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Saturday, Jan 28, 2023
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Destination: Valley

Oscar Urrutia and Jared Cowan want to accomplish something no one has successfully done before: jumpstart a longstanding visitor’s bureau for the San Fernando Valley. The two, an event producer and a photojournalist, respectively, are founders of MyValleyPass, a self-funded, for-profit organization that offers bus tours, nightlife events and promotion for local businesses. After launching a website in the spring, MyValleyPass is in growth mode, working to spread its name and scale up its offerings. “People love what we do … but we need to keep growing ourselves so we become a better-known brand,” Urrutia said. From stage plays in NoHo’s arts district to Ventura Boulevard’s restaurant row to movie studio tours in Burbank — the true heart of Hollywood — the Valley offers a lot of fun for tourists. But the region never really outgrew its reputation as a bedroom community and has lived in the shadow of the country’s second-largest metropolis despite numerous attempts to secede. Urrutia and Cowan believe the Valley already has all the ingredients for a vibrant tourism industry of its own — all it needs is a central visitor’s guide and some decent marketing. Urrutia said his events production company GEC Events, “has been able to help produce some events from parades to Fourth of July events (to the reopening of the Palomino Club). Every time we try to promote something, there wasn’t a centralized website for the Valley. It’d be all of L.A., which is too much to cover.” That challenge inspired him and Cowan to start MyValleyPass as a way to keep Valley locals appraised of goings-on and a resource for Angelinos and out-of-state visitors to learn more about the region as a separate entity from L.A. Untapped potential The company now offers monthly bus tours for Valley film locations, restaurants, craft breweries and “bizarre” sites such as hauntings and crime scenes. It also hosts less frequent drive-in movie screenings and comedy shows, and makes money selling tickets for these events. As the organization’s only employees, Urrutia and Cowan rely on contract workers to set up and break down each function. For bus tours, they rent vehicles from a limousine company called California Choice Limo in Valley Village. Cowan serves as the guide for the film locations tour and Urrutia emcees the bizarre tour, while a local comedian guides the breweries tour and a representative of the Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys guides the restaurant tour. Urrutia is vice president of the museum’s board. “People are in awe that they drive by these places not knowing how much history is on the corner,” Urrutia said. MyValleyPass also works with the city of Pasadena, which Urrutia sees as an access point for Inland Empire residents to learn about their neighboring community to the West. The company hosts occasional film location bus tours there and last month held a screening of “Home Alone” at the Langham Huntington hotel. “People from there can get into the Valley and take other tours,” Urrutia said. In addition, MyValleyPass uses its rapidly growing social media platforms as a promotional tool for local businesses and events, including the Flavor of L.A. food festival and Canoga Park’s Dia de los Muertos street festival. Veda Ward, professor of recreation and tourism management at California State University — Northridge, said she supports the standup of a visitor’s bureau for the Valley. “As an economic draw, it would be great. We have multiple airports … and there are a lot of transportation options already connected to the Valley,” she said. She added lots of big cities have centralized bureaus with satellite offices that serve specific regional markets. “Los Angeles is so unique in terms of its size and how many linear miles it is that it would probably make sense to have a satellite in the Valley,” she said. Private sector advantage While the Valley’s potential for recreational tourism has gone largely untapped, it’s not for lack of trying. According to Robert Scott, director of the Mulholland Institute, a virtual library and public archive for the Valley, the root problem is the city of L.A.’s reluctance to let the Valley separate itself and establish an identity of its own. Every 20 years or so, he said, the Valley tries to secede and is inevitably voted down by those in L.A. who want to stamp out any rising “competition.” “We’ve tried as much as possible to get the Valley representation equal to what they’d have as a city of their own,” Scott told the Business Journal. Scott played a key role in helping give the Valley’s disparate communities political voices separate from that of L.A. He had a hand in mapping the region’s parameters following the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and is a founder of the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments and the Valley Economic Alliance. He also helped establish neighborhood councils and planning and transportation organizations in the Valley. “This area is undersold, no question,” he said. While the city of Los Angeles does have a nonprofit Tourism and Convention Board (formerly known as L.A. Inc.), it has little marketing focused on the Valley. “If you’re busy advertising Hollywood and Downtown and the West Side and Disney, you’re not going to do justice to a place like the San Fernando Valley where the attractions are more nuanced,” Scott said. The Valley Economic Alliance founded a San Fernando Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau in 1997 to try to fill the void, but it could only afford a budget of $80,000 a year. The city of L.A. refused opportunities to support it. In 2006, Scott backed a motion by then-Councilwoman Wendy Greuel for L.A. to provide funding for the SFVCVB. She argued that because L.A. collected more than $1.3 million in transient occupancy taxes from hotels in the Valley that year, some of those funds should have been used to reinvest in the area’s existing visitors bureau. The motion asked for just $600,000 in funding for the project — less than half of the Valley’s tax contributions; L.A. Inc. got $16.6 million that year. L.A. Inc. responded by lobbying City Council, arguing that because the Valley was part of L.A., it should be the one to market the area. The SFVCVB never got the tax funding and dissolved shortly thereafter as its leaders moved on to other ventures. “L.A. Inc. was not excited about the Valley having its own CVB,” said Scott. “It’s territorial. … The Valley would compete with the rest of L.A.” These experiences have led Scott to believe that for a tourism bureau to succeed in the Valley, it will likely have to come from the private sector. “I’m not sure government is the level where everything should be happening,” he said. He called MyValleyPass “a terrific idea. … There’s incentive to keep going.” Ward, the professor, warned privatization can bring controversy. “It has a corporate vision and strategy as opposed to what we have learned of the public sector as being focused on the greater good,” she said. “There are always hybrid models … and I don’t know if anyone has explored a nonprofit but that’s always a possibility.” Scott added the Valley draws a high number of business travelers who see the area’s hotels as a cheaper alternative to those in Malibu or Santa Barbara, and that MyValleyPass would do well to partner with Valley Economic Alliance, Valley Industry & Commerce Association and Valley chambers of commerce on how to best serve those working visitors.

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