Throughout its history, California has always stood apart.
There is a magnetic quality that calls people to the Golden State, a state where a culture of discovery courses through the air. And as a state so uniquely defined by generations of transplants, California's identity is fundamentally connected to travel.
But in the early 1990s, tourism was an afterthought in the minds of most Californians. While the state’s hotels, restaurants, attractions, retailers, transportation providers and car rental companies benefited from visitors arriving from across the nation and around the globe, they did so as a vast network of competitors. And as headline-grabbing natural disasters and a sluggish economy rocked the state at the turn of the decade, those travel dollars were dwindling.
Add to this a bigger, more philosophical issue: The fundamental perception that tourism was a given entity to the state’s bottom line — an unchanging constant, like the San Francisco fog or Los Angeles sunshine. It simply was.
But on an evening in 1992 those perceptions began to change when a coalition of competitors came together to act on an idea so simple — and yet so revolutionary — it would reshape California’s future.
The early years
In today’s golden era of travel, it can be difficult to imagine the straits in which the state’s travel industry found itself 25 years ago.
In 1992, California had yet to seriously invest in tourism marketing, a deficiency underscored by a steep, ongoing decline in market share.
The early ’90s also saw two devastating earthquakes, flooding and civil unrest, coupled with concerns over a lingering recession, contributing to 70,000 hospitality jobs lost, along with some $70 million in state visitor spending.
Rather than shrink from the challenge, industry leaders Bob Roberts, who led the California Ski Industry Association for 40 years, CityPASS founder Mike Gallagher, and others brainstormed an idea that spurred action — an idea so simple that once formulated seemed incredibly obvious:
Tourism doesn’t just happen: we must make it happen.
That thinking prompted a new vision for funding travel promotion in California, and those initial leaders sketched their ideas for a groundbreaking public-private partnership on a now-fabled cocktail napkin.
Soon after, Gov. Pete Wilson breathed life into this bold idea of a public-private partnership, challenging California’s tourism industry to design a matching, or “non-tax,” program for tourism that didn’t involve public funds.
Wilson created a task force of industry leaders that included Anne Evans, John Kautz, John Koeberer, Jack Lindquist, Steve Lew, Rich Miller and Ted Balestreri. The industry also formed a steering committee with Roberts at the helm with John Poimiroo and Caroline Beteta as staff members.
The task force spent years researching global industries and funding models around the world. Ultimately, though, the team found inspiration in its own backyard, borrowing from the assessment model employed by California’s highly effective agricultural commodity boards.
The California Travel and Tourism Commission
It took years of political negotiation and legislation, but Gov. Wilson signed the Tourism Marketing Act in 1995, enabling the state’s tourism industry to assess itself to conduct statewide tourism marketing — private dollars to be used on behalf of the entire state.
Two years later, the first industry-wide referendum passed with 69 percent approval, and those ideas manifested in the creation of the first non-agricultural commodity board ever in the United States: the California Travel and Tourism Commission.
In 1998, some 5,000 travel and tourism businesses voted to approve the self-assessment program that remains at the core of everything Visit California does, granting the CTTC a budget of $7 million. And when the nationwide search for a leader concluded, Beteta, who in addition to the creation of the Commission was instrumental in tourism efforts at the national level, earned the top job.
From 1998 to 2000, the CTTC scaled up globally, opening its first international office in Canada, then in Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan and Brazil. The era also saw the founding of the state’s first California Welcome Centers, which operate in partnership with Visit California and serve as a vital resource to more than 1.6 million travelers annually.
By the turn of the millennium, travel spending in California had reached $81 billion, with tourism jobs topping 900,000 for the first time in the state’s history.
But while the gains for the industry were significant, they would soon be tested in unimaginable ways.
Next: Tragedy, triumph and the journey to $50 million