On Thursday, Jan. 21, the newly formed Austin County Tourism Commission received its funding through the first ever Houston First Matching Grant Program, an initiative launched in spring 2015 and enacted as a campaign in September to increase partnerships that will skyrocket tourism for all of southeast Texas.
Houston First held a press conference at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and awarded 14 large-sized checks totaling approximately $250,000 to programs that submitted applications for grant money dedicated to tourism.
Members of Houston tourism agencies were on hand to present the checks, including Jorge Franz, senior vice president of Tourism for Visit Houston, Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, and Jonathon Glus, co-chair of Houston First Corporation and Visit Houston Joint Tourism Committee.
“This is the ground floor of Houston tourism. Other cities have been doing this for years what Houston is doing now,” said Denyce Treybig, a member of the tourism commission.
Treybig and six other community members were in Houston to receive the grant: Gerry Math, co-owner of Yellow Brick Road Winery along with Treybig; Karla Kitterman, ambassador program director for the tourism commission; Nancy Doron, Bellville Chamber of Commerce executive director; John Moore, Bellville Chamber of Commerce vice president; Tammy Hall of the Sealy Chamber of Commerce; and Sealy Mayor Mark Stolarski.
The commission was awarded $20,000 in grant funding, among the top six in recipients. The smallest award amount was $10,000 and the largest was $25,000. The commission’s award amount is on par with the famed Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre, Treybig said, an amazing feat to her.
The commission was spearheaded by the City of Sealy because some form of a governmental agency or nonprofit was required to cosign for the grant. City manager Larry Kuciemba is the grantee of the program, although it’s a collaborative between government and business, one team and one community, Treybig said.
“If we do this as one community then we’re going to be stronger and better … right now it’s all scattered,” she said.
Treybig said County Judge Tim Lapham has been a huge proponent of marketing tourism across the county. He gets a high five on this one, she said.
Capturing the grant was a group effort and Treybig said she thinks the oversized check should be passed around to every community in Austin County like a trophy. The county’s tourism commission was the only group to combine multiple towns or cities into one program.
Treybig told Houston area tourism leaders Austin County is committed to an authentic Texas experience, not to be confused with the next FarmersOnly.com ad campaign, at which she earned a laugh.
The tourism grant is a reimbursement program at its core. For every dollar spent by a program it is reimbursed $0.50 under grant guidelines, Treybig said.
Jumping on at the ground level of the grant program also has special advertising perks through print and electronic media. The tourism commission will be featured on TourTexas.com, one of the largest tourism searching tools in the state that receives up to nine million website hits each year, at half the usual cost because of its selection by Houston First.
“I compare it to being Miss Texas,” Treybig said because of the automatic media exposure programs receive due to selection. At the end of the calendar year, the grant selection process begins again.
Each program also receives invites to seminars teaching ways to package hotel and transportation deals along with ins and outs of the tourism industry.
“It’s all about creating something new,” Treybig said.
Various countywide entities have worked tirelessly since November to get a county EDC off the ground. The commission that worked on the grant was made up of Bellville, Sealy, Industry and Cat Spring all working together.
Through the county EDC, tours could be hosted that cross from town to town, city to city benefiting the entire county. Treybig and other county and business leaders believe residents should welcome an increase in tourism because every dollar realized decreases property taxes.
The more small businesses succeed, the more it attracts others. It becomes a wave of things to come, Treybig said.
“We want people to have great memories of their visit to Austin County,” she said, adding it can be as simple as visiting fields of bluebonnets and taking photos.
A plan is in motion for the commission even though they are still formalizing. It’ll start with what the commission is calling a familiarization tour, or Fam Tour. Busloads of tourists from Houston would be invited to experience what the county has to offer.
Business leaders have packaged a two-part idea to push marketing: a “city escape” and “Austin County, the real Texas deal.” These ideas also compose a book called “101 Things to do in Austin County: The Adventurers Guide.”
The commission’s media campaign will be directed at three major markets: Houston, Austin and San Antonio.
Treybig has been in conversation with the Omni Hotel off Highway 6 in Katy, and using them as an in-between for prospective tourists through their hotel.
A commission logo and website are in the development stages. The domain will be VisitAustinCounty Texas.com and feature Bellville, Brazos Country, Cat Spring, New Ulm, Sealy, San Felipe and Wallis. With the website in the design phase, it is a good time for businesses to become listed, or for community members to get involved as ambassadors, Treybig said, especially those with tourism or hospitality experience.
The tourism commission is holding meetings over the next few weeks. Businesses interested in the program can contact Treybig by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For individuals looking to assist the program or become certified ambassadors, contact Karla Kitterman by email at VisitAustinCounty@gmail.com.