The annual migration is underway as Winter Texans make the trek south to escape cold northern winters. During the 2015-2016 season these visitors from the north contributed $760 million to the Rio Grande Valley economy, and this year could be even stronger.
“We’re looking for a good season,” said Kristie Collier, president and CEO of Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley. “A lot of new people are coming to Texas this year.” Collier started the organization 10 years ago to act as sort of a chamber of commerce for Winter Texans.
The organization’s website, welcomehomergv.com, serves as a clearing house for information helpful to Winter Texans, including a calendar, news briefs, classifieds and more. The Welcome Home Winter Texans newspaper can also be viewed on the website.
As Hurricane Harvey raked across the Texas Gulf Coast at the end of August into early September, many popular winter resort areas were significantly damaged or destroyed. Collier said Winter Texans displaced from Rockport and other coastal communities may help boost the numbers in the Valley.
The Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley conducts a Winter Texan study each year. The most recent report, for the 2015-16 season, showed 96,000 Winter Texans visited the Valley, spending an average of $14,900 per household. Numbers of visitors have been on a decline since 2009-10 when the report tallied 144,000 visitors. But the average of dollars spent per Winter Texan household has increased since then by about $2,600.
In the 30-year history of the Vackar research the studies have tracked the economic impact of Winter Texans from a $92 million industry in 1986-87 to last year’s $760 million impact. The most recent study revealed that the average Winter Texan has an annual household income of $65,000, with 56.7 percent having an income between $30,000 and $70,000. “Winter Texans 65 years of age and older participating in this study are, on average, more educated and have a higher household income level than their counterparts in the U.S. population in general,” according to the study’s Executive Summary.
Any way you slice it, Winter Texans represent an attractive market for South Texas businesses, and Collier’s organization has suggestions to consider when developing marketing strategies to capture a piece of the pie. “It’s really not rocket science,” she said. “You treat them well and they will come back. That is first and foremost, you need to make sure they are treated well.”
Tony Ortiz, regional manager for the 10 Encore RV resorts in the Valley, is also optimistic about the winter season. “For Encore it’s going to be a good season. I can say conservatively our Winter Texan numbers are up about 15 percent ahead of last year.”
He echoed Collier’s comments about good customer service for local businesses to attract Winter Texans. “The name of the game is referrals,” Ortiz said. “Once you have the customer at your business and they have a positive experience, they will refer you to their friends. There is a lot of revenue they bring with them. Tell your staff that when a Winter Texan comes through the door treat them like gold. You have to step up your game.”
Collier warned against making sweeping generalizations about Winter Texans. “You can’t lump them all into one group,” she said. “Some like to dance, or they like music, or volunteering, or hobbies like quilting. But one thing they all seem to enjoy is free food, those two four-letter F words.”
Coupons are popular with Winter Texans, but Collier cautioned that that doesn’t mean they are cheap. “I encourage people to use a coupon to bring them in. They like chains, so a mom-and-pop business might need to give them an incentive to get them in the door.”
Making them feel special and capitalizing on their home state pride are other ways to entice Winter Texans. For example, a special offer to anyone with a Wisconsin ID on a game day when a Wisconsin team is playing could produce surprising results, Collier said.
“They travel in packs,” Ortiz said, suggesting that group discounts can be an effective draw. Advertising specials in Winter Texan publications like Welcome Home Winter Texans and the Winter Texan Times is a good way to reach that niche audience.
Networking with RV parks can help local businesses promote themselves. For example, the Fun ‘N’ Sun RV park in San Benito hosts regular coffee klatches where businesses are invited to come and talk about their offerings, Activities Director Tiffany Walton said.
The bottom line on how to attract and retain Winter Texan business is always customer service. And Winter Texans will be the first to tell you that. Marilyn Watson, a Fun ‘N’ Sun resident from Dallas, related a recent visit to a restaurant for an early dinner. “I sat there for 15 minutes before anybody paid attention to me, and there were not many people there,” she said. “They need to realize a lot of people eat before 5 p.m.”
Fun ‘N’ Sun residents from Iowa, Ann and Roger Shroyer, said businesses should promote themselves better to Winter Texans. “There a lot of stuff people don’t know about because the businesses don’t advertise,” Roger said. He added that Winter Texans should attempt to advertise themselves a little bit. Many have name badges or vests with identifying patches that alert the business owner as to who they are.
And Collier tells businesses don’t forget to have fun, Collier said. “Throw traditional thinking out the window. If you can help them have fun they will remember you. Get creative with your marketing strategies.”