2019 ACE Summit: What The Capital Region Can Learn From Cultural Tourism Hub Austin, Texas

I have this distinct memory of pulling up to the airport in Austin, TX, the day after enjoying one of the single greatest weekends of my life at the Austin City Limits Festival (ACL Fest), and thinking, “To hell with New York City; I could move here in a heartbeat.” State capital Austin seemed to have everything going for it: a bustling economy, urban/suburban neighborhoods, a badass music scene, historic university, a modern and traditional culinary scene (i.e. to-die-for barbecue), great bars and one of the best city parks I’d ever been to (Zilker Park/Barton Springs, site of ACL Fest). I was in love.

I can’t help but imagine that people have the same reaction when they first discover what the eight counties that comprise the Capital Region have to offer, whether it’s visiting Saratoga Race Course; the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) or Caffè Lena; Troy Savings Bank Music Hall or the Troy Farmers’ Market; Albany’s Palace Theatre or Tulip Festival; Schenectady’s Proctors or a show on the Union College campus; or any number of other focal points that make this region a nexus of cultural diversity. And well, all of the above helped in my decision to move back here after 14 years away in New York City (as you might remember, I grew up in Saratoga).

Maureen Sager, Executive Director of the Upstate Alliance for the Creative Economy (ACE)—a project that grew out of the Center for Economic Growth—who herself moved to Saratoga from Brooklyn more than a decade ago, felt that way and wanted to do something about it. Last year, ACE started discussing the concept of cultural tourism, basically how a location’s cultural offerings motivate a traveler’s desire to go there, and in turn, make that person a consumer (all of this hinges heavily on a location’s population, ethnic diversity, history and a number of other related factors). So, for example, that time I traveled to Austin for ACL Fest made me a cultural tourist—it was the great music lineup that brought me to town—and when I swiped my credit card at New BROhemia to buy a vintage cowboy shirt, I was feeding into the cultural economy. “Cultural tourism seemed [like a] natural [subject] for us to start thinking about it,” says Sager. So she started researching cultural tourism reports and came across Austin’s, and something clicked: She immediately started drawing parallels between the Texas city and the greater Capital Region. “I was really struck by it, because it talked about authenticity of place; it was the idea that you can’t just stick a headline on [a place] and invite people there and think it’s going to work,” she says. It required an expert strategy, 360-degree approach and above all, synergy.

Soon after, Sager connected with Meredith Powell, Co-Founder and CEO of Public City, an Austin-based nonprofit consultancy and studio, that helped turn Austin into an international cultural tourism hotspot, and invited her to give the keynote speech at what became ACE’s Cultural Tourism Summit, entitled “Make The Scene: Lessons From Austin,” which took place on Tuesday, April 30.

Before the day even got started, I had the chance to moderate an impromptu roundtable discussion between Sager, Powell and Jon Elbaum, Troy Music Hall’s Executive Director, who happened to be on hand (after all, it was his venue who was hosting our interview). Echoing points that she’d later cover in her keynote, Powell told me that studies had shown that regions like ours, which have a strong showing in the creative arts, rein in cultural travelers that “stay longer [and] spend more.” So it’s a win-win for a region’s tourism machine and those who work in support of and actually make creative arts to form synergies. This connective tissue not only helps to boost the region’s overall economy, but also helps strengthen its brand identity. “There’s multiple factors, and when you can see them come together, that’s when something really magical happens,” explained Powell.

But it’s not only about tourism, arts and greenbacks. As Sager noted, the region is also looking to rope in “talent, businesses and investment as well.” In other words, to paraphrase that famous line from Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. The major difference between Austin and the Capital Region is pretty obvious: It’s one city versus an entire region’s worth of cities. But it wasn’t lost on Sager that each disparate part of the eight counties that make up the Capital Region could band together to “jointly celebrate” the whole. “When we [accomplish] that joint statement, we [will] have more energy and a greater array of offerings [than other nearby regions].” Elbaum concurred, using the Big Apple analogy: “You have Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn…each of those has its special character, but it’s still New York City.”

Sager and ACE are clearly onto something. Some 200 artists, business owners, representatives from large corporations and nonprofits and other local thought leaders registered for the summit—including Caffè Lena’s Executive Director Sarah Craig and its Director of Communications & Development Nancy Kass, as well as Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s Senior Director of Artistic Planning Chris Shiley, all of whom I spied in the audience at the keynote. When Powell took the temperature of the room early on in her talk, she found, by show of hands, that there were representatives from all eight counties in the Capital Region present. (Each little parcel of reps cheered when Powell read off their county names.)

If there was any prevailing theme that held the day’s events together, it was the desire, simply, to spark conversations, says Sager. “We’re just raising the question and seeing what the potential is.” To that end, following Powell’s speech, a series of moderators held breakout sessions/conversations at Downtown Troy businesses—Plum Oyster Bar, Lucas Confectionery, Bacchus Wood-Fired and Elixir 16—and then all involved met for a final discussion planning next steps at Troy’s Arts Center for the Capital Region.

All in all, it was an important day for the Capital Region, bringing it one step closer to becoming the cultural tourism juggernaut it has the potential of being (in many ways, parts of it already are). And no offense, Austin, but I’m glad I never moved your way; I have a thousand Austins to choose from right here in Upstate New York.


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