Is South Padre Island Ready for Millennial Travel?


Within the past two years, I've noticed and upsurge of attention in the travel industry on the millennial traveller. Millennials is the new term for Gen Y, evidently. This is a highly tech-savvy traveller that takes full advantage of the internet when making their travel plans. To address their intrinsic needs, hotel brands such as Hilton and Marriott have launched their Canopy and AC Hotels brands, respectively. The things you'll find in common between these brands are excellent free WIFI, contemporary styling, large public spaces, and a bar that serves as a focal point. AC Hotels takes it a step further and requires that the bar tender serve as a local expert/concierge and, in some cases, a few visible tattoos. Needless to say, this is very disruptive to the traditional expectations of hotels in the US. As a millennial hotelier, I spend a lot of my free time thinking about how to sell a hotel room to myself. As a result, I've begun to streamline operations via simple tech (ex. using Square at our gift shops and restaurants, cloud payroll and accounting, etc) so that we can focus on delivering a much more intimate experience to our guests. Sometimes I find myself wondering if my hometown South Padre Island -- a small tourism economy with a permanent population of just under 3000 -- is prepared for millennial travel. In my mind, there are a few things that all millennials look for in a destination and hotel beside the usual things to do list: great internet, in-house F&B, local culture, great hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants, and great things to photograph.

SPI is one the most under-rated destinations in the country, in my opinion. Local culture is strong, eclectic, and vibrant. We've got all types of people here: the Nantucket-type retirees and stoners, chefs and writers, surfers and athletes. We have GREAT food here. As locals, we gripe a lot about there not being enough food, but that's because there's just enough to eat at a new place twice a day for a week without hitting the same spot twice. Our bars are great, too. We have a couple of dives and even a brewery. There's been quite a few bars and restaurants that have come and gone in the last several years, and from what I understand business opportunities in these areas are shaky. The outlets that have the financial staying power to stick around for at least a few year tend to make it. However, there are about 10 restaurants on SPI and the eastern tip of Port Isabel that I can safely say are area fixtures. That's not bad considering we're talking about an area of only a few square miles.

Even in such a small area, there's plenty to see and do. I'm currently working on a list of great selfie spots around the island, and I can't seem to narrow in down to about 10 or 15. There's a LOT to capture on South Padre Island. With cell phone cameras getting better and DSLRs getting cheaper, EVERYONE is a freakin' photographer. Thus, it's important for a destination to have plenty to snap. Building, monuments, people, and in our case, the beach!

While there's plenty to see, do, eat, and drink, two major pitfalls do exist. Firstly, there are few hotels on the island that provide a great sense of arrival. I'm talking about everything from the curb cut to the hotel room. One thing I've noticed with the new AC and Canopy launches and most other brands, is that everyone's standards are updated to include an open lobby, contemporary furniture, landscaping where possible, detail-oriented design, and some retail in the lobby (like gifts, snacks, or sundries). These all play into pre-empting the destined up-swing in millennial travel in the coming years. South Padre Island is still behind in this respect, but things are changing quickly. It's a highly adaptive business community and the destination as a whole has undergone a lot of changes in the past few years.

The only thing worse that no internet is shitty internet. The biggest drawback to South Padre Island as a destination for millennials is the internet. Our internet service offering is always a few years behind. Two companies hold total control over fiber and charge about 3 to 4 times more than they would in larger cities where there's greater competition. With the power issues that the island experiences, fast and stable internet service is expensive and coverage sparse. I've got fiber running to my spots alongside at most a handful of others, but this is nowhere enough for millennials to write home about. Even boomers are showing up at hotels with 2 phones, 2 laptops, 2 tablets, and a Roku box, and demand that they all stream video simultaneously OR ELSE.

Just about the only time we do attract a large influx of millennials is when we have 15 or so EDM artists performing over a 4-day festival (UME), at which point cellular data dies because the cell towers are not equipped to handle the extra load. God forbid you are separated from your crew at one these concerts. Forget iMessage, and it's obviously too loud to call. Should I even mention the missed viral opportunity because of all these people who can't propagate their good times on social media?

Has South Padre Island yet arrived to the stage of millennial travel? Not quite. We're almost there.