By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Philip San Filippo calls Las Cruces “the Kittyhawk of the future,” comparing it to the small town in North Carolina that became internationally famous after the Wright brothers made the world’s first controlled-power airplane flights a few miles south of there in December 1903.
San Filippo sees the same potential for Las Cruces, as Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic move closer to making commercial space flight – aerospace tourism – a reality.
San Filippo came to Las Cruces three years ago from Boca Raton, Fla. with a strong background in tourism as a tour operator, hotel manager and director of International Sales and Marketing for the United States and Latin America for the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism.
‘The Silicon Valley of aerospace’
San Filippo had never been to Las Cruces before, but knew this was the place to be after reading on the Internet about Spaceport, located 45 miles north of Las Cruces, and Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline.
“That to me is the new wave,” he said. “And the fact that it’s happening here is something that I want to be a part of.”
It could make Las Cruces “the Silicon Valley of aerospace,” San Filippo said.
And it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. “I feel confident in speaking with people who know the industry,” he said, “Virgin Galactic is working very hard. In the next two years, we’re going to see that first flight.”
When someone makes the trip to Spaceport for a commercial space flight, he or she will bring “33 to 36 people with them with disposable income,” San Filippo said. It will take potential space travelers three or four days to train for their flights; and during that time, “they will want to do different things,” he said, like climb the Organ Mountains; visit the three national monuments (Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, White Sands and Prehistoric Trackways) that are within an hour’s drive of Las Cruces; sample the local cuisine at restaurants and wineries; take in the downtown farmers market; see local live musical and theatrical productions; stroll the historic plaza in Mesilla; and learn all they can about Billy the Kid.
‘People are seeing the vision’
San Filippo said he is already “talking to hotels a lot about getting ready for what’s about to happen. We will literally have the eyes of the world right here.” And that means the local tourism industry will have to step up customer service at restaurants, hotels, gas stations. “It’s everybody,” he said.
“In New Mexico, we tend to be very friendly people,” said San Filippo. “That often comes across as customer service. But, customer service goes far beyond friendliness.”
You have to accommodate guests’ needs and wants, problem solve for them and make them feel at home, he said. “It goes far beyond that smile. They want to be accommodated. They demand certain things.”
“I think people are seeing the vision,” San Filippo said. “With what I see happening in the next two or three years, we’ll have a big demand for more hotels.”
That will add to the approximately 3,000 rooms currently available in the city, San Filippo said. A new Comfort Suites is already nearing completion on Telshor Boulevard. There is also a new four-story hotel being built behind the Applebee’s that is located on Avenida de Mesilla. And, San Filippo expects a hotel to be built soon near the Las Cruces Convention Center – “which we desperately need,” he said.
‘A good year’
The convention center has been an “extremely valuable” asset to Las Cruces since it opened in December 2010, San Filippo said. But, because it was built during the heart of the 2008 recession, the finished product was significantly smaller than had been called for in the original plans. Las Cruces, he said, has already lost 33,000 room nights because the convention center wasn’t big enough, didn’t have enough breakout rooms and didn’t have a hotel nearby to accommodate everyone who inquired about it. The good news, he said, is that the convention center’s kitchen is already full size, so it won’t have to be expanded when the convention center eventually is enlarged.
But if space tourism is still two or more years away, how is Las Cruces tourism doing in the meantime?
“This has been a good year,” said San Filippo. There are more beds to sell, and more room nights being sold, he said: Occupancy is up about three percent. And, “We see a lot of different trends going on right now.”
For example, when San Filippo became executive director of the CVB three years ago, one of the first things he did was conduct a focus group to find out what people in Albuquerque knew about Las Cruces. “They thought it was seven or eight hours away,” he said. “They thought it was a border town.”
The focus group also discovered that visitors from northern New Mexico would come to Las Cruces if they had a reason.
The same holds true, he said, for the “accidental tourists” who visit Las Cruces on their way between Dallas and California. “We want to give to give them a reason to visit, so it’s not an accident,” he said.
‘A boon for Las Cruces’
And that was the rationale for the Las Cruces Country Musical Festival, which celebrated its third anniversary in April with an appearance on the downtown mall by superstar Kenny Rogers. It has become one of Las Cruces’ signature events, San Filippo said. And, the 2016 event is already on the Internet: www.lascrucescountrymusic.com.
Revenue was up 43 percent for this year’s festival over last year, he said, and average attendance was about 4,500 for each of the festival’s two nights. “We’re very pleased with the results.” People came from 20 different states to attend the festival, including Florida, New York, Washington and California. It got coverage in Triple AAA Magazine and several major newspapers around the country. And, some of the star performers have helped the festival along as well; Charlie Daniels, for one, posted selfies of his performance at the 2013 festival, San Filippo said.
“It’s a boon for Downtown. It’s a boon for Las Cruces,” San Filippo said. “Our goal is to keep it moving in the right direction.” He said the festival is held on the same weekend as the New Mexico State University rodeo on purpose, so that people coming to the festival will visit not only Las Cruces restaurants, hotels and farmer’s markets, but also the rodeo and other university attractions.
Joint marketing efforts
San Filippo sees more good things coming for the downtown area. “I think we’re seeing some major differences there,” he said, including the plaza and new apartments nearby. “You will see more businesses coming in,” San Filippo said, adding that “any area that has a flourishing downtown will attract tourism.”
The CVB has “a very positive relationship with NMSU,” said San Filippo, who serves on the advisory board of the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management (HRTM) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, along with being a member of the New Mexico Hospitality Association board.
When he spoke to an HRTM class last year, San Filippo told the students they were lucky. Because of the coming boom in local tourism, he said, there will be more hotels and more opportunities for good jobs.
The CVB is work with the NMSU Athletics Department on joint marketing efforts to bring more visitors to Las Cruces and put more fans in stadiums, he said. NMSU President Garrey Carruthers “has been a great advocate for Las Cruces” and a supporter of tourism, San Filippo said. “I think he sees the big picture.”
The CVB is also partnering with the university on the Mark Medoff Visiting Lecture Endowment program, and it’s working with the Las Cruces Symphony, the Las Cruces Downtown Association and the Las Cruces Film Festival, among others. It also works closely with the New Mexico Department of Tourism and with the Town of Mesilla and Mesilla restaurants like La Posta and the Double Eagle. Mesilla is “an attraction, a destination,” San Filippo said.
‘A lot of different experiences’
“The big thing in tourism right now is experientialism,” he said. Visitors want an experience. Las Cruces offers many – the Walk of Flame (also known as the Green Chile Trail), which highlights some of the area’s outstanding and unique Mexican-food restaurants. This area is also home to the oldest wine industry in the United States, dating back to 1564, San Filippo said. “Las Cruces offers a lot of different experiences.”
Having interstates 10 and 25 and U.S. Highway 70 running through Las Cruces makes it a “good, logical place for people to stop and visit southern New Mexico, and that’s how we’re positioning ourselves,” San Filippo said. He acknowledged that there is an “I-40 divide” separating southern New Mexico from Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos – the tourism of the north. “It’s up to us to give people a reason to want to come down here and to see the rest of the state,” he said. “That is what we have to do. Our goal is a 300-mile radius, but we have the ability to reach out a lot farther.”
Spreading the word
“We have a challenge,” San Filippo said. It’s making sure people around the state and around the country know about the many attractions that New Mexico – and especially southern New Mexico – have to offer. “There is a lot of things that we take for granted.” Just having three national monuments is a huge benefit, San Filippo said, because many tourists tell him their goal is to visit every one in the United States. (There are 408 areas in the National Park Service system, located in New Mexico and every other state, along with the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. There are 17 national parks and monuments, historic trails and heritage areas in New Mexico.)
Anyone who inquires about Las Cruces gets all this information and much more in the 2015/16 Las Cruces Official Visitors Guide and Vacation Planner, which is also available at visitors centers throughout the state. And, the CVB also now has its own app – Las Cruces Visitors Guide – which is available free on Android and Apple.
The CVB is also making extensive use of the internet, including social media. Check out http://www.lascrucescvb.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/lascrucescvb. The CVB has more than 8,000 friends on its Facebook page, San Filippo said, and a video about Las Cruces usually gets 50,000 to 75,000 viewers within 24 to 36 hours, he said.
The CVB has 11 employees, including the director of sales and three sales staff members who travel extensively to promote the area. Its annual budget is $1.9 million, which comes entirely from local lodgers tax – “not one penny from general revenue,” San Filippo. Lodgers tax is a five-percent tax that visitors pay when they stay in a local hotel, motel or other commercial lodging. He said the Las Cruces CVB is competing with Albuquerque, Santa Fe, El Paso and other cities “with budgets four to five times ours. But our staff puts out and promotes probably as much as any of those.”