The San Diego Tourism Authority has chosen 10 businesses for the second cohort of their tourism accelerator program with a focus on those operated by women, veterans, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.
Although there are several benefits of being chosen for the program including business coaching and support in areas like commercial real estate, financial and legal support, marketing initiatives, labor and employment concerns and other business-related considerations, SDTA Senior Director of Marketing Partnerships Brian Hilemon said it is the connections formed through the program which are vital.
Hilemon said the non-profit has “just shy of 1,000 businesses” who are members, many of whom have been established for decades and are a source of business information and expertise, but the accelerator program helps newer business owners establish direct relationships and “open doors” when they’re first getting started.
“Many times, a small business owner won’t know who the gatekeepers are and we’re not only able to get them in the door but also tell them how it exists in the first place. Connecting and relationship building is the most important thing. I’ve been part of this conversation where, for example, someone is trying to sell a product to a restaurant or hotel, and we can help them reposition their sales pitch, sharpen their proposal so it’s more appealing and understand possible objections before they try and sell someone anything,” Hilemon said.
SDTA’s approach to this second cohort is different from the first time around, he said, with changes based directly on feedback from the initial participants.
“The first group specifically asked if we could add a commercial real estate advisor to the group so we partnered with Empress Restaurant Group which has a strong background in commercial real estate. They also asked about financial coaching so we’re adding a financial institution and a finance advisor. We also enhanced the application process to include a two minute video from applicants explaining their business and what they would get out of the accelerator, a chance for them to show us who they are and not just fill out paperwork,” Hilemon said.
A UCSD extension course voucher granted to participants as part of the program is one example of how individual business needs and stages of development are differentiated for growth: rather than being directed toward a specific topic, Hilemon said, business owners are able to direct their time toward learning something especially suited to their business.
“The beautiful thing about the voucher is the freedom to choose a course. Some people might want social media, some might want finance or accounting— its personalized for each business because it is impossible to have a ‘one size fits all’ approach when businesses are at different stages in their growth,” Hilemon said, including those which have been around for several years and are looking toward expanding growth.
Ocean Connectors, a nonprofit conservation program that connects underserved youth with coastal life, was established in 2007 and regularly provides educational programming to National School District students. However, although Ocean Connectors Executive Director Janaira Quigley said she loves that they are able to work with kids in local schools, she is excited to be included in the accelerator program and work on developing a revenue stream which will enable them to reach the everyday public and support wider educational goals.
“Right now, we’re in National and Sweetwater districts but there are other places where there is a great need, other Title 1 schools. Developing our ecotour program will enable us to get in and offer this to more students. Right now we are almost 100% grant funded—by developing a sustainable enterprise we’re able to do more,” Quigley said.
The accelerator program, Hilemon said, gives business owners a leg up on building partnerships that ultimately help grow revenue.
“At the end of the day it comes back to relationships, to understanding an industry and having barriers broken. We’re able to help newer business owners or growing business owners understand there are real people behind the larger, monolithic entities like the Convention Center and a business can provide value; there is an opportunity to provide referrals and leads, help provide access,” Hilemon said.
The best part of the program, he said, is “getting to know the people” and learn more about them over the course of several months.
Personal connections, Quigley said, are at the heart of how Ocean Connectors operates. Although she described the connection students make in lesson plans, her observations echoed Hilemon’s statement that “details happen peer-to-peer” and the most heartening point of growth is watching collaborations develop.
“To me, the most important thing is the idea of connection. I studied social change and nonprofits, it’s actually what I nerd out on so when I see that students are learning, there are takeaways from an individual lesson. But when there’s a way to connect that learning with neighboring Mexico or their being able to affect the local ecosystem, being able to connect with animals in a meaningful way when they’re out in the water, the connection has the biggest impact. Suddenly, you’re moving in your world differently and it affects you as a person. You’re making a difference and connected with all of these things around you,” Quigley said.
Ocean Connectors works with about 10,000 students in schools across South Bay, Quigley said, as well as 97 classrooms in Nayarit, Mexico where animal species migrate each year, connecting the two areas. On top of the connections Ocean Connectors makes in the community and the connections students make locally, they also establish international connections at a young age, developing the relationship building skills which Hilemon touts in business leaders.
However, it has been challenging to “be a master of so many different arenas” from marine biology to K-12 education to the tourism element.
“Historically, we’ve had an advisory board, all these different folks who come to assist but it’s tough because not everyone has time to commit to launching projects. This accelerator is going to be devoted to launching and developing programs and I’m incredibly grateful we get to be a part of it,” Quigley said.