Mansfield tourism steps up to the plate

Posted Monday, May. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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As the city’s newest industry, tourism is a work in progress.

The successes are easy to spot. Big League Dreams, a complex of eight baseball stadium replicas, and the Hawaiian Falls water park had record attendance last year. The city continues to add to its more than 500 acres of dedicated parks, and downtown events like the Mansfield Music and Arts Festival continue to pull in visitors from around the Fort Worth-Dallas area.

But there are still plenty of venues to populate and hotel beds to fill.

“I think we’re off to a good start,” said Theresa Cohagen, assessing the state of tourism during her first 18 months as city tourism manager. Her one-person department was founded in 2011 with a start-up budget of $158,000 in hotel-motel tax revenues. “We spent a majority of this first year educating the national public on where Mansfield is, and even the regional public on where Mansfield is.”

More and more, corporate and sporting events are beginning to find Mansfield, some as a direct result of Cohagen’s recruitment efforts.

Those include the October gathering of the 2013 Heartland Conference Cross Country Championships and the May 2014 NCAA super regional women’s golf tournament, which determines teams for the championships.

They follow the NCCA Division II swimming and diving championships hosted by the Mansfield school district natatorium in March 2012. That one-time wonder, which was booked before Cohagen’s tenure began, packed the city’s 500 hotel rooms and showered restaurants and other businesses with out-of-town revenues for a full week. And it left its mark on Cohagen and other community leaders with a stake in tourism and economic development.

Large events draw in more people, she said, increasing the chance that some might want to move their families or businesses to Mansfield.

“We love visitors to become full-time residents,” she said.

In addition to working the phones and knocking on doors, Cohagen travels to trade shows across the nation to recruit sports tournaments and business conferences. She recently attended the National Association of Sports Commission Symposium in Louisville, Ky., in which tourism officials met event planners in a series of 10-minute interviews, much like speed dating.

She returned with 12 bids from planners of golf, baseball and endurance events.

“I can’t tell you what they are,” she said. “Currently, the city’s athletic coordinator, Nick Garcia, and I are putting together a bid for a large multi-sport (week-long) event to come to Mansfield in the summer of 2014.”

“It’s very competitive,” she added. “Every city is competing for the same things.”

The competition has been stiffer during the Great Recession, as more cities desperate for revenues go hunting for the fewer corporations and sporting events that have healthy travel budgets.

But City Manager Clayton Chandler said tourism dollars have played a role in the city’s rebound from the Great Recession.

“In the poor economies of 2008 through 2012, I think it was one of the things that helped sustain us,” Chandler said.

He credited not only the steadiest tourism driver, Big League Dreams, and other recreational venues but also other contributors that bring people to Mansfield, like Methodist Mansfield Medical Center and even large churches with members who come from well beyond the city.

“I think the whole downtown movement is another,” Chandler added. “We've seen parades and festivals. There has been just a tremendous amount of opportunities.”

The city’s sales tax collections are a partial indicator of tourism influence. Finance Director Peter Phillis projects the current fiscal year will finish Sept. 30 with about $7.9 million in sales tax revenues, an increase of $120,000 over the 2011-12 fiscal year -- slight, but Phillis calls it significant considering the economy.

His preliminary projection for 2013-14 is an increase of about $200,000, based on an assumption of no improvement in the regional or local economy, and no significant new commercial or industrial development.

“We are still refining the number,” he said. “It could be significantly more. It's going to be based on how we expect the 2014 economy to perform.”

The hotel-motel tax is a better indicator, since it is based on revenues from the 13 percent tax rate charged to hotel guests. Those revenues increased from $419,000 in 2010-11 to $508,000 in 2011-12. Phillis estimates that 2012-13 will be flat, finishing with “just over $500,000,” which will be distributed mostly to local groups planning tournaments and other activities that draw out-of-town visitors.

Cohagen’s department was earmarked for $180,000 of the 2012-13 bed taxes last September to fund her second year of operation.

The number of guests at the city’s six limited-service hotels dipped slightly during the 12 months ending in April compared with the same period in 2011-12, said Dwayne Renfroe, sales director for Hampton Inn and Fairfield Inn & Suites. (The market research tracks only the city’s six nationally branded hotels, which have a total of 437 rooms, and does not include the city’s oldest lodging business, the independently owned Courtesy Inn motel.)

The hotels, all built in the past decade, filled 53.7 percent of their rooms during the past 12 months, a drop of 1 percentage point compared with the prior year. Renfroe said the 2011-12 figure was skewed by the phenomenal impact of the NCAA aquatic event in March 2012 and a very busy April 2012. But he also noted that both years’ occupancy rates were well above the 50.2 percent rate recorded the previous year, May 2010 to April 2011.

Another positive, he said, hotel room rates averaged $80.58 during the 12 months ending in March, up from $77.10 during the previous year and $77.80 from April 2010 to March 2011.

“It's starting to look a little better, but it's no strong market yet,” Renfroe said.

Each city has its strengths. Cohagen says Mansfield’s money maker is its sports facilities. Second is its accommodations for smaller business meetings, which are needed to fill hotel beds during the week.

“The biggest area that we have for growth right now is small-market meetings,” Cohagen said. “You can only bid on so many sports events because most are on the weekends.”

For years, city officials have talked about the need for a major conference center, preferably as part of a full-service hotel development. The school district boosted the community’s supply of meeting space in August when it opened its 5,500-seat Center for the Performing Arts, which district officials are eager to lease but are planning to use mostly for school-related functions.

Big League Dreams has an indoor soccer pavilion that could serve as a banquet hall for up to 1,000 guests. The new Aristide Events and Conference Center hosted 66 weddings last year in its 15,500-square-foot multipurpose building, which can seat about 400 people in its 7,000-square-foot ballroom, said owner Larry Nix.

“We do put a lot of heads in beds in hotels, probably 5 to 10 rooms per wedding,” Nix said. “But I would love to see more events come in from a tourism standpoint.”

Big League Dreams is planning some big-draw events – two youth baseball world series in July – that will bolster its already soaring attendance figures. The paid attendance increased from 185,432 in 2011 to 250,242 in 2012, largely because the complex replaced its grass infields with artificial turf in its eight stadiums.

“We’re definitely a destination complex,” said general manager Brad Brewer.

Hawaiian Falls reports that in addition to its record-setting attendance of 208,000 visitors last summer, season ticket sales for the 2013 season are running 5 percent higher than for the same period last year. Also, group bookings are up 15 percent, said Hawaiian Falls spokesman David Alvey.

Cohagen has been working to partner with other cities and organizations to pool marketing resources. She serves on the Dallas-Fort Worth Area Tourism Council, a 35-year-old alliance that has 150 partners, including cities, attractions and hotels in its 32-county region of North Texas.

The council’s executive director, Traci Mayer, visited Mansfield on a tour leading up to the 2011 Super Bowl at Cowboys Stadium and said she was impressed with the variety of Mansfield’s facilities and its proximity to major cities, interstate highways and the DFW Airport.

“From my perspective, they have a lot of things they can focus on – families, reunions and sports tournaments, and just family summer fun,” she said. “So it's a neat opportunity.”

Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641

Twitter: @Kaddmann

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