Varied efforts to promote a growing downtown Waco are shaping up with two broad audiences in mind: locals and visitors.
With Waco enjoying a swelling wave of tourism that now averages some 40,000 visitors per week, city staffers, downtown advocates and Magnolia executives are trying to fine tune ways to get information about the city to people who want it and in time to use it.
Generally though, officials trying to reach tourists drawn largely by Magnolia Market are focused on introducing the staples of the rest of the city. Those trying to reach locals are focused on maintaining a sense of belonging and countering pessimism, even if the parking spot three steps from the restaurant’s door is no longer a guaranteed get.
The Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau has long been active in getting information to city visitors through pamphlets, maps and other printed material available at the visitors bureau, Waco-area hotels and other sites that get tourists and out-of-town traffic. There is a website, wacoheartoftexas.com, with an extensive events calendar and long lists of restaurants, shops, tourist sites and other venues. The Convention and Visitors Bureau also advertises online and in regional and national publications and promotes Waco’s varied offerings in every sales pitch to prospective conventions.
A handful of downtown map kiosks provide orientation and directions to points of interest, restaurants and shops for people exploring Waco on foot.
But all that information might come too late for visitors arriving in Waco with their itineraries already planned, said Todd Bertka, who started work in December as the new director of the Waco Convention Center and Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We want to reach eyeballs before they get here,” Bertka said.
He met with Magnolia President Doug McNamee this spring to find ways the city could share the good word about Waco with Magnolia’s extensive audiences. Social media accounts of Magnolia founders Chip and Joanna Gaines have more than a million followers. The quarterly magazine Magnolia Journal has a circulation topping one million, and Magnolia’s websites and related newsletters have similarly broad audiences.
The company is a major driver of tourists to Waco, an influence that may increase even more with Magnolia’s recent announcement of a $10 million expansion of the Magnolia Market at the Silos complex, complete with a coffeehouse, furniture showroom, whiffle ball field and a new entrance on South Eighth Street. The Gaineses also intend to return to television in the near future with a lifestyle-focused network with Discovery, the parent company of “Fixer Upper’s” HGTV.
Magnolia executives were more than willing to help with the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s efforts.
“We have a phenomenal relationship with the CVB and we’re proud to join them in showing off this city,” Magnolia spokesman John Marsicano said.
Thousands come to Waco each week to visit Magnolia Market at the Silos, drive by houses renovated on the Gaineses’ television series “Fixer Upper,” eat at Magnolia Table or the Silos Baking Co., or stay at Magnolia’s three bed-and-breakfasts.
The Waco those visitors discover in the process only amplifies their experiences.
“We’re approached by thousands of guests every day who have nothing but amazing things to say about the various shops, restaurants and other attractions they’ve visited throughout their trip,” Marsicano said. “We’ve noticed there’s a real warmth and a genuine sense of hospitality they experience wherever they go. People truly feel welcome here.”
To reach some of those Magnolia visitors before they arrive in Waco, the Convention and Visitors Bureau will provide visitors information for special events on the Magnolia calendar: the Silobration in October, Christmas at the Silos, Spring at the Silos and the Silo District Marathon in spring. Magnolia also will offer city maps, in print and online, for its customers and guests.
Magnolia recently released a Waco City Guide to its followers, both on its website and through an e-newsletter sent to subscribers, with a 62-item list of shops, restaurants and sites of interest added to Magnolia’s offerings.
Magnolia staff and employees generated most of the Waco guide’s recommendations, Marsicano said.
“Our employees are proud to call Waco home — most of them have a laundry list of personal recommendations to share — but we also saw this as an opportunity to be more proactive about showcasing all of the incredible businesses throughout the city,” he said. “As for pressure from locals (to get into the guide), there really hasn’t been any — the list is truly an organic representation of the places we know and love. As I’m sure anyone would understand, it would be impossible to include every business in town, but Chip and Joanna are proud to be from Waco and that city guide is intended to be a snapshot of the reasons why.”
There’s more to Waco tourism and visitors than Magnolia, however, and Waco-area hotels with some 4,000 rooms available provide another contact point for Waco information. That contact will continue to grow, said Carla Pendergraft, the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s marketing director. Another 1,500 rooms are expected to be added in the next three years, based on ongoing hotel construction and on development plans, Pendergraft said.
In addition to providing hotels with printed material, the Convention and Visitors Bureau is pushing use of its app for iPhones and Android phones that puts information on Waco restaurants, businesses, museums, tourist sights and maps at visitors’ fingertips.
Local residents, not tourists, are the primary audience for City Center Waco’s website, downtownwacotx.com, which provides a similarly broad range of information about downtown events, businesses and restaurants but with locals in mind.
“My voice for downtown Waco is specifically aimed at speaking to locals,” said Wendy Gragg, who runs the website and handles social media for the nonprofit City Center Waco. “When there’s a big event downtown, you’re more likely to find me telling what roads are closed and where to park.”
Gragg, who lives downtown, also tries to reach the people she does not see downtown, whether it is an age group, ethnic background or gender.
“There’s more messaging to be done than people who do the messaging,” she said.
City Center Waco executive director Henderson said it is crucial that locals are kept informed about downtown Waco.
“It’s locals who build downtown,” Henderson said. “We want locals to feel downtown as an experience of belonging to them.”
Even as downtown Waco’s population has increased in recent years because of new lofts, townhouses and apartments, there is a greater audience to reach in Waco’s surrounding communities, whose residents may have never frequented downtown Waco despite its proximity, she said.
Providing information about what downtown offers and what is new there also may correct feelings that tourists are taking over.
There is a perception among some downtown residents and business owners that Magnolia Market’s success may be dissuading locals from coming downtown, because of increased traffic and difficulty in parking. Henderson said it was important to differentiate between growing pains of a burgeoning downtown and a civic pessimism she had encountered years ago when she came to Waco.
“Downtown is very different than it was five years ago,” she said. “While it’s exciting that there are new businesses and restaurants, there’s an extra 30,000 people in it. For locals, some of the thing that made downtown attractive — ease of access, quick parking — have been mitigated.”
Such grumbling tends to get amplified on social media and combined with concerns over higher property valuations and gentrification.
“I think to a certain extent Waco is used to losing,” Henderson said. “The tune is the same, but the words get an update, a new version of ‘woe is us.’”
Downtown is changing, boosting the city’s low but steady growth rate and adding a positive energy to city attitudes.
“I’m sorry, but Waco isn’t losing anymore. … Waco with more people is still Waco,” she said.