‘Amigos Siempre’ shows Mexico that McAllen Believes in Strong Relationships

By Roberto Hugo Gonzalez

As originally published by Texas Border Business newsprint edition September 2017

For centuries, the United States and Mexico’s friendship has gone through the grinder many times over. Book writers have referred to our vicinity with Mexico as closely interrelated and sometimes prickly.

There are vast differences in how each country sees the problems that aggravate this friendship, be that in the political, social, cultural or economic arenas. Yet there has always been a way thru, which helped to continue this tight friendship between the two great nations.

It is important to note that the stability on every aspect of these two nations is vital to everyone’s well-being.

Even though the relationship between the United States and Mexico is complicated, the Rio Grande Valley continually reaches out to strengthen this friendship. Cities in this region have developed different programs which particularly embrace Mexico.

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So is the case of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce that historically has shown only one side when it relates to Mexico, “Amigos Always.” Steve Ahlenius, President and CEO of the chamber has a different way of valuing this friendship, he says “Mexico is in our DNA”.

The Chamber has a special department headed by Nancy Millar. She is a seasoned professional that accumulated experience because she is hands on. Millar acts as the Vice President of the Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) for the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. I would say it’s like having a secret weapon that is often put into action to convey a message, and all of the sudden, business activity starts.

Millar told Texas Border Business that the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s job is to bring people into McAllen because when people visit McAllen they spend money and that increases the economic well-being of the city.

Her job is particularly specific and requires her to go after six critical segments of the industry; business travelers, convention events, sports, Winter Texans, and nature tourism.

She said, “It includes leisure tourism, which in McAllen’s case is not exclusively but primarily Mexican nationals, Winter Texans, major tourists, and sports attendees.”

All areas are important, but she says, “Well, probably if you had to say what our bread and butter is, it would be the individual business travelers.” She said, “Sales people who come in, and fill up the hotels during the week because they have business with the Maquilas cannot be affected too much, because if they have the business, they have to come.”

The Maquila industry is indeed one area that started almost three decades ago. Back then, we had the Industrial Foundation that promoted the industry to our region, not to Reynosa or Mexico but McAllen specifically.

Foreign companies were not strange to manufacturing in Mexico, especially in Cd. Juarez, Chihuahua. Local attorney, Arturo “Tito” Torres knew the industry all too well. He advised Othal Brand, Sr. former McAllen mayor on the process to put together an economic development corporation. Torres recommended the late Mike Allen as head of the new company, and the rest is history.

The Industrial Foundation was dissolved, and in 1988 McAllen Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) came to be. The success of this corporation is a team well trained on global competition demands. The Maquila industry attracts hundreds of professionals to McAllen and the region. The message for those visitors, according to Millar is that McAllen is user-friendly and a city with high quality of life.

The other side of her responsibilities is to promote the meetings and conventions. This area is important because when these visitors come to attend a meeting or conventions, they spend about $175 a day per attendee.

She explains, “So, for instance with Games of Texas we anticipated approximately 20,000 people in town over the course of several days, as the athletes come with their families while they participate in the games.”

According to Millar, this type of visitor is more lucrative for the city and the region than meetings and convention attendees. “The individual sporting event participant actually spends more than their average conference attendee; it’s $208 a day.” She said, “It’s also a significant segment for us and something that’s multiplying because of the number of sports facilities that the city has put in recently.”

Millar pointed out that they have more than one message because she realizes that is impossible to attract everyone. “We have to look at our strengths, and look at the areas that we can touch like for example we are the best birding spot in all of the United States and Canada.” She continues, “This is not hyperbole. That is a fact. We are the most productive spot for birders.” Since 2006, birders have seen 230 species of birds in Quinta Mazatlan.

The reason they come here she says, “Is that we have fantastic winter weather, so the Mid-Westerners and the Canadians do want to spend their winters down here, and we get them.”

Birders bring into the Valley $463 million every year. They sustain over 6,600 jobs, this according to a survey done by Texas A&M published in 2012. “Is the most recent information that we have,” Millar stated.

Also, she said that sometimes this is difficult for people to believe because they don’t see the birders. “It’s not like spring breakers. Winter Texans are maybe a little bit easier to identify generally, but the birders maybe not so much. If they happen not to be wearing their binoculars around their necks, they may just look like you and me.”

Winter Texan industry in another that leaves about $700 million a year. According to the University of Texas RGV. Millar said that it had been no real effort to advertise to this segment for a dozen years.

“You’ve probably heard this, but the Winter Texan numbers have been dropping in the whole Valley over the last several years.” She said, “This is not something that we did not expect. We saw this coming.”

She said that those in the tourism industry in Texas and certainly in the Valley have known that this is coming and for several reasons. “One of them is that we are transforming, transmigrating from one generation to another. The greatest generation is not necessarily our target anymore. It’s the baby boomers, and baby boomers are retiring differently from the way that other generations have.”

According to Millar, honey boomers can’t admit to retiring. “It’s just anathema to us. I’m sorry, that can’t be true. Part of is that we haven’t saved enough money to be able to retire.” She continues, “We don’t want the same things that our parents want when we do retire. We want more experiential, more adventurous types of activities. We don’t want to be sitting around in a rocking chair. We still want to learn. We still want to travel. We still want to have experiences, and we are also more likely to spend more money on ourselves than previous generations.”

Millar thinks that what happened is that they all started taking the honey boomers for granted. “We got fat and happy, and said, ‘we’ve got them, they are coming’. We looked at the numbers, and so we all took our eye off that ball. Now that the numbers are starting to diminish, we have recognized that if we want to continue to see them coming, then we need to do something about it and we are.”

The work done by the chamber and the Convention & Visitors Bureau is monumental. They attend to six fronts, and one of those is Mexico, possibly the most complex in every way. Just last February, the City of McAllen launched ‘Amigos Always’ Campaign to Restore Border Relationships. Did we do anything to Mexico that merited restoring relationships? The answer is no. Well, it was not us, but our president Donald T. Trump with generalized comments that offended our neighbors to the south with his desire to also complete the erection of the wall between the two countries.

But if you go back a bit, the wall idea is not even Trump’s, it was the U.S. Senate approving the wall 80–19 and the U. S. Congress 283–138, that passed the law to build a wall. Once the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed by Congress, President George W. Bush signed it into law on October 26, 2006.

So why on January 28, 2017 (1:37 pm), did a Reynosa group launch a social media campaign against McAllen retailers for an idea already passed by the U. S. Congress?

The campaign called #AdiosMcAllen attempted to make Reynosa residents think before supporting McAllen businesses. The campaign extended all the way to Mexico City, and it became worrisome to the degree that Keith Patridge, the President, and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development used social media to make this statement:

January 28, 2017 (4:37 pm): “Today we learned via social media that a boycott had been launched to stop people from going to McAllen. McAllen has been a solid partner both in commerce and job creation. Over the last twenty-nine years, the McAllen Economic Development Corporation has worked aggressively to attract manufacturing companies to establish operations in Reynosa, creating more than 115,000 jobs and improving the lives of residents on both sides of the border. We understand the frustrations both with ideas and discussions that have been proposed by Washington and Mexico City, but now is not the time to jump ship and lose focus. Now more than ever we should band together and bridge our two countries. Let us be the model and story that speaks differently of what international trade and commerce brings to our own families. Divided we both lose.”  So, now you understand when I say it is a complex relationship.

Millar told Texas Border Business that on July 11, 2017, the McAllen Chamber and the Convention & Visitors Bureau, and a total of 25 business people traveled to Mexico City to strengthen the long-standing relationship with the Amigos Always message.

“We called it McAllen Day in Mexico City Expo Event & Style Show, and the purpose of the trip was to expose Mexico residents more to McAllen.” She explained that there was a catwalk setup so that the models’ male and female could show fashions from the City of McAllen. “That was a lot of fun, and the photographers were going crazy taking the pictures. Then we had it open for the attendees to visit all the different booths that we had setup.”

The campaign was hosted by the City of McAllen, the McAllen Airport, Aeromar and La Plaza Mall. The idea was also to promote the non-stop flight from McAllen to Mexico City with Aeromar. Elizabeth Suarez the McAllen Aviation director and Andrés Fabre, CEO of Aeromar Airlines were also present.

Millar stated, “The trip was to let them know specifically what the city has in general but what’s going on with La Plaza Mall – the growth, the renovation, the expansion, and what to anticipate.” In total, there were thirteen booths from various businesses and city of McAllen departments. Dillard’s was also present.

Millar anticipated 130 guests, and 180 showed up. “People we invited were media, travel agents and tour operators. We ended up having 50 media representatives, so we were very pleased with the turnout, and there was plenty of time to network and to talk to the press,” she said.

Why are these trips to Mexico necessary? “The Mexican nationals are the most important to us economically. We are the number one shopping destination in the entire United States for the country of Mexico. There is more Mexican money spent in McAllen than there is any other city in the United States and that includes Houston, Miami, New York, anywhere you want to think of. We are number one. That’s according to Visa Card International.” She continued, “Mexican citizens are spending approximately $1.2 billion, with a capital B, in McAllen every year, and it’s responsible for 35% of the retail sales of the city. It’s good for our quality of life, and it’s certainly good for our pocket books.”

Nancy S. Millar, Vice President and Director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau for the McAllen Chamber of Commerce

When promoting McAllen, we have so many inherent attractions that it’s easy to customize what we say to the interests of the individual. Whether it’s speaking with convention or sporting event planners, Mexican shoppers, prospective Winter Texans, foodies, birders, or other potential tourists, we have what they’re looking for. We certainly have the weather and low costs, plus the meeting and sports facilities, the birds, the outdoor activities, and the excellent infrastructure of our restaurants, hotels, entertainment options, and retail stores.

We also work very closely with other Valley cities to offer an even broader range of possibilities for visitors. In tourism, regional partnerships are very valuable and help us all. McAllen is often the hub for visitors who will also stop by the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, or the World Birding Center, or go to South Padre Island for a day. We have what they’re looking for.