Tourism brings bucks in all denominations. One might say Abe Lincoln visited Waco over spring break, enjoying the views at Cameron Park and sipping floats at the Dr Pepper Museum. George Washington stood in line at the Silos, hoping to see Chip and Joanna. Andrew Jackson plunked down $20 for a “One Riot — One Ranger” T-shirt at the Texas Ranger Museum.
Not literally, of course, but money greases the skids of commerce. And thousands visited Waco recently carrying plenty of paper and plastic. Some suggested the turnout was a tuneup for summer, when Waco hopes to burnish its reputation as a destination spot.
It attracted 2.6 million visitors last year, and its hotel occupancy rate hit tops in Texas.
The McLennan County Sheriff’s Office has assigned personnel to the main Cameron Park Zoo entrance on Fourth Street near Herring Avenue to manage the crowds flocking there as the parking lots brimmed.
The Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce reported that the daylong Texas Food Truck Showdown on March 16 attracted about 25,000 guests, though Carla Pendergraft, marketing director for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Friday she continues to count crowd totals compiled by local attractions for March 10-17, which is spring break for much of Texas.
Timing is everything when talk turns to tourism and the revenue it generates, officials said. Rain and threatening weather may have had a chilling effect on attendance early in spring break. But Temple and Belton ISDs boosted the local cause, as their breaks and Waco’s coincided, a departure from last year, Mayborn Museum spokeswoman Rebecca Tucker Nall said.
Another driver of the crowds was Chip and Joanna Gaines’ annual Spring at the Silos, held to celebrate springtime with food booths, entertainment and, this year, an early unveiling of Joanna Gaines’ latest book, “We Are The Gardeners,” about spending time with her children working the soil.
This year it ran March 14-16, giving those celebrating spring break a last opportunity to kick up their heels before returning to the grind.
“We usually have two very busy weeks, but this year they were concentrated,” Nall said of museum headcounts. “We had our busiest week on record March 9 through March 15, Saturday through Friday, with attendance of 8,374. Our record week had been the last week of our ‘Titanic’ exhibit, which ended on Jan. 6, but spring break broke it. Our attendance is up 30 percent year to date over last year, and an increase of 40,000 to 50,000 visitors yearlong is definitely possible.”
She said families with youngsters are enjoying the Mayborn’s special exhibit featuring artwork inspired by Eric Carle’s colorful children’s books.
Also popular is an exhibit showcasing SpaceX, the privately held rocketry company founded by eccentric billionaire Elon Musk that operates a testing facility in McGregor.
Pendergraft, though still tallying figures, said she was impressed with the turnout based on her visits and working booths at the events.
“We talk to people, ask about their experiences and what can be done to encourage them to stay another day or two,” Pendergraft said.
She said three events over spring break required concentrated trolley service: Cameron Park Zoo’s KidZoobilee, the Texas Food Truck Showdown and Spring at the Silos.
Waco Transit’s McLane Shuttle, named for its service near McLane Stadium, hauled 6,761; the Cameron Park Zoo shuttle, 5,516; the La Salle Corridor shuttle, which links downtown to the La Salle Avenue shops and antique district and Magnolia Table, 1,345; and the Silo shuttle, 3,673, according to figures from Pendergraft.
“Those are some incredible numbers, reflecting thousands of people riding Waco Transit buses,” Pendergraft said. “More people are becoming accustomed to the parking situation and using our public transit to move around.”
Organizers had predicted Spring at the Silos would attract at least 40,000 visitors during its three-day run.
“Getting an exact number on attendance at the Silos can prove challenging,” Pendergraft said.
Infrared sensors count people once they enter the grounds, but not those standing outside, she said.
Others in the tourism and economic development trade locally estimate 30,000 to 35,000 people weekly visit the Silos, a major driver of Waco’s 2.6 million visitor total last year.
The Waco Mammoth National Monument survived spring break, “but the rain really didn’t do us any favors,” site manager Raegan King said. “We started to gain steam after Thursday of that week and match or exceed visitation over last year per day, but not enough to make up lost ground.”
She said visits dipped 11 percent year-over-year March 9 through March 17. Travelers from beyond the Red River were breathing life into the mammoth dig last week, the week after most local spring breaks. King said several parties from Oklahoma paid to tour the dig, causing attendance for what she described as the second week of spring break to jump 25 percent.
Pendergraft said Waco ended 2018 with a hotel occupancy rate of 76.7 percent, the highest of any major metropolitan area of Texas, just ahead of Midland’s 76.6 percent and well above the statewide norm of 65.1 percent.
“Waco continues to astound,” Pendergraft said.
She said 1,288 new hotel rooms are under construction, have been announced or are in the active planning stage. She said Waco could see a 41 percent increase in hotel capacity within three years if projects proceed as scheduled.
Ajai Patel, proprietor of the 74-room Comfort Suites South in Waco and leader of the Greater Waco Lodging Association, said he hopes the good times last, but is concerned about the building boom and its impact on occupancy rates.
“There are four hotels under construction now,” Patel said. “Apply an average of 125 rooms per property, and we’re going to see 500 additional rooms this time next year. I don’t know if room demand has peaked. I do know that if it does not continue to increase, if it does not keep pace with construction, we will see continuing pressure downward.”
Traffic at his property over spring break was “pretty similar” to that last year, though room rates were down somewhat from last spring break.
Noting that the NCAA and Baylor University are hosting regional women’s basketball games this weekend at the Ferrell Center, bringing fans, school officials and players from North Carolina, California and Abilene to Waco, Patel said the impact of such events on lodging “sometimes is overblown,” though he appreciates them.
“There are four teams involved, including Baylor and a smaller school, Abilene Christian University. Whether it has a large following, I don’t know, but the other teams are quite a distance away,” he said. “But Baylor isn’t going anywhere. We can rely upon their business long-term. As for Magnolia Market, I don’t know if it can sustain this level. All things must come to an end, as they say. I’m not concerned short-term. Long-term, yes I am.”