Rapidly changing San Francisco and the travel industry are still a match 

San Francisco may no longer live up to its claim as The City that knows how, but it’s a city that still knows how to party.

Just ask the 5,000-plus visitors from around the globe who descended on our shores this week for the travel industry’s biggest international gathering. They leave today definitely wearier and slightly poorer, while The City is flush with the expectation that it will reap some $350 million in tourism revenue in the coming years for its show of hospitality as host of the frenetic event known as Pow Wow.

For the past five days, travel writers, tour operators and exhibitors have been drinking in the sights, sounds and flavors of San Francisco, from the scenic waterfront to the gritty Mission to the outskirts of Lands End. This is a relatively easy sell for a city that long ago traded off its eternal beauty for the enhancement of its treasury, but these financially delicate days, it’s taking no chances. The event was booked solid for five days, the biggest such association activity since before the travel world was shaken to the core after 9/11.

Revelers braved the wind-swept night chill at Pier 39 to enjoy a familiar spot in transformation, before ducking in to a big-top adventure at the California Academy of Sciences, which was extravagant in a way that only a $1 million party could be — a soiree that mixed a salsa band, an Arabesque-inspired acoustic show, and more retro ’80s music than exists on the radio dial. There was enough food and drink to make it a self-sustaining event, at least until the show moves on down to Los Angeles next year, a rare back-to-back industry migration in the U.S. Travel Association’s 50-state tourism show.

“It’s always difficult to let the international trade and media members experience all that California holds,” said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of the California Travel and Tourism Commission. “So having access to the market place two years in a row is an incredible opportunity.”

It also points to one of the many new trends in today’s travel circles, whereby niche marketing for cities and destinations is replacing the older umbrella groups that used to handle statewide branding. It’s no longer enough to just be on the map of the Napa Valley or the Florida coast — towns like Calistoga and Palm Beach are making sure that people know that theirs is a place worth visiting.

“Whether it’s eco-travel or culinary stops, all these different interests are driving the tourism industry,” said Carli Smith, director of communications for the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The way the media and travelers get information today is much different and it gives smaller destinations like us a chance to shine.”

When San Francisco last hosted Pow Wow, it was 1992, the travel industry’s annual showcase was considerably smaller, and The City was vastly different — physically, socially and technologically. Yet a glimpse at the activities of the Pow Wow attendees during the past five days would show that the very same could be said of the travel industry itself.

Today’s top travel agents have names like Expedia and Priceline. You can book an entire trip on a phone that’s smarter than your computer. A tsunami in the Pacific or a rare volcanic eruption can impact the movement of travelers across the globe. And the economic fortunes of a country like Ireland can ground jets and trigger unemployment half way around the world.

Still, some things about travel never change. People still rarely go to spots considered too touristy right in their backyards. I ran into the publicist for “Beach Blanket Babylon” over the weekend who said you’d be surprised how many residents of San Francisco had never seen the iconic show.

“So it’s kind of like Alcatraz,” I said to Charlie Zukow.

“It must be because I’ve never been to Alcatraz,” he said.

Luckily, a National Park Service ranger named Alexandra Picavet was nearby, who offered to remedy the situation. As it turns out, Picavet has never been to a performance of “Beach Blanket Babylon” since it opened in 1974.

As veteran tour operators like to say, problem solved. Traveling can be easier than you think.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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