The push to attract tourism grows in western Travis County

The Sonesta Bee Cave Austin Hotel is one of many hotels and lodging establishments in western Travis County, an area that is seeing a growing push to promote tourism. 
Courtesy Sonesta Bee Cave
The Sonesta Bee Cave Austin Hotel is one of many hotels and lodging establishments in western Travis County, an area that is seeing a growing push to promote tourism. Courtesy Sonesta Bee Cave

The Sonesta Bee Cave Austin Hotel is one of many hotels and lodging establishments in western Travis County, an area that is seeing a growing push to promote tourism. Courtesy Sonesta Bee Cave

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At a recent luncheon held by the Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce at The Vintage Villas just north of Lakeway, Justin Bragiel, general counsel for the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, served as the keynote speaker.

Bragiel discussed the fact that a heightened interest in local tourism has emerged. Since 2015, in the Lake Travis area alone, more than six hotels or lodging facilities have opened or are about to open.

“There has been growth in tourism even where people didn’t expect it ... I think that’s really happened in communities like Lakeway and Bee Cave,” Bragiel said. “It just sort of occurred organically, and now, we’re really trying to build on that.”

Throughout western Travis County, hotels and a burgeoning retail industry have blossomed out of what was once considered a sleepy lake community, Bragiel said, and in part because of that, tourism has become an essential part of the local economy.
Bragiel is not alone in his observation. Officials and community leaders throughout the Lake Travis area are either taking part in or leading efforts to bring more visitors to their communities west of Austin, and there is evidence to support the idea these efforts are bearing fruit.

In Lakeway, for example, direct travel spending, which accounts for purchases by travelers including lodging and state taxes at the point of sale, shot up more than $2 million between 2017 and 2018, according to Travel Texas.

From developing plans for how to best allocate funds that have been swelling city coffers to the creation of detailed promotional campaigns, more and more efforts are coming forth to improve the area in the pursuit of bringing in more tourism dollars.

Tourism strategies

In the last year, Lakeway and Bee Cave city councils have held extensive public discussions centered on tourism, and both cities have several million dollars in their respective hotel occupancy funds. Bee Cave has more than $2 million, and Lakeway has more than $5 million. State law mandates that hotel tax money may only be used to promote tourism, and so far in 2019, both cities have allocated minimal amounts from their hotel tax funds.

One of the most recent hotel tax awards in Bee Cave came in June, a $40,000 sum to the Lake Travis Film Festival. And in September, Lakeway doled out $2,500 to the Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce to bring a firefighters' convention to the area in 2022.

Bragiel said it is important for cities to develop a strategy for allocating hotel tax funds. Often, these strategies center around convention and visitor bureaus, chambers of commerce or consultations from outside entities.

“We always encourage communities to consider adopting a CVB, and there are a lot of formulas and [models] for what that could look like,” Bragiel said.

Bee Cave City Council has recently endorsed that idea, and during a June meeting, council set off on the first steps toward a joint venture with the Bee Cave Chamber of Commerce to create the Bee Cave Convention and Visitor Bureau, or BCCV. That effort was spearheaded by Adrian Overstreet, owner of the Bee Cave Sonesta Hotel, as well as by the Bee Cave Chamber.

Officials initially endorsed the creation of the BCCV at City Council's June 25 regular meeting.

The plan was for the BCCV to manage the lion’s share of the city’s hotel tax monies, and at first, council voted unanimously to start constructing the organizational aspects of the bureau.

At the same time, Overstreet, the city of Bee Cave and the chamber partnered with the firm PR Boutique to create a marketing campaign for the city entitled “See what the buzz is about."

But by September, legal issues with the structure of the board of directors had become apparent, and following the executive session of the Sept. 24 council meeting, Mayor Monty Parker said there were still too many details left to work out before an agreement between the city and the chamber could advance.

Days after that, Overstreet and the chamber withdrew the application and began formulating a new plan for a CVB.

Even though the first attempt at creating a CVB for Bee Cave didn’t pan out, neither the city nor the chamber have abandoned the idea nor the marketing campaign.

“I think what ends up happening is that we partner with the Bee Cave Chamber and have a hybrid model of what they initially proposed,” City Manager Clint Garza said, adding a future plan could include splitting responsibilities between the bureau and the city rather than designating all hotel tax fund decisions solely to the CVB.

Likewise, in Lakeway, efforts are underway through official channels to develop tourism strategies for the area. Though the efforts are not yet as pronounced as those in Bee Cave, Lakeway City Council Member Louis Mastrangelo said one focus of the city’s comprehensive plan involves tourism and how to best approach future allocation strategies from the city’s hotel tax fund.

“We have a community that enjoys the quiet life and all that, so we wouldn't want to have the kind of tourism that would bring in big parties or big huge events that would be disruptive, so we know that,” Mastrangelo said.
The city’s Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee will present its report to council, likely at the beginning of 2020, he said. Plans for the report may include feedback results from a town hall meeting and citizen survey, though a time frame for those outreach efforts has not yet been set.

Economic Impact

Bragiel stressed that the tourism industry in general is both unique and coveted by cities for a variety of reasons, including the fact that tourists do not add a lot of wear and tear to an area.

According to the Texas State Comptroller’s Office, direct travel spending reached $80.3 billion in Texas in 2018, up 7.5% from 2017.

“Out of all the industries that you would want to attract, it seems like the tourism industry would be one of the best ones,” Bragiel said. “There’s a light touch on the community and it can be very lucrative.”

Overstreet agrees with that sentiment, and said tourists are an ideal source of sales tax dollars because they arrive in Bee Cave, spend money and then leave. Bee Cave’s collected sales tax revenue has increased by more than $3 million since 2015 and Lakeway’s has increased by more than $1 million in the same time period.

Because of his involvement in the attempted creation of the BCCV, among other reasons, Overstreet has already positioned himself as a key player in Bee Cave’s emerging plan to promote tourism.

Citing his own hotel as an example, Overstreet said the Bee Cave Sonesta Hotel, in conjunction with the neighboring modern retail center The Hill Country Galleria, will serve to help promote sales tax growth in the city.

The hotel provides a shuttle service to the Galleria, he said, adding Bee Cave’s low 2% sales tax is a driver for out-of-town shoppers.

“It becomes a very symbiotic relationship between tourists and the town and the sales tax generation,” Overstreet said.
The Sonesta also provides transportation to another unique tourist attraction in the area—Star Hill Ranch, a property located on Hamilton Pool Road that has been re-created to resemble a 19th-century hill country town, Overstreet said.

Addressing hesitance

Despite the growing trend in the promotion of tourism in western Travis County, local experts also point out a that large segment of area residents have concerns with some pitfalls that could be brought about by tourism.

“I think our citizens are very concerned that tourist attractions will create a traffic hazard,” Mastrangelo said, pointing out the already troublesome issue of traffic density in the area and suggesting that increased traffic may be the trade-off for generating tourism.

Bragiel said he understands residents’ hesitation regarding increased tourism, especially if they are living in an area experiencing significant change and development.

Laura Mitchell, president of the Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce, said in light of understandable concerns from residents, it is important for the community to maintain a strategic plan to both address fears and continue a push toward tourism.

“I think if we are deliberate and collaborative about it, that there are so many things that we can do together—Lakeway and Bee Cave,” Mitchell said. “We really need and want both of them to be part of this brand and that package of how we entice people to come here and enjoy our little slice of heaven.”
By Amy Rae Dadamo
Amy Rae Dadamo is the reporter for Lake Travis-Westlake, where her work focuses on city government and education. Originally from New Jersey, Amy Rae relocated to Austin after graduating from Ramapo College of New Jersey in May 2019.