New board working to turn Harlingen into a tourist destination

HARLINGEN — For many tourists and business travelers, Harlingen has become the Rio Grande Valley’s “hub.”

Now, the Harlingen Convention & Visitors Bureau’s new advisory board will use that and other ideas to draw more tourist dollars to town.

Yesterday, the board met for the first time in four years — an informal “meet-and-greet” session.

The board includes Michelle Lopez, sales director for Courtyard by Marriott; Rex Warren, a former hotel executive; Arnold Gomez, a manager at Sam’s Club; and Javier Mendez, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Meanwhile, city commissioners continue to work to appoint more members to the newly-revamped seven-member board, Cassandra Consiglio, the CVB’s executive director, said.

“It’s great that the responsibility of this group is to grow the city for visitors,” Lopez said after the short meeting. “I’m hoping that between these people there’ll be ideas and visions that can help. We’re all in this together to try to grow this.”

The board will help the CVB develop plans and events to draw more tourists to town, Lopez said.

“What do hotels need from us — events so we have guests?” Lopez said.

Lopez said the key lies in turning the city into a tourist destination.

“How do you grow Harlingen and set it apart — you have to have a reason to come to Harlingen,” she said.

Already, she said, the city’s central location makes it a hub for tourists and business travelers.

“Harlingen is location — that’s the reason they stay here,” Lopez said. “If I have business in Brownsville or McAllen, where will I stay? It’s convenient to stay here. We stay in Harlingen and do business in the Valley.”

From Harlingen’s hotels, she said, many tourists drive to South Padre Island.

“Some go the Island but don’t want to pay those rates,” she said, referring to the Island’s higher hotel rates.

Lopez said she tries to sell her guests on dining and shopping in town.

“We try to keep it in here because that’s what benefits us,” Lopez said. “We work really hard at that. You have to have a hotel culture to do that. You’ve got to train people to do that.”

Lopez said shopping brings many tourists to the area.

“Shopping is always a big thing, especially for women,” she said.

Dillard’s recent move to turn its Valle Vista Mall store into a clearance center is drawing some shoppers to town, Lopez said.

“We tell them we have a fantastic Dillard’s clearance center — and they come back with bags,” she said. “They might not have one of these where they live.”

Lopez also tries to sell her guests on dining in town.

“For dining, we try to keep it in the city,” she said, suggesting restaurants such as Colletti’s Italian Restaurant, Stefano’s Brooklyn Pizza and Vermilion Restaurant & Watering Hole.

The CVB wants to work more closely with the city’s hotels, Consiglio said.

“We’re going to keep pushing to have meetings with the hotels,” she said.

The newly-revamped board, which will help the CVB market the city to draw tourism, will hold its first official meeting Nov. 14.

The board will also review events booked for the $16.7 million convention center, whose construction is expected to be completed in January, Assistant City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez, who oversees the CVB, said earlier this week.

However, commissioners have been unable to appoint more than four members to the seven-member board.

In December 2016, commissioners reduced the board’s membership from 12 to seven members to allow the board to more easily form quorums.

Now, with four members, the board’s membership is just enough to form the quorum needed to officially hold city meetings.

Commissioners have had difficulty appointing members because the board’s guidelines require members with experience in businesses tied to the overall marketing of the city, Gonzalez said.

The city’s guidelines require the board be made up of two members with experience in hotel management; a member with a background in restaurant management; a member with experience in retail management; a member with an arts background; a member with experience in promoting sporting events; and a person with a background in eco-tourism.

Who's on the board?

Rex Warren – experience in hotel management

Michelle Lopez – experience in hotel management

Arnold Gomez – experience in retail management

Javier Mendez – city parks and recreations director