September 13, 2022 - From the September, 2022 issue

Los Angeles’ Chief Tourism Officer Doane Liu on City’s New Tourism Master Plan

With the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-2021 almost completely shutting down the travel and hospitality industry in Metro Los Angeles, TPR caught up with the City’s Chief Tourism Officer and Executive Director of the City Tourism Department,  Doane Liu, for his assessment on LA’s recovery as a travel and tourism destination. Liu updates readers on the city’s first-ever Tourism Master Plan, which aims to assess LA’s tourism assets and coordinate department efforts around tourism infrastructure. The latter not only underscores the opportunities for LA’s economy as host for global sports and entertainment mega-events but also highlights the convention center’s revenue-generating impact on the city’s general fund. Asked lastly to assess how a new Mayor might prioritize his department, Liu was optimistic that there would be continued support for the LA Convention Center regardless of the election's outcome. 

"The Tourism Master Plan aims to coordinate the infrastructure work that needs to be done, not only to attract visitors, but to be prepared for the inevitable increase in visitation. We were predicting that we could hit 70 million by the time the Olympics come in 2028. Are we ready?"—Doane Liu

Doane, when TPR last interviewed you in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation was experiencing a 96 percent drop in passenger air travel, LA County hotel occupancy was down by 75 percent, and LA Convention Center revenue had plummeted to zero. More than two years later, give our readers, from your perspective as the city’s Chief Tourism Officer, an update on how tourism is or is not recovering in Los Angeles.

Doane Liu: I'll start with hotels. We're coming back with just about 70 percent occupancy compared to over 80 percent pre-pandemic, so we're about 85 percent of what we were pre-pandemic on the hotel side.

On visitation, we welcomed 40 million visitors in 2021. Pre-pandemic, in 2019, we were at 50.7 million. Leisure travel is back; business travel is down slightly. International travel, which has the highest ROI for the travel industry, is still decimated. In 2019, we had over 7 million international visitors — we're struggling to get over 3 million right now. We predict that the number of business and international travelers will return to pre-pandemic numbers by 2025. We’re hopeful that we can get most of it back by 2023 or 2024.

 How has the Convention Center been impacted by the pandemic?

Our booking window has a very long lead time. Most conventions book 5 to 10 years in advance, so we were never at a point where we needed to look for business. It was just a matter of not canceling shows that were already booked. Since everything was canceled in the pandemic, the trick was to find open windows where conventions could return if it was possible in their cycles.

A lot of these international and national conventions rotate around the country or the world. Losing them in 2021 or 2022 meant maybe not getting them for another 5 or 10 years. There's a lot of juggling, but people make bookings for the next 5 to 10 years because we were already booked 5 to 10 years ago.

It’s just a matter of making sure that everyone can do their show as planned and safely. For the most part, it has started coming back in the last nine months or so.

Put in global context LA's Convention Center and destination tourism experience. How well is the city and the region faring against its competitors?

Globally, I'm not so sure. Like I said earlier, we're just focusing on domestic travel. It took Asia a long time to reopen. Korea just opened up in May, China is still closed, and Japan is reopening up slowly. We’re doing better than Asia.

Europe seems to be doing very good within the continent. They’re getting pent up demand and desire to travel within Europe.   

How do we compare against other cities in the United States? I think we're doing very well because of our weather coupled with the desire for more outdoor activities. Especially in late 2021 and early 2022, our recovery is probably a little bit better than some of the cities nationally. 

The City Tourism Department this year released its first ever Tourism Master Plan to assess LA’s assets and needs as a tourist destination. Elaborate on that plan–its recommendations and how you’re intending to implement the Plan.

The Plan was actually completed in 2020 and we planned to release it in the Spring of 2020. We were working closely with the Mayor’s office and, when Covid hit, we decided to hold off on its release.

It has not needed a whole lot of tweaking because what the master plan did was really focus on the City’s tourism  infrastructure. It’s the first time LA has done this, and not many cities across the country or even around the world have done it.

Let me take a step back to remind you that the LA Tourism Board, which is under contract with the City of LA, focuses on marketing. Before he retired in 2020, the Head of the Board used to say, “You guys at the City build the mousetrap, and we'll go out and sell it.” Our departments and our department heads are really good at focusing on our constituents and residents. Some of us are really good at focusing on businesses in the City of LA, but very few of us think about the visitors.

This master plan was an effort to try to get the over 40 departments in the City of LA to think about visitors. Even though my department is small, our impact is big. I once had a discussion with the Mayor and argued the point that ours is the only department that generates revenue directly to the city's general fund. You could argue that DWP, the Port, and the airport generate revenue, but, by charter, those revenues have to stay in those departments. Any money that they generate can't go into the city's general fund.

With that recognition, the Tourism Master Plan aims to coordinate the infrastructure work that needs to be done, not only to attract visitors, but to be prepared for the inevitable increase in visitation. We were predicting that we could hit 70 million by the time the Olympics come in 2028. Are we ready?

There’s discussion about over-tourism around the world with places like Venice, Barcelona, and even San Francisco that were being hit. We aren't at that point, but you can definitely see places like Hollywood, Venice, and the residential area near the Hollywood sign being impacted.

What can the City do to better prepare for even more tourism that's coming? An obvious one is the expansion of the airport, which is well on its way. What we can do is help communicate what’s happening at the airport and use that infrastructure project as a means to leverage the great communications work of the LA Tourism Board.

It is similar to Metro’s “Twenty-Eight by ‘28” infrastructure plans, preparing for the Olympic Games with long-term improvements to the City’s mobility that's going to stay well beyond the Olympics. We're doing this regardless of whether or not we're having the Olympics, but they help us accelerate some of those projects.


Pivoting off the above comments, what's the learning curve for LA 2028 from Japan's Olympics Games held during the height of the pandemic? 

I’m not so sure that we've focused on what happened in Tokyo as much as felt a sense of relief that we're not required to build anything to host the 2028 games. As the departments start working through their city service agreements with the LA28 committee, I think it's more of a focus on delivery of services, rather than capital improvement projects, which is a good place to be.

We have six years to figure out how we're going to make the city safe, efficient, and run smoothly during the Olympic Games. We don't have to worry about whether or not that billion-dollar stadium is going to be completed in time. That’s a great advantage that we have over any of the recent games, including London, Rio, and Tokyo.

A good measure for us are some of the mega events that we've been so fortunate to win including the Super Bowl that we had just last year, the MLB All-Star Game, U.S. Open for Golf, and the Summit of the Americas, which was a quick one-off event that we were so fortunate to win. We've got the college football playoffs in January, and, believe it or not, WrestleMania is coming to SoFi stadium early next year. The World Cup is also coming. No other city can claim the number of these great events.

I wouldn't even call them tests. They're just great practice for the city and the region. For example, the Superbowl was not in the City of LA, it was in Inglewood. But, the fan festival, the hotels where the teams stayed, the 200 ancillary events and parties—the majority of those were in the City of Los Angeles. The Superbowl was an extraordinary lift for the region. It really showed how important and critical the City of LA and its tourism infrastructure were to a successful Superbowl—so successful that the NFL can't stop talking about it, with talks about maybe the Super Bowl coming back very soon.

Prior to the pandemic, your department had been working to expand the hotel & retail capacity of the city to host large gatherings. Is the latter still a priority?

Absolutely. My primary focus has been on getting more hotels within walking distance to the convention center. That's not even a mega event requirement; that's just a daily business of the convention center requirement. When Mayor Garcetti took office in 2013, there were 2,500 hotel rooms within walking distance to the convention center. Compare that to the 22,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of Moscone in San Francisco. Furthermore, Anaheim and San Diego had 13,000 and 10,000, respectively.

We are still at a disadvantage, yet we've managed to double the number of hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center to over 5,000. The mayor set a goal of getting us to 8,000, which we probably would have hit if it weren't for the pandemic.

Do we need more hotels? Absolutely. We were bumping against 90 percent occupancy before the pandemic in many regions of the city. Rates are starting to go up.

I would guess, there are 5,000 to 10,000 hotel rooms in various stages of planning in the downtown area with probably another 5,000 outside of the downtown area. They're all going to do well if they get built, which is going to be a factor of the financing available, the construction costs getting under control, and the approval processes.

With severe restrictions on travel and in-person gathering during the pandemic, many hotels in the region became emergency homeless shelters under Project Roomkey, including the LA Grand Hotel, where VerdeXchange is usually held. While the FEMA-funded program was an undeniable lifeline for both hotels and unhoused individuals during the pandemic, address the challenges and trade-offs of transitioning city tourism assets into temporary homeless housing, especially given your Department’s goals.

Project Roomkey wasn't a permanent program; it was temporary during the pandemic. It was needed and continues to be needed. As we transition back to traditional lodging for the visitors to Los Angeles, there's going to be a need for new ways of backfilling that supply with Project Homekey. With more people working from home, perhaps there may be an opportunity for office buildings being repurposed for housing.

The City Council has chosen to have the voters decide in 2024 on a ballot measure to require hotels to make vacant rooms available as shelter for the unhoused. What impact might that measure have on LA’s  tourism goals?

I think the ballot measure may be difficult to pass as written. The City Council doesn't have an opportunity to change it, so it has to be presented to the voters as is, even with a couple of technical problems with the way it's written, including requiring the wrong department in the city to hand out vouchers. The Housing Department does not do that. The Housing Authority is the agency that works with housing vouchers, and the Housing Department is a policy arm of the city that focuses on housing policy. The Housing Department doesn’t have the staffing or the ability to manage this program, weigh every hotel, and ask them what vacancies they have for the day and then repurposing them.

What the measure does is open the door for some negotiations and for some serious discussions on two issues: the importance of careers in the hospitality industry and how hotels are going to play a major part in keeping good-paying entry-level jobs for our residents, and how we're going to solve homelessness. I don't think it's going to be easy to convince the voters that the hospitality industry is the right solution for that important issue facing LA today. The next 18 months will be a perfect opportunity for us as a city and as a society, to really look at the right solutions for homelessness and for us to decide whether the best solutions. The hospitality industry has proven in the last two years that they're willing to step up and do what they can, but they can’t be the long-term solution.

One of the best ways to prevent homelessness is to make sure that people have good-paying jobs, especially at the entry level. I think that's one thing that the hospitality industry has been fantastic at. These jobs are more than entry-level jobs, they are careers. People enter the hospitality industry and stay for decades because the jobs are good with steady, fair wages.

Lastly, as the Executive Director of the City Tourism Department, you serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and the Council. There's an election taking place this November for the Mayor of LA. What do you, as a general manager, hope to hear from the candidates re the City’s Tourism Department goals?

 We’re starting to hear the right things from both candidates: a recognition of the importance of the tourism industry to LA; the economic impact of visitation; and then, important to me personally and to my department, a commitment to finally expanding and modernizing the 50 year-old Convention Center. I mean, that's a major, major goal of ours. If it weren't for the pandemic, we'd be under construction right now, due in part to the partnership opportunities we have, such as the public-private partnership with our partners at AEG.

We can benefit from private partners to help us get a new modernized and expanded Convention Center before the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2028, a deadline on which everyone agrees. But I believe that it actually needs to be done before the World Cup in 2026, however that means that we need to get started soon. I would like to see a commitment from the candidates that that's a priority for them, just as it has been for Mayor Garcetti.


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