Bill Blaziek brags a lot about El Paso.
It’s been his job for nearly a dozen years as the general manager of the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But he’ll be retiring Nov. 15, ending a very long career in the marketing and management of major gambling resorts and city destinations from California to New Jersey before coming to El Paso.
He spent 20 years in Atlantic City as a top marketing executive for Donald Trump’s Atlantic City Resorts International and as vice president of marketing for the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority after it was taken over by SMG.
SMG, “the world’s largest private company managing public facilities,” thought he was right for the job as manager of El Paso’s convention and visitors center after winning the management contract in 1992.
El Paso’s leaders weren’t what a guy coming from the glittery land of Trump and high-rise casino hotels might have expected.
“This is no cowtown and don’t confuse it with one because there is a very sophisticated group of people in this community,” he said. “It’s a desert community, and my daughter was in Las Vegas. It felt right.”
Things were pretty flat when he arrived.
El Paso had no great attractions and those it did have – great weather, Mexico, mountains and a ton of attractions a short drive away – weren’t being aggressively marketed.
Hotel occupancy was down and conventions were hard to draw because El Paso was so far away from everywhere else.
There was one good hotel Downtown, the small Holiday Inn Express, and not much going on.
Some of that hasn’t changed a lot and some of it has – not all of it for the better.
Then, the job consisted of running the convention center and Abraham Chavez Theatre and luring conventions and large meetings to El Paso. Since then, SMG and Blaziek have taken over the management and marketing of the Plaza Theatre and Performing Arts Center and McKelligon Canyon facilities.
“When I tell you we entertained about 450,000 people in our venues last year – the convention center, Abraham Chavez Theatre, the Plaza and Arts Festival Plaza, it tells you they are far more active than they have ever been,” he said. “We also had 48 events last summer in McKelligon Canyon. When I got here in 2002, we had ‘Viva! El Paso’ and its 18 performances.”
Back then, Mexico was El Paso’s biggest tourist attraction. But with 9/11, tighter security, passport requirements, a great recession and a drug war that has devastated Juárez, that’s gone.
Today, there are a couple of new hotels Downtown, more around town and more coming.
Downtown is a busy place and about to get a lot busier with a new ballpark, museums and new attractions, thanks to $475-million in quality of life bonds that voters approved last November.
“I hope everyone is excited about what all that is going to mean for a lot of our ambitions,” Blaziek said.
The coming years, he said, are going to be exciting for El Paso.
So why is he retiring?
“Because I’m old, and I’m supposed to,” he said. “I think there has to be a time when each of us realizes you’ve done a good job and it’s time to step aside.”
But wait, that’s not the whole story. Blaziek, who will not say how old he is, has a new life and a 4-year-old son to brag about.
“I will get to invest more time with my son, Bill,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of hobbies. This is true retirement.
“After 46 continuous years of employment, I’m ready.”
He met with El Paso Inc. recently to talk a little about his career and a lot about El Paso, its unmined tourist attractions and what it will take to make El Paso a destination city.
Q: What has changed the most about Downtown in 12 years?
The biggest change Downtown is probably programming. First off, SMG is aggressively marketing to create activity. How do you do it? You invent. You create activities. Alfresco Friday is the perfect example. Every Friday night for six months, we attract 11,000 or 12,000 people for free music and dancing. But other people are doing it, too. The city’s Museum and Cultural Affairs Department with Chalk the Block and all the activities they’ve been creating.
More important is the funding they’re making available: Neon Desert and craft beer festivals and then there was the big music festival at Ascarate. It generated over 1,200 room nights in hotels and motels because these kids came in like they were going to South by Southwest (SXSW).
Q: How would you describe El Paso now?
A lot of people would tell you or they are convinced by observation that we still are a pass-through city, a city of convenience, a good place for a stop-over but we’re not a destination. In other words, there’s not enough attraction for you and I to make the decision on vacation or a long leisure weekends to go to El Paso.
Q: What would El Paso really need to become a place people want to visit?
There’s a number of things we’d like to have. We don’t have a resort destination or a resort hotel that could become a destination in and of itself. So, a resort development here would be exceptional. Or, a commercial attraction. The story that appeals to me is San Antonio. When I go somewhere for the weekend, I want fine dining, my wife wants some great shopping and the kids want to be entertained.
Q: I’ve been asked by visitors Downtown who’ve got a couple of hours to spend, ‘What is there to see?’ It’s surprisingly hard to answer. What is El Paso’s best Downtown attraction?
We’re asked that all the time. Infrastructure development is what the mayor is talking about when he said, “I’m going to build a destination city.” He didn’t mean he’s going to spend a bazillion dollars marketing something we can’t deliver. If we suggest there are four or five hotspots they’ll enjoy, we’ve got to be able to take them to those hotspots.
Q: Name one thing Downtown.
We have a walking tour of Downtown El Paso that will keep you busy for 3½ hours. It’s historic buildings, it’s museums, it’s San Jacinto Park. Therein lies the reason for the Hispanic Cultural Center, the children’s museum and everything coming with quality of life bond projects.
Q: What did you mean by commercial attraction, and do we have any?
A facility designed for family entertainment. We don’t have a lot of commercial attractions, but what we do have is, for example, the El Paso Zoo. It’s meant to educate and entertain the whole family.
Q: Is there a potential gold mine out there that would be uniquely El Paso?
The Mission Trail. It’s probably one of the most profound and significant attractions we have. What we don’t have is infrastructure and organization. If you’re going to feature three missions along Socorro Road as the Mission Trail with the purpose of attracting historical and cultural tourism, then you have to give them good signage, kiosks along the way as reminders that they’re on the right track, restroom facilities and refreshments. You also need docents, and you need the missions to cooperate with you.
Your organization also has to find funding. Some has been made available on a sporadic basis, mostly by the county. The thing we advocated here is before you attempt to market something like the Mission Trail you have to invest in the infrastructure and build the Mission Trail in such a way that you pay the promise.
The promise is we’ve created a trail of historic museums. But, you’ve got to find a way to get people there. You’ve got to entertain them along the trail, remind them they’re moving in the right direction and then you have to offer answers to questions, vis-a-vis the use of docents or volunteers.
Q: Does the Mission Trail have any of that?
Q: How long has this discussion about the Mission Trail’s potential been going on?
Continually for the last 10 to 12 years. Most recently when the county set aside a $75,000 to $80,000 marketing fund and hired an agency to direct the spending of that. At that time we clearly said to the county that it would in your best interest to invest in infrastructure before you invest in another marketing effort. That’s because we can’t deliver the patron.
Q: County Judge Veronica Escobar and Commissioner Vince Perez have been talking to Congressman Pete Gallego about working with the National Park Service to establish a Mission Trail National Park linking the Ysleta, Socorro and San Elizario missions similar to the one in San Antonio.
Have you been consults on that? What do you think of the idea?
Yes, we have. Our director of tourism, Veronica Castro, is very active on that committee.
Q: We wrote about the missions national park idea in August and then received an email from an El Paso couple who said they had called the number on the Mission Trail website for information and only got a recording with the times of church services. They decided to go anyway but had little luck finding information about the missions or getting in.
Is there a particular obstacle to making the Mission Trail work?
You just hit on it. I’ve already mentioned what we need to do in building infrastructure. I will say in the defense of the city that they build the Mission Valley Transit Terminal to serve several purposes and they combined that with the visitor information center there.
Q: What about the area around the old La Hacienda Café? You have the Old Fort Bliss and the spot where most historians believe Don Juan de Oñate first crossed the Rio Grande. Right now, the owner, Chip Johns, is fighting with the federal government because it wants to put the border fence right through the Paso del Norte site. What would it take to develop that into an attraction?
There’s so much historical value there. The El Paso County Historical Commission has looked at it from time to time. In tourism, I talk about the lily pad effect. We could feature the Magoffin Home and be successful because of the volunteerism there and the foundation and funding they have.
And if Mission Trail is part of it, then why not the site of the Hacienda, the original Fort Bliss barracks and the Spanish crossing? There’s also Cristo Rey, and Keystone Heritage Park is another example.
We need to connect these sites and create a network. But delivering the customer is one of our big issues because we don’t have tour companies here.
Q: Why not?
We’re not a destination city. The demand isn’t there yet. But when we start to build the infrastructure and these destination attractions, the demand will grow.
Q: How would you describe the hotel situation in El Paso 12 years ago?
Bleak. The Camino Real was in a state of disrepair. The shell of the old International Hotel was an eyesore. We had the loss of lodging there and a scar on the streetscape. The Artisan Hotel, which was a Sheraton, had closed.
We had a near void of hotel lodging Downtown, except for the Holiday Inn Express.
Since then, we’ve had a deal to open the Artisan with a new flag and owner. We’ve had the DoubleTree Hotel where the International was on the interstate. We’re encouraged by what we hear about the Camino Real Hotel, that they are really looking at the best use of the property and are talking with prospective developers. But nothing yet.
Q: What can the city do about the fact that the owners of the biggest hotel in town won’t address its problems?
We take great encouragement in hearing Mayor Leeser say one of his priorities is attracting a full-service conventional hotel. That’s what he wants. Can that come in the form of a Camino Real? You bet. But it’s going to take significant investment in the property. If they won’t, then we’ll try to bring a developer here who will build a full-service convention hotel. That will probably perk up the Camino, too.
Q: When you talk about a full-service hotel, you’re talking about how many rooms?
I’d say 275 to 300 would be a good balance.
Q: DoubleTree owner Jim Scherr is proposing to build a new Marriott Urban Courtyard Hotel next to the DoubleTree. What would that do for Downtown, and how far do you think the city should go to help him?
He is willing to invest a significant amount of money, about $17 million. He’s asked for $3 million in tax incentives. City Council engaged a third party to evaluate the investment and the incentive. We need a full-service convention hotel Downtown first. We also need to amass rooms Downtown in support of the largest conventions. If we had roughly 750 to 800 rooms Downtown and the operators of those hotels are willing to set aside about two-thirds of those rooms as group commitments for any one convention, then I can attract the lion’s share of state conventions to El Paso.
Most of them will want everything under one roof – a hotel with 275 to 300 rooms, meeting and banquet facilities with about 18,000 to 25,000 square feet.
Q: Scherr has 200 rooms in the DoubleTree and 140 in the hotel he is proposing. Would that work?
He can’t host meetings and conventions because he doesn’t have the public space. It’s a transit hotel.
Q: But they do have the public space at the Camino?
Yeah. And they would in a full-service convention headquarters hotel.
Q: How is El Paso’s hotel occupancy rate and does it suggest the city needs another new Downtown hotel, even if it means providing big subsidies to get it?
We’re doing pretty well – 63.5 percent year to date through August. That’s the citywide average, regardless of who they are. It could be a Montana Avenue motel that might be 45 or 50 years old. They’re not popular flags, they’re independent.
But then there are core properties that are fresh or new. They’re either built in the last five years or they abide by the industry standard of refurbishing their rooms on a regular basis. There are about 15 of those hotels in the city and their occupancy rate is 74.4 percent.
So, the good properties are doing extremely well, when you consider the national average is probably 63 percent.
Q: How is the city doing on conventions and meetings?
We are very weak in a state market in terms of our ability to compete with other Texas cities. So, we concentrate on smaller meetings and generate the leads for member hotels.
We’ve done a great job of attracting the small convention that fits in a modern airport facility, a Hilton Garden Inn or a DoubleTree.
What we’ve been able to do is create activity, whether its trade shows, gate shows, consumer shows. The level of activity we’re creating is producing very similar revenues to those that conventions would produce.
Q: While you are generally referred to as the general manager of the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, you actually work for SMG, right? What does SMG do nationally?
They do what we do here. SMG is the world’s largest private company managing public facilities. What we do is what I do here. We engage in the destination marketing for cities and facilities and we are facility managers. We have four kinds of properties and two divisions – the arena and stadiums division and convention center and theaters division.
Q: Now that you’re retiring what are you going to do? Will you be staying in El Paso?
Yes, my plan is to stay. My son’s a fourth-grader at St. Mark’s School and he likes it. El Paso gets its grip on you. When I was assigned to come here, I had to check a map to see where it was. Now, I have trouble thinking about living anywhere else.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.