Attracting tourists almost second nature for The City

San Francisco has cashed in on its beauty for so long, it may be considered the world’s longest vanity project.

Barring natural disasters that have struck similarly vulnerable coastal cities, the next few years will likely do little to change that title, as with a mixture of luck and coincidence, San Francisco is poised to remain in the limelight well beyond its usual standard. Other towns based on tourism rarely get such opportunities, and the next few weeks should show how well The City is prepared for that role.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, The City will play host to the U.S. Travel Association’s International Pow Wow trade show, in which tour operators from around the world will descend on San Francisco to “sell” it for the next few years.

According to travel experts, the event, held throughout The City, is expected to generate more than $350 million in tourism over the next three years. But it could be higher — it’s still not certain how much of a bump will be added from that little event called the America’s Cup.

“We’re going to have to make certain that San Francisco is wearing its Sunday best,” said Leonard Hoops, executive vice president for the San Francisco Travel Association. “All the people involved agree that it’s important.”

When city officials travel to Pow Wow in other destinations, the ticket for the San Francisco party is the most coveted. But when San Francisco becomes the place to party for four days starting May 21, it will be like spring break for international travel operators.

The only reason the industry show isn’t here more often is that it costs so much to put on. San Francisco tourism leaders are pumping about $5 million into the event, which will involve parties at Alcatraz, the de Young Museum and Pier 39, and a finale event in which the streets around City Hall will be closed and tented, much like they are for the annual Black and White Ball.

They’ll be working hard to sell The City, even though it’s not all that hard work. I was at the W Hotel South of Market recently — even before the recent gaming industry convention — and the hotel was at 98 percent capacity. The W’s “brand” as a hipper destination hotel for travelers certainly has paid off due to its proximity to the Moscone Convention Center, but really, how many hotels get that kind of business in the dead of winter?

So even though hotel occupancy is still largely driven by domestic travelers, the Pow Wow fest is expected to bring up to 5,000 far-flung business officials who will have a huge say in whether San Francisco remains the number one tourist destination for yet another consecutive year.

“The timing of Pow Wow coming right before the America’s Cup is perfect,” said Michael Pace, general manager of the W Hotel. “It should add to existing tourism markets in Europe and Australia.”

“The thing that makes us such a compelling destination is the mix of iconic worldwide symbols and its place as the home of high-tech. We’re a mix of funky ’60s elements and the social media like Facebook. We don’t just draw leisure or corporate travelers.”

As if The City needed more hype, more than 400 travel journalists from around the globe are expected to be at Pow Wow. So even though it’s not one of the biggest conferences that flood San Francisco, it’s probably the most important.

Hoops said the “real payoff” for Pow Wow will be in 2012 and beyond, which is why hosting the event right before San Francisco gets the America’s Cup turned out to be such a break (that is, if spending more than $55 million for the privilege is a break).

“It’s not unreasonable to hope that Pow Wow will generate hundreds of millions of dollars on our investment,” he said.

San Francisco sold its soul to tourism decades ago, yet hasn’t always dealt with that tradeoff so wisely. It has built for the future a lot better than it has planned for it.

But it gets chances outside the reach of most locales. Two of the biggest ones are about to sail its way.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Examiner. E-mail him at

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