Plenty of HOT stuff came out of the Abilene Convention and Visitors’ Bureau 21st Hero of Tourism Host Luncheon on Tuesday — primarily that the local travel industry is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
A cadre of awards for local leaders in tourism were presented.
Robert Lopez, vice president of the ACVB, said that when he first looked at the opportunity to come to Abilene, he immediately noticed many of the city’s highlights, starting with improvements downtown that included construction of convention hotel.
There also was the popularity of the Abilene Zoo and venues such as Frontier Texas! and the Taylor County Expo Center, the latter of which had undergone recent revitalization and renovation.
“I looked at Abilene, and I also looked at what it was doing with the (South of Downtown Abilene) district, and I said this is a marketable destination,” said Lopez, who assumed the role held by former longtime director Nanci Liles in March.
The city is “on the verge of taking off, and I want to be part of that growth,” he said.
Data gathered by Dean Runyan & Associates and released by the Texas Office of the Governor, Economic Development & Tourism, shows travel spending in Abilene was up 24.4%, with a total economic impact of $515.2 million.
Travel employment was also up by 7.2%, with more than 3,800 people employed in the industry in Abilene.
Overall tax revenue generated in Abilene due to travel was $49.9 million, up 26.3% from last year.
In what appears to be the dwindling aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, hotels in general are going “full-speed ahead,” Lopez said.
“We’re fortunate (to) have Dyess Air Force Base, which always has groups of National Guard and other people coming in and out,” he said. “During the pandemic, we had visiting nurses to help support the economy. We weren’t as affected by it.”
Now, the potential for further growth is real, he said, especially as the downtown hotel develops and other amenities “continue to be created.”
The potentially great things ahead, Lopez said, will require Abilene to “refocus our mission.”
“We’re going to allocate some of our resources to help better support our sales team and our sales efforts,” he said. “If we can bring people to this downtown hotel, it’s going to create a snowball effect.”
If the city can attract 200-300 people daily, hotels will be full, businesses will prosper and restaurants “are going to be packed at lunch,” he said.
That will attract more downtown businesses, he said, and business in general.
“So, we’re refocusing a lot of our efforts towards our sales and making sure they have the tools to succeed,” he said. “But then, (we are) within also refining Abilene’s competitive identity and the image that we want to portray to people outside of Abilene.”
That will be a key step in moving the city forward, he said, as will continued collaboration with stakeholders, all with a goal of maximizing marketing dollars and encouraging mutual growth.
Award recipients Tuesday included:
►Dodge Jones Youth Sports Center, Community Awareness Award, presented to an organization, group, or person who promotes Abilene, creates awareness and brings visitors to the community.
Since opening its doors in 2020, the center has attracted more than 16 events with overnight visitors and is the reason sports tourism is Abilene’s fastest-growing tourism segment, Lopez said, adding that the facility and its programs have received state and national recognition.
Brandon Osborne, the facility’s executive director, received the award.
►Rochelle Johnson, Ambassador of Tourism Award.
Johnson, executive vice president and general manager of the Taylor County Expo Center, embodies service and “West Texas grit,” Lopez said.
“By modeling the way, her team has set the standard for service always finding ways to say ‘yes,’ and helping other people be successful,” he said.
►Trav Ruiz, “HATS OFF” Award.
Ruiz moved to Abilene five years ago and “immersed himself in the community, serving on countless boards and committees and volunteering his time for others,” Lopez said.
Lopez said Ruiz joined the ACVB board in 2018, “always championing its efforts, sharing its wins and highlighting its strengths,” while bringing a “contagious” positivity to everything he becomes involved with.
►Ted Evans, Centerstage Award
A new award for an individual who has helped support Abilene’s music industry and scene, Evans has served on the ACVB board for five years has invested in both the growth of downtown Abilene and music in general.
Evans, chairman of the ACVB’s music initiative CenterStage, encouraged the ACVB to apply for the “Music Friendly Community” designation through the governor’s office, helping the community become one of the first cities in the state to receive the honor.
Lopez also praised Evans’ own entrepreneurial spirit in the form of Lone Star Dry Goods, The Ice House and Lone Star Canvas & Sign Works.
Hotel staff honored
In addition to those honors, a series of three new awards highlighted the work hotel staff does daily duty for out-of-town visitors, the recipients, nominated by peers, representing the best their area.
►Sylvia Holcomb Woodall, Hotel Sales Award.
►Chris Albiston, Hotel Front Desk Award.
►Rozena Rogers, Hotel Housekeeper Award.
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.