Elizabeth A. Taylor knew her first week as director of Waco’s convention and visitor’s bureau was going to be a busy one.
An African-American cultural expo and a major junior college basketball tournament were just two of the major events sure to fill up the city’s hotels and restaurants. Bringing more such business to town was the City Council’s goal when it voted last year to revamp its convention and tourism efforts.
Taylor, however, never counted on Vernon Howell.
Since Feb. 28, when Howell and his band of followers engaged in a bloody shootout with federal agents, Waco has been besieged by law enforcement officers and media personnel from around the nation and world.
One thing they all have in common is that they have to eat, drink and sleep. That has brought a bonanza – one tourism official said at least $1 million in one week – for Waco’s travel-related businesses.
But don’t expect Taylor to gloat.
“Anytime any group is in town for whatever reason they are here and they spend money here, that is a positive impact on the community,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to exploit that because to exploit that would be to minimize the severity and the solemnity of the situation that is ongoing.”
Taylor started work here 24 hours after the start of the armed standoff between Branch Davidians and a virtual army of federal, state and local officers.
Before coming to Waco, she was director of the convention and visitors bureau in Georgetown. In Waco, she replaces Emory Oney, who was fired last fall as part of a budget-cutting reorganization of the Waco Convention Center.
Taylor said Waco has a lot to offer to visitors, whether they are here for business or pleasure. Some of the highlights include a modern convention center, 2,700 hotel rooms and several museums and similar attractions.
“There is just so much, plus you add in the history of Waco and the community itself,” she said.
A town with personality
“It has a personality that has developed over the years.”
Despite the distractions of the siege, Taylor has been busy meeting with officials in the local tourist trade – hotel managers, museum operators and others.
“Most of it has been becoming familiar with what’s where and who does what,” Taylor said.
A recent state tourism report showed that travelers to Waco in 1991 spent about $95 million here, 11.1 percent more than in 1990.
Taking a bottom-line approach to Waco’s burgeoning tourist industry, Taylor said, she hopes to work with others to develop a coordinated business plan to spur further growth.
“We’re here to serve, and we want to put service first, and we want to provide the best service and help meet the needs of the community,” she said.
Taylor didn’t seem too worried about the possible stigma the Branch Davidian siege might have on Waco and her staff’s efforts to sell the city. Based on her several contacts with news reporters in the past week, Taylor said, she doubts Waco will suffer much in the long term.
In the long run
“I think we’ll deal with it in some ways for a short period of time. A lot of it is going to depend on how long this goes on,” Taylor said.
“It’s our job to go about selling Waco in a business-like manner. We’re going to deal with the comments and concerns by reassuring that the situation is not indicative of the entire community,” she said.
Taylor and her staff have, in a low-key manner, tried to cultivate the goodwill of the media visitors. At each news conference, reporters have enjoyed free coffee and snacks provided by the convention center staff.
Over the weekend, employees placed a table covered with tourism-related brochures just outside the room where the briefings are held. Taylor said getting such information out is key as reporters look for something to cover in the time between news conferences.
“The media, for the most part, have been very open-minded to the fact that the situation is occurring outside the town and is not reflective of the entire community and there is a whole lot more to Waco than what is going on out there,” she said.
“They basically realize it’s not Waco’s fault.”