost between $200,000 and $300,000 the first year and about $150,000 annually, he said.

"El Paso's got to decide they want to own something," Vassiliadis said. "They want to represent something they can own and they can deliver on that's unique to them."

He said that was what Las Vegas did when it started feeling economic pressure because of the expansion of gambling to other states in the late 1990s. His city spends about $3 million a year on research to market itself.

"We looked for one thing to set us apart," he said. "The one differentiator for us was this notion of an adult freedom, an adult escape," he said.

New Orleans' story

El Paso may also be able to take a cue from New Orleans -- a city that understands the struggles of rebranding perhaps better than any other community in America.

Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city has been the focus of national media attention since it was pummeled by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Schulz said that meant if there was a murder in New Orleans it was on the front page of the New York Times, or if there was another natural disaster it was compared to New Orleans. Then, as the city was rebounding, it faced misconceptions about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Schulz said.

"Here we are fighting this perception battle and trying to remind people there's not water in our streets and we do have restaurants open and you can come visit," she said. "In the meantime, they're turning on their television and reading the newspaper and all they're hearing about is all the things that are not working in New Orleans."

Schulz said New Orleans started an aggressive marketing campaign that sought to encourage tourists to return to the city and dispel myths through provocative advertising.

It received help from famous actors, chefs and musicians who offered to appear in commercials. They let the city use their names in letters and went on national television to promote New Orleans. And it didn't hurt that the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl last year, she said.

Native son

Aaron Sanchez, an El Pasoan who is a chef on the Food Network and owns a restaurant in New York City, said though he has not been asked, he would happily appear in commercials to promote his hometown.

Sanchez already has featured the city twice on Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" program. He said he hopes to soon open his own restaurant on El Paso's West Side.

"I will never ever stop telling people where I'm from and to go there and visit," he said. "El Paso needs to establish itself as a tourist destination and let people know why they should go there."

City's efforts

Wilson said the city may soon take Sanchez up on his offer.

The city has put together "a counter crisis communications program" to be more proactive in dealing with media about the violence in Juárez and its impact on El Paso.

She said the program would also reinforce the growth, economic development and business and international investment in El Paso.

She said after the new year the city will look to develop a website that provides facts about Juárez and El Paso. City leaders will also set up special media briefings and create targeted advertisements that will run strategically across the country.

Blaziek said instead of initiating a national tourism campaign, the city will continue to focus on drawing tourists from markets within a 300-mile radius "rather than market in some areas that may misunderstand the dynamics of El Paso."

"We are comfortable in knowing who we are, and we can see that we are not a national destination for leisure travel," he said.

El Paso branding

Blaziek said El Paso has great weather and Mexican food but lacks the hotel resorts, commercial attractions and the direct flights that would make it a national destination.

But Ed O'Hara, a senior partner with SME Branding in New York, said during tough economic times all cities should be aggressively trying to tap into tourism and business dollars.

His company has helped cities with Olympic bids and has worked with brands like Adidas, the Kentucky Derby and NASCAR Media Group. It also created the sports logo for the University of Texas at El Paso.

"Every city, every state is cutting budgets and all we hear about are budget cuts and that services are going to go down," O'Hara said. "Why aren't they actively branding? It's pretty scary to me."

Hollywood thoughts

Hollywood actress Lupe Ontiveros, who has appeared in movies such as "Selena" and "Real Women Have Curves," said El Paso needs a marketing campaign. But, she said, the city should not lose its identity in the process.

"Find the beauty of what's in El Paso," she said. "The sunsets or the peace of going out into the desert."

Ontiveros, a native El Pasoan who lives in California, said El Paso has never been good at selling itself.

"The city of commerce or the business bureau has not been creative enough to find the catch, either they're afraid to or they don't want to spend the money," she said, adding that if she can see commercials to visit Israel in Los Angeles she should see such ads for El Paso.

El Paso must find its voice despite financial constraints, Dayoub said.

"I think we are getting to a point now where as a region we don't have any more options," Dayoub said. "We simply must stay focused and raise those dollars so we can do a national marketing effort to demonstrate what a wonderful community we have."

Zahira Torres may be reached at ztorres@elpasotimes.com; 512-479-6606.

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