Bryan Crowe is a name that El Pasoans may not know, but it’s a name they’ll be hearing a lot more about.
For the past decade, Crowe has worked behind the scenes at the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau, first as director of operations and then assistant general manager.
He’s been responsible for the operation of more than 2 million square feet of convention, parking and performing arts space.And he has done a lot to bring in big productions, such as “Wicked,” and to make sure they go off without a hitch.
But Crowe was recently made the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau’s chief executive. As promoter in chief, it is his job to brag a lot about El Paso – to promote the city and bring tourists, conventions and shows here.
Crowe, 32, was promoted in September, following the retirement of Bill Blaziek, who was general manager for nearly a dozen years. The El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau also has a new name: Destination El Paso.
The GM’s job has changed a lot since 2004, when Crowe was first hired by Destination El Paso as director of operations. Then, the job meant running the convention center and Abraham Chavez Theatre and luring conventions and large meetings to El Paso.
Now it also includes the management and marketing of the Plaza Theatre and McKelligon Canyon facilities. The GM is also responsible for promoting El Paso and attracting tourists to the city, keeping hotel rooms occupied and performances well attended.
With the nearly $500-million investment the city is making to improve the quality of life, including the construction of a multipurpose arena, the job is likely to get even bigger.
Crowe was born in Chicago. His family moved to Portage, Mich., where he went to high school. As a teen, Crowe worked for the city’ team in charge of events and cultural affairs.
Portage owned a historic park with a small amphitheater, festival site and small museum. There, Crowe says, he became fascinated with the technology behind big productions.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Michigan State, where he worked at the university’s special events center. While an intern with Walt Disney Entertainment, he was assigned to the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, where one of his jobs was to send Tinker Bell flying down a wire from the top of Cinderella Castle.
In 2004, Crowe moved to El Paso and joined Destination El Paso as director of operations. Two years later, he was promoted to assistant GM.
Crowe spoke with El Paso Inc. in his new Downtown office about “authentic” El Paso, becoming a destination city, and working with Tinkerbell.
Q: I can’t help but notice the book on your desk: “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.” Should I read anything into that?
No, I had just moved it to replace the paper in my printer, but that’s not a bad place to start the conversation. We have been working on some organizational changes here, and at the same time, the leadership has changed.
We participated in a strategic planning effort with the city in August and produced a business plan. We are making changes to the name of the organization, the mission statement and how the departments are organized.
Q: Your predecessor, Bill Blaziek, had quite a public persona. He was the “face” of Discover El Paso and a bit of a character. Meanwhile you’ve been behind the scenes as the operations guy. Will we be seeing more of you now?
Bill was the face of the organization, and it’s important that the organization have a public face. Bill’s background and strength is sales and destination marketing; he is a recognizable figure.
It is part of my responsibility to have a public role. I’m a little bit of a different animal than Bill is, but I do OK. I’m a little bit less public than Bill is, but that is part of the job.
I got to work really closely with Bill as assistant general manager, and you couldn’t have a better guy to work with. I was very fortunate. At that stage in his career, Bill was really more interested in growing the people around him than himself.
Q: So he was a mentor to you.
Without question. When I moved here in 2004, knowing very little more than what I got in a two-day trip to learn about the new position, if you had asked me then, I wouldn’t have expected to be here as long as I have.
But because of the tremendous upward mobility of El Paso as a whole, it has been a very exciting time to be here. If you look at the last 10 years in El Paso, more probably happened than even the 30 years before that.
The first two years were opening the Plaza Theatre. Then we added an amphitheater, started the food and beverage service and then there was the big bowling event. There was always the next piece of the puzzle.
We have such a great story to tell now in terms of destination marketing with everything that El Paso is doing to invest in itself – whether it is the quality of life bonds, baseball, Downtown, Medical Center of the Americas or Fort Bliss.
Q: Making the city attractive to young professionals like you has been a topic of conversation here for some time.
It’s funny. There is a lot of staff that have a long tenure here, and when I came down here, you know, I was very young – I’m not from here – and people wondered if I would survive.
This is probably true in very few places, but it is absolutely true here: El Paso really is very welcoming to people. If you are willing to pick up the shovel and work, they want you on the team. I’ve never felt that I could have more impact on a community than I have in this role.
Q: Where do you want to take Destination El Paso from here?
Well, one of the first things was this planning process and rebranding, which we are rolling out right now.
So we are now Destination El Paso. Visit El Paso is our destination-marketing arm and is responsible for convention and tourism development. And then we have El Paso Live, which is our venue and event management division.
More and more destination marketing organizations throughout the country are abandoning the name CVB and are using other ways to identify themselves.
Q: There has been a desire for El Paso to be a destination city for a long time – “destination” is even part of the CVB’s new name – but it’s never happened. What does El Paso need for that to happen?
The answer to that question really varies depending on whom you ask. Really, what is important is highlighting who we are and what we have, versus trying to emulate some other place that already exists.
Every community has something unique about it. If you want San Antonio, you’ll go to San Antonio. If you want Austin, you’ll go to Austin.
The mistake would be to look at other destinations and say: How do we get that? We need a Sea World or Six Flags. Those things exist other places. There are very few places you can go and have such and authentic experience as you can have here in El Paso.
Q: What are some of those authentic experiences?
Nobody else in Texas has mountains like these and has some of the outdoor resources we have, which is why our current tourism campaign is “Real Adventure.” It focuses on things we can deliver: the largest urban park in the nation, the weather, Hueco Tanks, the aerial tramway, our history. There is a major focus on cultural tourism.
Q: This region has seen human settlement for thousands of years. There is historic architecture in Downtown, the Mission Trail, Old West history and the list goes on, but little has been invested in them. What are your thoughts on heritage tourism?
When you talk about being a destination, you have to look at the things that make you different from everybody else, and we have things in terms of our history that don’t exist anywhere else.
Destination El Paso is in a position to help promote and sell that, but there are some things in terms of infrastructure that need to happen to make that really accessible.
The best investment right now is in infrastructure as opposed to marketing dollars. I mean, you don’t market your restaurant before it is built and open. You have to have the infrastructure in place to be able to receive the people you are trying to attract.
Q: What is one area that could benefit from more investment?
The Mission Trail is truly unique and very sellable, but there are some things in terms of the infrastructure and coordination that need to continue to develop.
Q: Things like signs, maps, tour guides, information booths, transportation and such?
Yeah. A number of different entities operate the missions, and some operate as active churches so their primary function isn’t to be a tourist destination. All of the groups will have to work together and coordinate those things.
Q: San Elizario has never achieved the kind of success that Old Mesilla in New Mexico has.
The difference there is Old Mesilla is identifiable when you get to it. There are public restrooms. All those little shops fit together. They have regular hours. They have some sort of organization and idea of how to market themselves. Everybody has to pull together to do that.
Q: If the recent kerfuffle in San Elizario over whether the arrival of Juan de Oñate was indeed the real “First Thanksgiving” or a marketing gimmick is any indication, that is easier said than done.
It is a challenge to get everybody together. It’s going to be up to those organizations to decide what we do.
Q: What else is authentic about El Paso that you can market?
There are a lot of people who come here for the food. There’s our culture and hospitality. Another element we market a lot is the events; we have a number of them that are unique to El Paso. We have seen an explosion of high-quality events Downtown.
There’s a huge boom in work in Midland and Odessa with the oilfields. It’s in El Paso’s backyard. Those folks have a choice between driving to Dallas or coming to El Paso, and we are competing for that as well.
Q: What about the ballpark?
While I don’t think people will necessarily fly across the country to see Minor League Baseball, it does provide us another attraction – another item in our portfolio for people to see and do while they are here.
We think it will be effective in terms of extending stay. It also provides tremendous opportunity to positively feature El Paso.
We’ve got a great story to tell convention and meeting planners now. How many other destinations in Texas are investing half a billion dollars in their community, how many have the convention campus we have, the weather, the affordability of hotels and the safest city designation?
Certainly we do have challenges. One of the greatest challenges for us is our hotel stock in the Downtown area.
We have to have more hotel rooms within a walking distance of the convention center in order to be successful in attracting state and national conventions. That is one of the most significant shortfalls we have.
Q: The city has complained for a long time about the disrepair of Downtown’s biggest hotel, the historic Camino Real, across the street from the convention center. What is the latest on the Downtown hotel front?
The former Artisan Hotel is under renovation. We’re looking forward to them announcing the brand it will operate under. That’s supposed to be coming along in the next few weeks.
Q: Is that a “convention hotel”?
No, it isn’t a convention hotel, but it does give us more rooms within walking distance.
The condition of the Camino Real Hotel remains unchanged. The management has said they are waiting for capital dollars to be approved to make renovations, but, I’ll be honest with you, that’s where we have been for the 10 years I’ve been here.
While the Camino could be a convention hotel, right now it is not. It is not a property we can feature for meetings and conventions.
So without an investment in the Camino or the construction of another property, we will continue to be without one.
Q: How has Destination El Paso done filling local venues, bringing conventions, meetings and shows?
We had a great year in 2013, and we continue to grow the number of large conventions. In FY 2012-2013, we hosted 22 conventions with a total of 5,482 attendees, resulting in 3,128 room nights. Just in the last year, we secured 43 new bookings for future years.
Q: What’s this year’s outlook for conventions and event bookings?
We have a good line up. We have Conference USA coming back this year; we’ve focused on bringing some of the larger sports activity to El Paso.
We have the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships coming in 2015. The Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses convention will be back in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Our theaters are some of the top in the country. For 2012, the Plaza Theatre was listed as the No. 1 venue in Texas for overall activity for facilities with 2,000-5,000 seats.
Q: “Wicked” was a big success when it came here in 2012, the kind of big show we don’t get often. When might we see another major touring show?
We have one right now; “Jersey Boys” is a national tour. We are hosting “Jersey Boys” because of the success of “Wicked” in 2012.
That was a landmark for El Paso. Not only did we sell 31,000 seats to “Wicked” in a 12-day period, you also had a Cirque du Soleil show in town at almost the same time.
Then there were two sell-out Gabriel Iglesias shows. That was a lot of entertainment dollars in February. We use that when we meet with promoters and agents to secure shows.
Other large national tours are considering El Paso in the coming years. Our 2014-2015 schedule has some really exciting stuff in it.
Q: When voters approved an increase in the hotel occupancy tax to help pay for the ballpark, many were concerned it might impact visitation rates. Have you seen any impact so far?
We have not had a convention planner come to us and say: “What is your hotel occupancy tax rate?” and make decisions based on that.
While the rate is high as a percentage compared to the rest of the state, because our average daily room rate is so much lower than other markets, it hasn’t changed things much. El Paso is still ahead of the national and state average for hotel occupancy.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.