Tourism de force: How one man helped make Boston a top travel destination
Unless you live or work in the city, it’s easy to forget that Boston is crawling with tourists. At least from May through October, when this is an amazing place to visit.
And it’s easy to forget that tourism is big business, an engine of our economy that accounts for about 7 percent of total output alongside health care, education, tech, and financial services.
It’s an appropriate time to look at the business because there was an important transition last week at the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, which plays a leading role in keeping the tourism engine humming. After 28 years of pitching Boston to convention planners, event managers, and tourists, CEO Patrick Moscaritolo retired and handed the reins to Martha Sheridan, who was selected last year as his successor after having run the Providence Warwick Convention Bureau since 2006.
Sheridan faces a number of challenges — funding, shifting tourist expectations, the arrival of casino gambling in Everett — but she is working with a city that has come a long way since a trip here meant Paul Revere’s house and “Cheers.”
Moscaritolo, 74, became CEO of the convention and tourism bureau on Valentine’s Day in 1991, after having spent 13 years at Massport, including as director of Logan International Airport. Back then, our fair city wasn’t a premier tourist destination. The Seaport didn’t exist, and Boston Harbor was polluted. There weren’t even any duck boats.
Moscaritolo said in an interview last week that people came mostly for the Freedom Trail and other historical sites, the Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard, and the clam chowder and lobster. They still do, but there are a lot more of them, especially from other countries, and there are more things to do, especially if you are a foodie.
Moscaritolo played a pivotal part in expanding the city’s appeal well beyond New England. We aren’t New York, San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong, but Boston punches above its weight, and Moscaritolo gets a lot of praise — from the hoteliers, restaurateurs, and other business people who rely on the tourist trade — for making the city a world-class destination.
“Pat always credits other people, but almost all of the high benchmarks in tourism in Boston were because of Pat,” said Dusty Rhodes, president of Conventures, who has worked frequently with Moscaritolo since 1992, when they collaborated to bring the Tall Ships to Boston. “He was ‘the man behind the curtain.’ ”
It helped that Moscaritolo, a product of East Boston, understood how politics work, since the bureau’s budget relies in part on state dollars and staging big events requires buy-in from multiple branches of the city and state governments.
After earning a graduate degree from the London School of Economics (he was a Boston Latin School grad who went on to Boston College), he worked in the first Dukakis administration, at its office of state and federal relations in Washington, which was then overseen by Thomas P. O’Neill III, a master of local politics in the mold of his legendary father, Tip O’Neill.
“That’s when I became a policy wonk,” Moscaritolo said last week.
Among the biggest accomplishments for the tourism business during Moscaritolo’s run: bringing the World Cup to Foxborough in 1994, which exposed the region to people from around the world and gave the industry the confidence to pursue other big sporting events; the 2004 opening of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston, which can host much larger conventions than the Hynes facility on Boylston Street; and a tripling of tourists from China, now the biggest source of international travelers to the city, with the help of Hainan Airways, which started direct service from Beijing almost six years ago.
Some numbers for context:
■ Tourist visits will rise 7 percent this year to 23.5 million, the tourism bureau estimates; in 1991, the total was 7.2 million. The international visitors count climbed to 1.7 million in 2017, up from 475,000 in 1991, according to the latest Commerce Department figures.
■ When Moscaritolo took over, the number of hotel rooms in Boston and Cambridge stood at 12,800 (with an average occupancy rate of about 70 percent). At the end of last year, there were 25,000 rooms (and an occupancy rate above 80 percent), according to data from Pinnacle Advisory Group and the convention and tourist bureau.
■ Leisure, hospitality, and tourism businesses in Massachusetts employed more workers last year (375,000) than retailers (355,000) or manufacturers (247,500), according to the state, though it should be noted that the industry has the lowest wages in Massachusetts.
What’s driving the growth?
The South Boston convention center is a big piece of it. Conventions accounted for 490,000 hotel room nights in 2017, up from 183,000 in 2000, the convention and tourism bureau says.
“Remember the Hynes had been an auditorium and just a few years prior to 1991 had reopened as a convention center,” Moscaritolo explained in a follow-up e-mail. “In effect, we didn’t have a convention center that could attract national and international meetings. Boston wasn’t registering as a ‘must see’ destination in the eyes of international travelers.”
Building the infrastructure for tourism — more hotels, more flights to Logan, even cleaning up Boston Harbor — made it enticing for more people to come to the city, he said.
Meanwhile, the success of Boston’s sports teams has burnished the city’s image, as has a string of Hollywood hits filmed in the city — from “Good Will Hunting” to “Ted” — and the popularity of home-grown stars including Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Mark Wahlberg.
As for China, Moscaritolo said he was pushed by a top executive of the US Travel Association to go after the Chinese market. He remembers meeting with a group of executives from Tencent, a Chinese conglomerate, at the Parkman House after a tour of the city. “Their response was, ‘You can see the sky’ and ‘The city is so green,’ ” he said. Chinese tourists “like that Boston is walkable, has a lot of history, and is cosmopolitan.” The big draws: Harvard and lobsters.
There were of course other additions that spurred growth: building up the cruise business from Black Falcon Pier, the arrival of the duck boats, a new Tea Party Museum, and the expansions of the MFA, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. And the evolution of Boston’s restaurant scene, with its wide variety of cuisine and well-known chefs, makes the city even more appealing.
Sheridan, the bureau’s new CEO, has several priorities aimed at maintaining Boston’s momentum at a time when the United States as a whole is turning off some international travelers with travel restrictions and xenophobic policies.
People are still drawn by our history and sports, but “they are looking for a much more experiential vacation” that allows them to learn what makes a city tick, she said in an interview on Monday. Citing the District of Columbia’s “DC Cool” campaign as a model, Sheridan said she wants to emphasize what’s “new, fun, hip, happening, and diverse” and drive people deeper into the neighborhoods to experience culture, shopping, and local events. That requires a more aggressive digital marketing and social media push.
The Encore Boston Harbor casino, which Wynn Resorts plans to open in June, will bring a different type of visitor to the area, and Sheridan wants to lure them away from the slots for a while to check out what the city has to offer.
Funding is a fundamental issue she needs to tackle. Massachusetts doesn’t designate a specific percentage of hotel tax proceeds for the regional tourism bureaus, making it hard for them to know how much money they will be allotted from year to year.
“We need a long, hard look at how the money is generated and how it is deployed to ensure we have the investments necessary to continue to grow our market share,” she said.
Despite his long tenure, Moscaritolo was unable to ensure a more predictable flow of state dollars. As recently as 2014, the state spent more than $20 million on tourism; in 2017, it was about $10 million.
And Moscaritolo particularly regrets one other unfinished piece of business: not being able to launch a successful campaign to bring tourists to Boston during the winter. That might be a lost cause. This city doesn’t embrace winter; it hunkers down.
But none of this alters the fact that Moscaritolo laid the groundwork for and sustained Boston’s transformation from sleepy Colonial curiosity to cosmopolitan magnet, leaving Sheridan a valuable asset to work with.
Not a bad legacy for a kid from East Boston who still lives in the house on Orient Avenue where he grew up.