June 15, 2023 - From the June, 2023 issue

LA’s Chief Tourism Officer Doane Liu on Tourism's Trajectory in the City

In this TPR Interview, Doane Liu, the City of LA’s Chief Tourism Officer and Executive Director of the City Tourism Department (CTD) elaborates on the growth potential for Los Angeles tourism as the world continues to reopen to travel. Liu shares how his department is ambitiously looking toward the future and preparing the City’s tourism infrastructure for the mega sporting events line-up over the next few years as well as the opportunities they bring for drawing in international and domestic travelers to pre-pandemic levels.

“During her campaign, Mayor Bass recognized how important tourism was to the economy: that tourism and visitation mean jobs. At its peak, over 500,000 jobs in the County are in the leisure and hospitality sector, and the Mayor knows we have to continue to attract visitors to LA to support this sector.”—Doane Liu

Doane, TPR last interviewed you almost a year ago. Bring our readers up to speed on all that’s happening in your domain as the City of LA’s Chief Tourism Officer and executive director of the City’s Tourism Department, including implementation of the Tourism Master Plan.

A lot of it is underway, but many parts of the Tourism Master Plan were delayed slightly because of the pandemic, obviously. There are 22 concrete recommendations that came out of the tourism master planning process. I'd say we're underway on more than half of them in various stages.

Most importantly was the establishment of the Tourism Cabinet, which we were able to do last year. This was really important because, in addition to renaming my department the City Tourism Department, it allowed me to share with the rest of the City family that we're not the Convention Center Department anymore. We have more expansive responsibilities and a broader positive impact for the city than just a building down on Fig and Pico.

So, when you look at the overall impact of tourism on the City of LA, we're responsible for almost $300 million of TOT that gets to the general fund; that's about 4% of the City's overall budget, and the Convention Center is just a small piece of that.

The direction the Mayor gave me when I joined this department was to expand our responsibility and really focus our policies on tourism in general, not just on convention-goers. The Tourism Cabinet was a way for me to have the Mayor's imprimatur, if you will, to convene my fellow general managers: the Chief of Police, the Fire Chief, Streets, DoT, etc. and work on tourism issues together.

Most of the City's 40 departments think about our constituents on a daily basis; we think about our employees; some of us might even think about businesses every once in a while, but very rarely do they think about the visitors in their day-to-day business or when they budget, plan, or deploy. We have all these other stakeholders that we're responsible for.

And so, the Tourism Cabinet was really an opportunity for me to request that my fellow general managers think about visitors maybe once a month or once a quarter, especially at the time we're talking about budgeting, deployment, or planning. Let's think about how these things might impact visitation. But, just as importantly, how visitation might impact us.

We’re now more than six months into the new administration. The tourism issue was not a dominant issue in the mayor's election, as we knew it wouldn't be. Can you give us a sense of the focus, attention, and relevance to our agenda going forward for the city?

I can address that in a couple of ways. On the most pressing needs of housing our homeless, the hotel industry has stepped up in a big way. I think the current administration recognized that and worked closely with some of our stakeholders—from the Hotel Association of Los Angeles, the California Hotel and Lodging Association, and the members of LA Tourism and Convention Board — about giving the lodging industry an opportunity, if they want it, to participate in Inside Safe and other programs going forward. In transitioning from Project Roomkey into these Inside Safe projects, there are a number of hotels that have taken her up on this offer, and others that are considering it. So, I would say that as an industry, the hospitality leaders in the City of LA continue to do their part.

On the other side, during the campaign, Mayor Bass recognized how important tourism was to the economy: that tourism and visitation mean jobs. At its peak, over 500,000 jobs in the County are in the leisure and hospitality sector, and the Mayor knows we have to continue to attract visitors to LA to support this sector.. I'm really pleased that we've seen the Mayor, more than a few times, at various events that we've hosted at the Convention Center. She's even played an active role in helping me and the LA Tourism team secure business for the future.

Let's pivot to that challenge, Doane. Is tourism in Metro LA back? Is hotel occupancy up?

We are probably at 90-95% of where we were pre-pandemic. The strength of that has been largely domestic travel and domestic business travel; the lagging sector of tourism is the international piece. We're starting to see that coming back now that a lot of Asian markets are opening up and allowing their residents to travel again. We're hopeful that in 2024, we'll probably hit 100% and exceed 2019 numbers for visitation; rates are a lot higher than they were in 2019. We're almost completely back. I think our room to grow is in that international sector; pre-pandemic, we had over 7 million visitors annually of a total 50 million visitors. I'd say we're at about half of that. We need to get those numbers back, because they're the visitors that stay longer and spend more when they're here. 

Speaking of international visitors, former Mayor Eric Garcetti has been appointed and approved by the Senate to be the U.S. Ambassador to India. Address the status and potential for tourism between India, California, and Los Angeles, and what might the benefits be of having a former Mayor as Ambassador.

Yeah, it's funny you asked that, the last official international trade mission that the City of LA did was to open LA Tourism's first office in India. We have an office in Mumbai that is staffed with an LA Tourism employee. We're one of the few CVBs—Convention and Visitors Bureaus—in the world that actually staff offices with employees, not using contracts with local firms. So, LA Tourism has four offices in China, for instance, one office in Australia, one in London, and in 2018 we opened one in Mumbai. The reason we did that is that's kind of the next big thing for tourism in America, in California, and in LA is that Indian market. China was the target for many, many years and we were very successful; so successful that we had over a million Chinese visitors in 2019. All the experts view India as that next big market to go after. So, having Mayor Garcetti, or Ambassador Garcetti there, I know that he'll do great things for the country, but he will always remember us in Los Angeles and will be very helpful in promoting LA as a tourist destination, and a business destination as well.

Address the Convention Center and hotel infrastructure that underpin your responsibilities. We spoke last time about Metro’s 28 by 28 ambitions. What's your current metric?

On the infrastructure side? I would say this is where it gets back to what we do need, and what I have direct responsibility for: and that's the expansion of the Convention Center. On March 17, 2020, we were scheduled to go to the City Council with a proposal to do a public-private partnership with AEG to do a $1 billion expansion of the Convention Center, and a $1 billion expansion of the JW Marriott. The Mayor and the Council said “Hey, can you wait till this pandemic is over? Maybe a couple of weeks, couple of months at the most, and we'll get right back on it.”

And here we are three years later when construction costs are 15 to 25% higher. We are planning on, very shortly, on going back to the Council and asking for a green light to continue our negotiations with AEG and the Plenary group to restart that full DBFOM--Design, Build, Finance, Operate, and Maintain--contract with AEG and Plenary, which will essentially keep us married for at least 30 to 40 years, but would deliver a spectacular new convention center, and add to the hotel count, which is desperately needed downtown.


Share the latest hotel count; has there been much change in the last year and a half? 

The latest big news is the opening of AC and Moxy hotels across the street, with a total of 727 rooms. Looking back to 2013, there were about 2,600 rooms within walking distance. We're about 6,000 rooms within walking distance of the Convention Center with the AC and Moxy opening across the street. It's still woefully short, compared to our competitors. Our current goal is set  to 8,000, but honestly, I think we need to get to 10,000 or 12,000 eventually, but we're getting there.

Frankly, in the last year and a half, not a whole lot has been going on with some entitlement work, obviously. But fortunately, a couple of projects were under construction during the pandemic and we're grateful for the AC and Moxy right across the street, which are now the closest hotels to the Convention Center.

You’re not counting the Conrad?

I am counting the Conrad, as well. It's a spectacular property and it is often in our room blocks, but it's just not within walking distance, it’s a little bit too far. But it's so nice that a lot of our conventions want to include it in the room blocks and just add the cost of shuttle buses to it.

Elaborate for our readers, Doane, on the City’s ROI from international travel and tourism.

We don't really measure ROI, because it's hard for me to define the I, or investment. The average international visitor spends three times as much as a domestic visitor. A lot of that is due to their length of stay, but frankly, they stay in more expensive hotels and spend more money on attractions and tourist activities than domestic travelers. The business traveler or convention goer spends about twice as much as a domestic traveler. So we do get great returns on our international advertising and marketing investments.

Let’s pivot to the number of mega sports events now scheduled for So. California, even after the Super Bowl, in the next decade.

Absolutely. I mean, we had WrestleMania in April, and believe it or not, that is a very major sporting event. They broke all sorts of records just last weekend. They broke records for number of attendees, total revenue, all their TV numbers, and sponsorship numbers. Even at our “little” superstore at the Convention Center, it broke all merchandise sales numbers. It was a giant event. They sold out the stadium in a couple of hours. Ringside seats went for $5,000 bucks. It's not your typical clientele, but they sure enjoyed themselves, and there were lines outside the Convention Center to shop. They were lining up outside the Convention Center in the rain one day, so that they could spend money inside the Convention Center to buy all kinds of swag and merch.

On the opposite end of the scale, we've got the US Open this month coming to LA Country Club. It is the first time in 75 years that the US Golf Association has brought the US Open to Los Angeles. Talk about a different audience, right? It'll be a spectacular event. They've been quietly under construction at the LA Country Club for over a year, building the infrastructure that's going to be needed for a one-week event, four days of golf; including, building a temporary bridge over Wilshire Boulevard to allow spectators to go from the north course to the south course. They currently have a tunnel that allows golf carts and golfers to go under Wilshire Boulevard, but when you've got tens of thousands of fans… they're going to build a temporary footbridge that will go over Wilshire Boulevard for that week of golf. And that's just this year.

Coming up, we've got the NCAA Western Regional Championship next year. We've got the possibility of Super Bowl coming back in ’27. Of course, we're hosting a number of games in the World Cup. I kind of chuckled because everyone says “We're hosting the World Cup! We're hosting the World Cup!” Actually, North America is hosting the World Cup. We're going to get six to eight games out of 104 games, but it is a big deal and it brings a lot of international travel. The World Cup is my personal favorite, being a soccer fan as I am. Then, of course, the Olympics and Paralympics in ‘28. We've been very fortunate with our mega sporting events, so much so that people sometimes forget about the Grammys, Emmys, and Oscars that we host every year. Those are also mega events. And business as usual in LA.

You forgot the VerdeXchange!

And the VerdeXchange, of course, yes.

Lastly, amidst a moment of change in the governance of Los Angeles, the county, and the state, will new public leadership continue to support robust investment in Tourism?

I think so. I would even slightly push back on those who would say they’re not being very conscious about it, I think they have been. I think, rightfully so, they've been focused on the existential problem that faces LA today, which is homelessness. But guess what?  As we solve that, it helps our tourism business. Let's not be mistaken, tourists notice it. We're not the only city that's facing this problem, in fact, I would argue that most cities have bigger homeless problems than we do. But it sure would help our visitation experience, and it is helping our visitation experience.

In the Mayor’s first 100 days, the City cleaned up Venice Beach, which is a big tourist attraction. We've cleaned up Sixth and Fairfax, which by the way sits right behind LACMA and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The Mayor’s team is doing an amazing job of knowing where these hotspots are and moving people in these areas off the street and into housing. I think we're going to see some remarkable movement and improvement in that kind of gut reaction that visitors have when they come to Los Angeles.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.