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Sacramento tourism to get nice assist from new Kings arena

The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau got involved in the fight to keep the Kings earlier this year when they created a video that played in Times Square during the April 18-19 NBA Board of Governors meetings in New York City. I caught up with Mike Testa of the Visitors Bureau to talk about that video and the new downtown arena and its impact on Sacramento tourism.

As the battle to prevent the Kings from relocating to Seattle raged on earlier this year, the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau knew they had to help somehow - having the Kings as a regional draw is a key piece to what they do after all.

The Visitors Bureau is responsible for getting national and international visitors to come to Sacramento. They do that by going after major conventions, leisure travelers and professional visitors to the Capitol such as lobbyists and attorneys. The goal: get them to spend their discretionary income in the area. When a visitor stays in a Sacramento hotel they pay a transient and occupancy tax, and those funds go into the general fund of the city of Sacramento and county of Sacramento.

Mike Testa, senior vice president with the Visitors Bureau, says that transient and occupancy tax can bring in up to $25 million a year for the city and county. That is why he says, "tourism isn't about the tourists; it's about the quality of life of the locals."

And that is why his organization decided to create this video that played in Times Square during the crucial NBA Board of Governors meetings that took place on April 18-19 in New York City.

I had a chance to speak with Testa about this video and what a new downtown arena is going to mean for the Visitors Bureau's efforts to boost tourism in the future.

BE: Let's talk about the video that your organization did earlier this year that played in Times Square. How did that come about and were you pleased with the outcome?

MT: That came about internally, it was a suggestion from one of our employees and we had been brainstorming about how we could make an impact on this thing because for us, there is a lot of benefit with the Kings. One of which is from a marketing standpoint; it's great international exposure for this destination. If you go to Europe and you bring up Sacramento, most people aren't going to ask about the Gold Rush, they are going to ask about the Kings. When the Kings were good a few years back, they had 22 nationally televised games. That's great exposure for us because when they cut to a commercial and it's a shot of the Tower Bridge or other landmarks and it drives curiosity. We see our website hits go up fairly dramatically when we've got nationally televised games, so for us, it was a matter of how can we create something that has an impact?

We thought about the Board of Governors meeting in New York, and then we started talking about how we can reach them, and the idea morphed into a Times Square video. Certainly, we wanted to capture their attention, but it was also for this local market to show the pride that we have internally and express it in an external way.

BE: Let's get into Sacramento tourism. Obviously, Sacramento probably does not stack up in comparison to San Francisco and Los Angeles in terms of tourism, but where do we fit in to the scheme of things?

MT: In our industry, they rank cities by tiers. So San Francisco, New York, L.A. would be Tier 1 cities, and part of that is because of how many hotel rooms and convention facilities they have. Sacramento is considered a Tier 2 city. Our biggest competitors in the convention world are probably San Jose and Long Beach. We compete quite a bit with Portland, Reno, Carmel and Monterey. So we compete with some of the smaller to mid-level cities in California and the best example of that is San Jose.

BE: Right now, what would you say is the biggest draw for Sacramento as far as tourism goes?

MT: From a leisure/traveler standpoint there are a couple of them - the "Farm to Fork Capital of America" is something that is resonating very well with people and we are getting a lot of interest in culinary tourism, whether it is visiting farms or going up to the wineries, or even just coming and sampling our restaurants. Certainly, the history angle with the Gold Rush is big for the fourth and fifth graders who are studying California history - it's an experience to come here and see where it happened. Obviously, Old Sacramento still has some of that look. Those are probably the biggest two draws for leisure - culinary and history. Also with the history angle, we have 28 museums in Sacramento, from the Crocker Art Museum to the Railroad Museum to some of the smaller ones you may have never heard of, so those are a pretty big draw. There are not a lot of cities that boast 28 museums.

From a business standpoint, we go after what fits. So we find a group that we have enough space in the Convention Center for, that we have enough hotel rooms to accommodate their delegates and that we have the dates available to them when they want them.

BE: How is the addition of a downtown arena going to change what the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau can do in terms of a marketing standpoint and also in terms of an overall quality of living?

MT: From the 30,000-foot view, you look at what's happened in other cities, whether it is Phoenix, or San Francisco, or Baltimore when they put their arenas in. The neighborhoods where those went in changed dramatically. You look at AT&T Park in San Francisco, that was an area that you didn't really venture into during the day or at night partly because there wasn't a lot there, and now that area is completely transformed - we all wish we had bought substantial land there before any of this happened and then we would all be retired. The same sort of thing in Phoenix happened when they built their arena downtown. The arts organization saw a huge increase in donors, patronage and attendance. Arenas in central cities really create that critical mass and give you a lot of different options. So we expect the same sort of development to happen in Sacramento that we see in other markets. It's a catalyst and private developers are going to see opportunities around that arena and will build other attractions.

From a programming standpoint, there's just going to be a lot more stuff to do in downtown Sacramento ... A lot of the concerts in the Bay Area add a second and third show to attract the Sacramento market. Once we have a new facility located downtown, we're going to see a lot more events and probably a lot more bigger-name concerts coming through.

And then specifically for our business, we try to bring in religious groups who need big general session space for, you know, 10,000 delegates. The challenge with Sleep Train Arena for them is they don't want to shuttle. They want their folks to be able to walk from a hotel or take a quick ride over to the arena. So when you have a facility that is downtown, it is going to allow us to compete for some of that business that, frankly, we just haven't been able to go after. Now, can I tell you we are going to book 10 of those in a year? No, that's not going to happen. We would hope to get one or two or three; but even with one of those, the economic impact of a four-day event would be in the millions of dollars. You've got 10,000 delegates that all need somewhere to eat, and then they are going to spend money if they drove in because they are going to fill up their gas tanks before they leave. There are just some huge impact opportunities.

The final piece is we now run the Sacramento Sports Commission out of the Convention and Visitors Bureau offices, and our ability to compete for sporting events will be easier in that facility. We will be able to go after NCAA events, whether it's basketball or volleyball or pick the sport. To be able to lure them with a brand new state-of-the-art arena is going to be very appealing to the NCAA, so it helps our bid process when we can attach something like that to what Sacramento is offering.

BE: I know regional branding is a big part of generating tourism for a city. Will having the arena downtown and having a central hub create a situation where Sacramento could be rebranded all together?

MT: One of the challenges that Sacramento, and many other cities, have is sometimes our worst enemies are the people who have lived in Sacramento for their entire lives and they will tell you, ‘it is boring, there is nothing to do here and we go somewhere else for entertainment.' And for those of us who have lived other places and have come to Sacramento, I don't think I could disagree any more with comments like that because there is a lot of activity going on in the city and some really great stuff that you don't find anywhere else. But when you have a facility like that, there is some community pride that comes along with it, and maybe it starts to change the mentality of some of the naysayers who live in this community that say we're a cow town. Cow towns don't have buildings like this. Cow towns don't look ahead and try to shape their future and cow towns don't see the value of professional sports and how it impacts everybody that lives here in a positive way, whether you are a sports fan or not.

I think part of it could be some community pride that gets fostered out of this. There was a great sense of pride when it was announced that the Kings were staying, from business people to ordinary citizens who got involved, there was a sense of, ‘wow, we accomplished this and we played a role in helping to keep this team here.' And I expect that that will continue as we open this new facility and continue to celebrate the accomplishment of keeping the Kings.

BE: The Sacramento Film Commission is housed under the Visitors Bureau. Does the arena have any impact on what you currently do in that area in terms of bringing more filmmakers to Sacramento?

MT: I think what it does is it increases interest and it increases the number of eyeballs that are on us. Let's fast forward to when the Kings are back in the playoffs and doing well and there is a rivalry with the Lakers again, I mean how many Lakers fans are coming up here from Southern California that are taxed in the film industry that are going to be exposed to this market? How many nationally televised games are going to be on that show the scenic beauty that most people don't know about Sacramento and they say, ‘oh, we didn't realize there was something there.'? So, I think there is an opportunity to expose the area to people who normally wouldn't see it.

BE: I am sure you have heard some of the arguments out there against this project. When you hear things like Sacramento shouldn't be allowing wealthy developers to come in and build in the city, how do you respond to things like that?

MT: So the alternative is what? We let those plots of land lay vacant and nobody benefits from them? I would much rather a developer come in, spend their money, even with a little bit of assistance from the city of Sacramento, and create things that I can take my family to. I'm working with a local promoter who is trying to do a concert in the region, and I hope he makes a fortune on his show because that means he is going to come back next year, and the year after and the year after. If these developers create businesses that we all patronize and we are all getting benefit from, they are going to want to do more and that improves the options for those of us who live here. It's an odd argument to say we'd rather have nothing than to play a role in dictating our own fate. I think it's the role of elected officials to speak for the people, that is why they were elected. So when you have got these guys approving deals for developers to come in and create new things, I think that is a good thing. That generates tax dollars that wouldn't have been generated on vacant land, it generates activity and entertainment for those of us who live here and helps the image of Sacramento.

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