Tourism with a Side of Culture
An Article on Michael McDowell of the L.A. Tourism & Convention Board
For the uninitiated Angeleno, the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board may seem like just another glorified events calendar. But such a fallacy would not only cost those unfortunate individuals knowledge of hidden gems like the 2014 dineLA’s Restaurant Week, where through Jan 31st, patrons can dine at over 300 of Los Angeles’ premier restaurants via a selection of affordably set priced, predetermined lunch and dinner menus- but they would also be ignorant to the estimated 17 billion dollars tourism is directly responsible for contributing to the Los Angeles economy.
And with California’s “wall of debt” allegedly peeking even higher than the 28 billion it was previously thought to be, according to numerous reports by state appointed research institutes, every visitor that the City of Los Angeles recruits through the innovative efforts of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board only generates more businesses, which leads to increased job growth. And with L.A. having had more visitors in 2013 than any other time in history, clocking in at 42.2 million- I’d say the Tourism & Convention Board has more than made good on its efforts.
“What’s the secret to their success?” you might ask. Well, for starters, and most importantly- they employ knowledgeable and passionate leaders like Vice President of Arts & Culture and Affinity Groups Michael McDowell. “I’m always looking for something new and different that our cultural institutions are offering that we can present and promote,” he says during our interview. “I always tell people when attracting visitors, I never have to answer the question, ‘Why L.A.?’ I just have to answer the question, ‘Why now and why come back often?’”
As the appointed administrator over arts & culture and the affinity groups, Michael’s main focus is to come up with strategies to promote the cultural aspects and institutions that L.A. has to offer, and he’s got to do it in a way that connects with African Americans, Latinos, Asian Pacific Islanders and the LGBT community, which make up the affinity groups. “We’ll highlight holidays and observances, anniversaries and spotlights of certain cultural organizations,” he says. “For example, this year was the 100th anniversary of the Natural History Museum; next year is the 50th anniversary of the music center. The year after that is the 50th anniversary of LACMA. So we look at new things that are coming on board like the new Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences museum that will open in 2017, and we keep a rolling calendar of what we call tent polls of major cultural things that are happening.”
They also take advantage of the some 400 media outlets that visit Los Angeles every year, according to Michael’s estimations, which are always looking for the next new, hot thing to highlight. And contrary to the myths about Los Angeles being vapid and fame-obsessed, the cultural events that are promoted are starting to more and more outweigh the attention paid to the beaches and Rodeo Drive.
“When a cultural traveler is choosing a destination, we believe they look for three things: something emotional, aesthetically or intellectually rewarding, something they can’t find in their own hometown, and something unique and authentic to the destination,” he says. “And since we know that about half of all visitors attend some kind of cultural event while they are here in L.A., and about 20% of our visitors specifically choose their trip to L.A. for a cultural activity- part of my job and the job of my company is to constantly raise the awareness, appreciation and demand for that kind of cultural experience.”
One cultural experience that Michael is committed to everyone having, visitors and residents alike, is that of the theater. And while Los Angeles is home to many famed venues like The Wiltern, The Pantages Theare and The Greek Theatre to name a few, it is also home to a variety of smaller, more intimate black box theatres as well, creating a unique cultural experience in itself. “We like to promote the NoHo Arts District and some of the other neighborhoods that provide that intimate theater experience, which we think is something unique to Los Angeles,” he says. “And while many cities have small, black box theaters, I would argue that no other city has the combination of as many venues as we have- around 300 at last count- but also the enormous talent that populates those venues because we don’t do a lot of Community Theater here. These are professional actors, designers and directors. So the aesthetical, quality experience is superior to what you would find in other places just because L.A. is such a magnet for amazing talent.”
And the theatre experience is something that the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention board heavily promotes to residents as well because of the impact live theatre has on its audience, and also because of the 50% of visitors who get their information on what to do here from people who actually live here. “So if we can drive more Angelenos to The Road Theatre or to LACMA, or to some of the other lesser know attractions throughout the city, the next time they’re talking to a friend who’s coming to town, they might say, ‘Hey, you have to see this fabulous little theater or museum I’ve discovered,’ and it will help boost attendance,” Michael notes.
Yes, it’s these types of cultural experiences that elevate the reputation of our city so much so that other noted organizations internationally are taking notice. In 2009, for example, the Guadalajara International Book Fair, where thousands of writers, publishers, literary agents, librarians, translators and distributors attend every year, chose L.A. to be their guest of honor as a way of honoring the artistic and literary presence Los Angeles contributes to the world. And while the Los Angeles Convention and Tourism board certainly plays a critical role in the achievement of such accomplishments, the people of Los Angeles are the true catalysts.
“When I first started this job, if you went to Barnes and Noble and looked at the L.A. tour books- on the cover you would have a palm tree or the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or the Beverly Hills sign and maybe Venice Beach,” he comments. “Now, if you go and look at those same books, on the cover you have The Getty Center, or the Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. And it’s my contention that those guidebooks are no longer leading readers, they’re following.”
Now, with a decade behind him at the L.A. Tourism and Convention Board, Michael’s passion for promoting the artistic and cultural aspects of Los Angeles has only deepened, but it didn’t start there. Having studied lighting and set design in college at the University of Virginia, Michael has been in an ongoing love affair with the arts since before ever moving to Los Angeles. “I had been very actively involved in the theater community on the East Coast,” he recalls. “And then, like many people who train as artists, I got involved in some of the ancillary things like journalism. But most of my career has been somehow related to the arts or higher education, or higher education and the arts, which often go hand and hand.”
In 2000, Michael combined the two quite nicely in his role as Associate Vice President of Public Affairs at CalArts, where he focused on executing marketing and audience development strategies for the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT). And it was during his tenure at CalArts, in fact, where his relationship with the L.A. Tourism and Convention Board first began while working together on a project in 2004. The Tourism Board approached Michael requesting to work jointly with the CalArts School of Film/Video on a series of short films, highlighting 25 different cultural institutions in Los Angeles. And shortly after, the Tourism Board decided to create a position specifically focusing on art and culture.
“They created the position and offered it to me. And I had always worked in non-profits, and the L.A. Tourism and Convention Board is a non-profit, but it definitely has a serious business side to it,” he says. “And I had always liked to travel, and I liked tourism. And it seemed like an interesting opportunity to step outside of my reputation and work for an institution promoting a city I love in an area I love, arts and culture, in an industry that is vitally important to the welfare of Los Angeles.”
Today, the tourism industry in Los Angeles continues to thrive, and the future looks even brighter than the present, with L.A. Tourism and Convention Board offices and representatives in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Korea, Australia and China all working to promote Los Angeles’ cultural and artistic aspects internationally. There are already three more museums set to unveil in L.A. by 2015, as well as the extension of the Metro Purple Line subway system- connecting the Westside to the city’s rail transit system. And Michael is independently working with the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles, a non-profit that works jointly with the U.S Department of State, to bring emerging leaders from around the world to Los Angeles to create a collaboration between the Los Angeles region and the rest of the world. And these are only portions of an entire system aiding in achieving the hefty objectives set by Michael McDowell and his team.
“Our stated goal is to grow our visitation to 50 million visitors by 2020,” he explains. “And part of that will be through our promotional efforts, and a lot of that will require some infrastructure. Right now, we don’t have enough hotels to accommodate 50 million visitors, so there’s some development that has to occur. But, obviously, if 42 million visitors can pump 17 billion dollars into our economy, than 50 million will take us to 20 billion dollars. And that’s more jobs and more economic output for our city.”
Yes, the L.A. Tourism and Convention Board is the premier marketing institution, responsible for selling the City of Los Angeles to visitors and residents alike. But with dynamic leaders like Michael McDowell working diligently on their behalf- devoted to everyone experiencing the cultural and artistic features of the city- their impact has surpassed their mission. And this intrinsic organization has inadvertently become an advocate in the well-being and enlightenment of everyone who’s been to Los Angeles, and all of those who are one their way.
For more information on the L.A. Tourism and Convention Board, please visit http://www.discoverlosangeles.com/.