When I moved to Palm Springs full-time in 1985, vacationers strolled downtown during “the season.” I shopped in the chic stores at the mall—at least until they closed down each summer. Spring Break was our biggest attraction (although local residents generally stayed home that week), but that did not last much longer: After years of laissez-faire treatment of young partiers, there was the riot of 1986, and then-Mayor Sonny Bono decided to shut down Spring Break.
In the years that followed, the International Film Festival was born, in 1989. The downtown mall closed. Downtown became dreary and sad.
Thankfully, Palm Springs has experienced a turn-around—as has the Coachella Valley in general—by hosting events and encouraging tourism that brings more diverse groups and revenues to the area. Now that downtown Palm Springs is finally heading toward progress at replacing the empty mall behemoth with shops, walkways, living spaces, arts installations, hotels and entertainment venues, you might wonder how the city has encouraged so many new people to visit—people who often return or even resettle here.
Enter Mary Jo Ginther, who serves as the director of tourism and marketing for the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. Ginther doesn’t actually work for the city: She and her staff are employed by SMG, a company she describes as “the largest manager of convention centers in the world,” with which the city of Palm Springs contracts to provide their tourism marketing services.
Working within the city’s budget allocations, Ginther and her group employ every method imaginable to attract visitors from across the globe, who will visit and thus generate transient occupancy taxes (TOT) and sales taxes.
“Palm Springs has developed an amazing reputation over the past 10 years,” she says, “as well as more than doubled its TOT revenues.”
Visitors may stay in large name hotels, small boutique inns or private guest homes. They come for gambling, events, conventions, the film festival, weddings, get-away weekends or as snowbirds escaping cruel winters in the Midwest and East. They come for family celebrations, school reunions, business meetings and themed special events. They drive down from Los Angeles, jet in from Canada or fly in to enjoy their long European summer holidays.
Ginther, 60, is a Palm Springs resident originally from East Chicago, Indiana. She started her professional life as a middle-school teacher, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in education at Indiana University Bloomington. She subsequently gained experience in the hotel industry, serving for many years as a banquet manager, and spending 22 years with the Hyatt organization. She was transferred to the Palm Springs area, where she worked as a general manager with the Hyatt, and as club manager at the Mission Hills Country Club. However, she had also visited here as a child.
“We used to come out every Christmas on the train to see my grandmother, who had retired to Pomona, and my aunt in Claremont. I know we came to Palm Springs, but I was too young to remember,” Ginther said.
Ginther has been in her current position for almost 10 years, and is a past-president of the Palm Springs Hotel and Hospitality Association.
The Bureau of Tourism not only focuses on generating tourism dollars for the city; it also oversees the Welwood Murray Library, the historical site that will house a show-business collection in downtown Palm Springs, and the Palm Springs Visitor Center. The staff coordinates efforts with the convention center, hotels, businesses and event planners.
“Our job is to help promote the city,” Ginther says, “so we try to bring all interests together.”
They also work with the Agua Caliente regarding casino visitation. “Once they have plans finalized for the downtown property,” she says, “I think we’ll all be amazed, because they have the springs, which is another attraction to bring people to Palm Springs.”
Ginther sees her biggest challenge as identifying and reaching people who are not necessarily vacationers or visitors coming for specific events, and enticing them to visit.
“We need the people who can come in on mid-week days, when hotels have more vacancies, and we have to expand beyond seasonality,” she says. “We have partners in the United Kingdom and Germany, among the places we do specific outreach, and the challenge is to put together attractive travel packages that include vouchers for hotels and cars and activities. And it’s so easy to get around here. The farthest anyone ever has to drive is about six minutes. That’s also a plus.”
Another challenge: “Although Palm Springs is known around the world, people always say, ‘But what is there to do?’ We need to be able to answer that for increasingly diverse groups of people.”
For example, outreach efforts are needed to expand the image of Palm Springs in LGBT communities; currently, there are 23 gay men’s resorts—but only one specifically appealing to lesbian women.
“We need to have other events to promote beyond ‘The Dinah,’” Ginther says, referring to the golf tournament originally named for late singer/actress Dinah Shore, which has now morphed into what is billed as “the largest lesbian event and music festival in the world,” slated to be held this year March 30 to April 3.
Additional efforts to promote Palm Springs are made by Bureau of Tourism staff members attending travel trade shows, representing the city at travel industry conventions, and via advertising.
“We have our own advertising budget and marketing schemes,” Ginther says, “but our job is really to bring together all interested parties, not duplicate efforts made by others, and get people to come to town, stay locally and discover Palm Springs.”
With a focus on Palm Springs being a place to “Stay–Play–Dine–Shop,” the street life downtown once again feels stimulating and chic, and the prospects for the future are encouraging. Thanks in part to hard-working people like Mary Jo Ginther and her associates, the world is getting the word about Palm Springs being the place that is “like no place else.”
But those of us who live here already know that.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.