May 2, 2008, 10:45PM
Houston tourism chalks up a gain
CityPass puts city on list with some top U.S. destinations

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

The president of CityPass wasn't convinced there was much to do in Houston.

Mike Gallagher had been to Houston 25 years ago on business, and as far as he could tell, about the only attraction was Johnson Space Center.

But local boosters pestered him into coming back. Surprised to see Houston's array of museums, a quality zoo and the Downtown Aquarium, Gallagher added Houston to his CityPass network of cities, which includes the more touristy San Francisco, New York and Seattle.

It was enough to convince him that Houston was a viable market, and the area's own CityPass goes on sale May 13.

"It says to the world, 'There is a tourist destination, and you should visit,' " said Greg Ortale, president and chief executive of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The bureau hopes to sell 30,000 passes a year, aiming them at Latin American tourists who visit to shop and go to appointments at the Texas Medical Center as well as to regional visitors and even locals looking to save money.

They also hope the passes, which will be marketed through travel agents and tour operators, might encourage visitors to stay a day or two longer. That, in turn, would boost hotel occupancy and spending at restaurants and stores.

"Being a CityPass destination helps us with our identity as a tourist destination," Ortale said. "A lot of our customers assume that if you are a CityPass city, there must be a lot to see or do here."

The Houston pass, which provides admission to six attractions, will cost $34 for adults and $24 for children.

The price is nearly half what visitors otherwise might pay if they bought tickets at individual ticket counters.

Four of the attractions are fixed: Space Center Houston, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Houston Zoo and the Downtown Aquarium.

Options available
Pass holders also can choose two options from among four other offerings: George Ranch Historical Park or the Health Museum; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston or the Children's Museum of Houston.

The passes, which can be purchased from any of the attraction sites, are good for nine days from the date the first ticket is used.

Houston Mayor Bill White is scheduled to buy the first pass when they go on sale. It's unclear if he'll pick the George Ranch or the Health Museum.

The Napa, Calif.-based Gallagher said he chose the attractions in Houston by looking at their attendance figures, year-round accessibility and uniqueness.

Each time a pass coupon is used, the location receives a portion of the proceeds, he said. They receive a larger premium if they sold the pass initially.

The passes are appealing economically because it's a way to bring in new visitors without adding a lot of extra cost, said Gallagher, who had a long career in recreational marketing before launching the CityPass program with a partner in 1997.

Once you've opened your doors, the cost of entertaining 1,200 visitors is virtually the same as 1,000, he said.

After spending a little more for extra supplies and other essentials, the admission fee from the extra 200 people goes right to the bottom line.

The Children's Museum of Houston hopes its participation in CityPass will boost museum attendance by 10 percent, executive director Tammie Kahn said. The museum hosts about 630,000 visitors a year, and about one-third are from outside Houston.

"The pass will give us a wider reach," said Kahn, adding that it will help its promotional efforts in Latin America, which is a core target market.

Over spring break, groups of children from the Caribbean came for a visit, she said. Newspapers in Colombia and Argentina have published stories about what to see and do at the museum.