During the course of five days of programming around hospitality on The Lead Live, we learned plenty about the state of Kerr County's food, drink and accommodations businesses — some were not surprising, and others exposed gaps.
With the sponsorship of the Kerrville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Museum of Western Art and Pint and Plow Brewing Co., The Lead interviewed 50 people involved in hospitality during more than eight hours of webcasts Oct. 17-21.
The gaps? We need more accommodations, as thousands could visit Kerrville over the next 18 months to witness a pair of eclipses. While we have some large hotels, the county's aging accommodation industry is in need of freshening up. While it's augmented by other lodging choices, from short-term rentals to camping, the need for new hotels emerged as a gap during the conversations. And the city of Kerrville tamped down on short-term rentals, effectively limiting their growth inside the city limits.
But here are the five things we learned during our interviews.
1. Hospitality is booming
When Kerrville shutdown in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there was serious worry if hospitality would return. Among the most worried was Inn of the Hills manager Chad Porte.
"They called me into the office and they said, we're closing the hotel and I said, OK, for the weekend," Porte said. "What are we talking about? They said we don't know how long. And I will always remember how I felt."
But the one area of Kerrville's economy that snapped back in a hurry was tourism and hospitality. Despite being closed for more than a month, Inn of the Hills, along with its sister property the Y.O. Ranch Hotel and Conference Center, reopened and returned to business as people flocked to the Hill Country to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city.
Not only were the hotels hit hard — evidenced by the escalating rise in hotel occupancy tax collections — but Kerr County's short-term rental market skyrocketed — creating another consequence of the pandemic. In truth, Kerr County faces a shortage of accommodations.
"Our customers are looking for a place that's a comfortable bed," said Well Tended Properties Owner Keri Wilt, who owns three short-term rentals in Kerrville. They want a place that they can kick their feet up on a couch and hang out with their family together in one space. I think that's one of the differences between a hotel room, unless you have a suite situation, and us."
And the truth is there are only a few big suites available.
"I can't tell you how many people came to go do a bunch of stuff and then decided that half the stuff wasn't necessary and that all they wanted to do is be together and I think it's they're trying to reconnect and disconnect all at the same time,'' Wilt explained.
Building new hotels in Kerrville has proven tricky. One developer plans to squeeze two hotel franchises into a 6-acre lot across from Antler Stadium, ran afoul of neighbors and the City Council. A downtown hotel seems stalled. And the issue of short-term rentals divided the community, leading the City Council to limit their expansion in many neighborhoods.
But Kerrville and Kerr County's attraction as a tourist destination continues to show in the numbers. As the coronavirus pandemic eased, the number of people arriving for festivals, fairs, camps and hunting steadily increased. The Kerrville Triathlon Festival now dominates its third weekend in September date.
"Lots of people coming from across the country, and we're the host hotel every year, and it's just when we know that that time of the year is coming we plan nothing," Porte said of the two-day event that draws thousands of competitors and visitors — almost all from outside of Kerr County.
WHAT ARE OUR TOP 10 EVENTS?
The Lead ranked its Top 10 events for 2022: https://kerrcountylead.com/the-lead-s-top-10-kerr-county-festivals/
2. Remember the Great Eclipse date, because Kerr County will be packed
We will not be surprised that some people will not know about the eclipses — the first next year, with a second in 2024. However, the city of Kerrville expects 100,000 people (or more) to show up, especially for the 1:27 p.m. total eclipse on April 8, 2024.
Hannah Baron, a part of the family-owned Sendera Springs, a Kerrville wedding venue, already has a wedding lined up for that day.
"It's going to be great," Barone said of the wedding. "They chose to do it right after the eclipse. So they want to go out there. Have all their guests sit out there. Watch it go dark. And then, when it comes back to light, they're going to say their vows and get married."
It's just one of dozens of events planned for the 2024 eclipse, which will cross directly over Kerrville. With the close proximity to San Antonio and Austin, the suggestion is that it will draw thousands for a day trip, but it's likely to attract many more across the country and world.
There's such an expected crush of visitors that most cannot pre-book hotels for that date online. However, Davis offered this bit of advice: "Secret tip is if they call in right now, they are booking some rooms. You can't do it online."
Kerrville is trying to stay ahead of the eclipse by forming a committee working to solve some of the expected issues surrounding the crush of visitors. The committee is seeking the community's help to better plan for safety management and the allocation of resources. If your business or organization is planning an eclipse-related event for April 2024, please register your event at www.kerrvilleeclipse.com. The short form will allow us to account for all activities happening in Kerr County.
Keri Wilt, who owns short-term rentals, said she got a booking for one of her residences a year ago, catching her off guard.
"When somebody books like a year out, I'm like who are these people so together that they know like I don't even know what's going to happen next week much less like a year out," Wilt said with a laugh.
Hannah Barone makes it clear that the intense interest in witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime event for many is driving visits to the Hill Country.
"I know Fredericksburg's going to get hit hard too and I know they're like our rival, but I also say, hey, Kerrville, we're so close to Fredericksburg," Barone said. I know it will be a big strip from Comfort to Fredericksburg to Kerrville, and people will stay in Ingram and Hunt."
3. The wine industry in Texas is going to be OK, especially here in Kerr County
The Kerr County wine industry appears to be in good shape under the stewardship of the Schulse and Rivenberg families. From left Carl Schulse, Cory Schulse, Kyle Allen and John Rivenberg after the Oct. 18 episode of The Lead Live.
When it comes to wine, there's been plenty of speculation that Texas can hold its own against more renowned states, but it's clear from two of our growers that the Lone Star state is in good shape.
"Starting off, we were bringing in some high plains fruit, a little bit of Hill Country fruit, but our goal is to produce like 100% estate, Kerrville, Texas-grown," explained Carl Schulse of Turtle Creek Olives and Vines.
With the backing of the Schulse and Rivenberg families, the Kerr County wine industry could redefine the region with its winemaking — one that almost exclusively developed in Fredericksburg and neighboring Gillespie County.
John Rivenberg owns Kerrville Hills Winery, and he's equally bullish on the future of Kerr County vines.
"I wasn't concerned just because of having a little bit of horticulture, a little bit of agricultural background; you know you can look outside at any hilltop, and if you're growing grass on a hilltop with no water, you can grow grapevines.
For Rivenberg, much of Texas looks prime for successful grapes.
"If you do any type of travel for agritourism around the world, you know when you go to other places you pretty quickly do you realize that we can do the same thing here without any trouble and we're, you know, we're growing really world-class grapes all over Texas," Rivenberg said. "I mean we grow all the way up as far north as Dowhart and all the way as far south as Castroville. So, you can grow grapes just about anywhere in Texas because; they require water, but they can be hardy though. I mean, after, after the first three years of development, your root zones get down in the 67 feet you get into water table layers. They're pretty much sustaining, self-sustaining at that point."
Kerrville Hills Winery is north of downtown Kerrville along Texas 16, while Turtle Creek's burgeoning operation is 8 miles south of town. Like Rivenberg, Turtle Creek winemaker Kyle Allen sees plenty of opportunity in the varied microclimates on the Schulse's ranch.
"I mean in the valley because we have two vineyards, basically," Allen said of Turtle Creek. "One's in the valley. One's on a hillside. It's on the same property, but the hillside is totally different. And we're kind of learning that we're in year two but it put out so much fruit. That we had to go and drop it all."
Carl Schulse said it's allowed Turtle Creek to plant a wide range of varietals from Trebbiano, Cabernet Sauvignon and some Merlot.
"What's done really well for us on our side is the Montepulciano," Schulse said.
4. Gluten-free desserts are increasingly available
Cafe at the Ridge chef Don Clark could enjoy delectable things at the Kerrville destination — perched upon the Gillespie-Kerr county line — by making them how he knows best. Increasingly he's making them for a food-allergy-sensitive customer.
"All of our cakes, all of our cupcakes, always are gluten-free," Clark said.
That's a significant shift, but Clark said the growing dietary requirements of their customers — many seeking gluten-free and dairy-free products are increasing. The key contributor for many is Celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder that affects more than three million Americans. However, the National Celiac Foundation estimates that the number increases by 7% annually and that 85% of all Celiac cases are undiagnosed. Some people have gluten sensitivity, and dairy allergies are well known.
"And a lot of people don't realize (it's gluten-free) because you don't taste the gluten-free part," Clark said. "So, we always have, like our carrot cake and our chocolate cake, Italian cream cake."
During the Oct. 19 episode of The Lead Live, Clark brought a gluten-free and dairy-free pumpkin tart.
Numerous restaurants across Kerr County offer gluten-free options, but both Wild Flour Bakery at Cafe at the Ridge and Carte and Co. showcased their gluten-free offerings on the Oct. 19 edition of The Lead Live.
Stephanie Seefeldt, Carte and Co. manager, is a passionate advocate for gluten-free options because of the dietary requirements of her daughters, and she's helped develop a menu that provides plenty of options at the Quinlan Street restaurant.
"I have experimented and experimented to get the texture and the taste right," Seefeldt said. "And we actually have to get two of the flowers shipped in."
And gluten-free products aren't necessarily cheap or produce large yields. At Carte and Co., they frequently sell out of cupcakes and a new large chocolate chip cookie — that is difficult to discern from a gluten-rich cookie.
"The beauty of these cookies is if I weren't to tell people that they were gluten free, they did not know," Seefeldt said. "Same with our cupcakes. Yeah, same with our cupcakes and I think that's such a great thing because so many times I've eaten something that's gluten-free and I'm like oof."
5. The food scene is ready to handle the visitors
With the underlying theme of "Be Our Guest Week" is tourism, feeding people also plays a crucial role. During the three days of The Lead's programming on hospitality, we focused on food and found there was plenty of room to serve out-of-town visitors.
Two of the busiest were charcuterie makers Lonestar Boards and Hill Country Cravings. We also had a destination restaurant like Cafe at the Ridge, visit the show, and event caterers Cartewheels. There are plenty of others, but all agreed that they are being asked frequently by out-of-town event planners to handle the catering.
"They're coming from everywhere in Texas, they're coming here to visit," said Beverly. "The Tourist trade is really booming here and in Fredericksburg.
Jenna Moebes, owner of Hill Country Cravings, saw a similar opportunity when she opened her business two years ago.
"There was a hole," said Moebes, who now has an Instagram following of more than 55,000. "So, one night, I looked to my husband, and I said, I think I'm going to start a charcuterie business and the next day I did."
For Moebes, it paid off, and she's busier than ever. If anything, that sense of being busy was an underlying issue for all bakers and restauranteers during our week of shows.
"I feel like my business in the last six months has really transitioned into a lot of bigger stuff like I don't do a lot of small boards," Moebes said.
Emily Simpson's Cartewheels Catering features a small market on Quinlan, but their focus is catering events.
"About 90% of our business is catering," said Simpson, who has been known to consult on maximizing and planning for venue spaces, especially in the kitchen and serving areas.