MISSION, RGV – A veteran hotel manager in the Rio Grande Valley says even more must be done to attract Mexican shoppers to the region.
Omar Guevara, manager of Clarion Inn & Suites in Mission, says the efforts the City of McAllen are making with their “Amigos Always” marketing campaign in Mexico are good. But, with the number of Mexican shoppers and tourists staying at his hotel having dropped by about 40 percent over the past two years, Guevara says even more needs to be done.
“I know the City of McAllen and Mayor Darling have mounted a fantastic campaign with Amigos Always. But, I think we need to do live remotes at the bridge where we can catch those Mexican tourists that took the time to drive up to cross at Anzalduas, to cross at Hidalgo, to cross at Pharr, whatever bridge it is, and get their response,” Guevara said.
“Let’s ask them, how was your drive, what did you see? Let’s visit them at those points of entry and let’s promote that. I want the folks down at Monterey and Saltillo to be able to hear from their own neighbors, their own citizens, that it was okay, that it was a great drive. It is easy for them to hear it from us because we want their money, we want the relationship. But to hear it from their own will take it to the next level.”
Guevara said it would also be good if tourism leaders from the Upper Valley drove to places like Monterrey to see what the conditions on the highway are like.
“Let’s take a camera crew, let’s drive it, let’s show people what it is like. Let’s visit down there with folks, let’s find someone who stayed at my hotel and say, ‘how was your travel, we want to go back with you.’ Or let’s travel with someone who is coming up. Let’s publicize that. From the people that stay in my hotel, I have not heard anything negative.”
The two Valley cities that rely on Mexican shoppers the most are the ones that have suffered the biggest drop in sales tax revenues. Mercedes has seen a drop of 12.27 percent year to date (November 2016 to May 2017). McAllen’s sales tax revenues have dropped 4.06 percent over the same period. Brownsville’s has dropped 2.74 percent but their Mexican shoppers come up through Matamoros, which has had less violence over the past two years than Reynosa.
Guevara says a combination of factors has caused the drop in Mexican shoppers: a drop in the value of the Mexican Peso, violence in Reynosa, and negative comments about Mexico from President Trump. “I call it the three strikes,” he said. Guevara believes the concerns of shoppers from the interior of Mexico about violence in Reynosa can be allayed by telling the story of those that drove up to shop in the Valley.
“I think we have done as much as we can on this side of the border. Let’s visit with them at the point of entry, let’s interview them. Let’s get the TV stations from Monterrey up here and let’s get those interviews broadcast down there. It would give a vote of confidence from their residents.”
Guevara has been involved in the hotel business for 31 years. Apart from eight years working in San Antonio, all those years of experience were gained in the Valley. Guevara started his career at the old Hilton hotel on S. 10th in McAllen. He said that while stays by those in the maquila industry are his hotel’s bread and butter, Mexican tourists are important too.
“Compared to two years ago, we are probably down 40 to 45 percent from the Mexico leisure market. In the old days, you had people waiting in your parking lot for the people to check out next morning. They wanted the rooms. We could sell rooms at whatever rate we wanted to. That has not happened in a long time. Everything went against us. Three strikes and one is still swinging with the violence in Reynosa. The people calling from Monterrey, Saltillo, Veracruz will ask, ‘how is the violence, how are things in Reynosa.’ That is the turnoff. Bad news gets out there quick. Good news is hard to get out. We have to work harder at getting the good news out.”
Guevara said he makes a point to talking to visitors from the interior of Mexico.
“I visit with a gentleman that comes every other week from Monterrey. I always ask him, how was it? He says, ‘it was fine.’ I get such positive feedback. He says, ‘I cross at Anzalduas, we will not go through Reynosa to the Hidalgo bridge and we are finding no problems whatsoever.’ They are not having to go into Downtown Reynosa. They are not traveling at night. It is not like the old days where they would shop all day Sunday, then visit Whataburger or have a pizza and then drive home at 9 pm. They are checking out a little earlier. They are leaving a little earlier in the day. We just need to understand that market. Let’s use them to promote down there and get their personal testimony. Everything was okay, McAllen was okay, the bridge was good to me and I am back home. I think something like that will create one more step above Amigo Always.”
Guevara said if he was mayor or “somebody important” he would have a tourism committee out on Anzalduas Bridge under a canopy, giving away free water or sodas and asking tourists to pull over and answer survey questions.
“Tell us where are coming from, how was your trip and here’s our card, we love you, thanks for coming. It would not take long to get that kind of feedback. We just need to do it at the right time. We need to put the man hours into it and we need to take it to the next level. I think that is the starting point.”
Another thing Guevara would like to see is cities in the Upper Valley uniting on issues such as tourism.
“We need to unite, whether it is three cities or four cities. I realize the tax base is divided and you have to take care of your tax dollars. But let’s just bring everyone here. We have to work on a united format. That is where our strength is going to be. If we are fighting between Mission and McAllen or McAllen and Pharr it is not going to work. These are critical times. We need to use our numbers, our tax dollars and our knowledge as hotel people and hospitality people and as political leaders. Let’s come together and come up with some really solid ideas that we can track, that are bonefide. Let us swallow our pride. Let’s leave our egos at the door. Let’s work together. Let’s create some hospitality.”
Asked if hotels could go bust if their Mexican tourist market has shrunk 40 percent, Guevara said:
“We have had the growth of hotels around the convention center in McAllen. These hotels were planned two years ago. When they were planned we were all booming. Now, we have too many rooms available and we do not have enough travelers. So, we are all lowering our rates and we are all fighting for the same accounts. We need to attract more people, whether it is more maquiladoras through McAllen EDC, whether it is taking care of the leisure market, to fill up those new hotels that are here. We haven’t over-built. We just built at the wrong time. McAllen has seen these cycles before. We need to restore confidence. We have the Island, we have retail in McAllen. I am not afraid to promote that I do have a lower rate. I want them (Mexican shoppers) to go back with a positive experience.”