WACO, Texas — This story starts with an article from the Waco Tribune that says more people visit the Magnolia Market than the Alamo. I want to Verify if that claim is true. But first, a quick question: What's the Magnolia Market?
The Magnolia Effect
Magnolia is the creation of Chip and Joanna Gaines, who live and work in Waco. They are stars of the show "Fixer Upper" and the royal family of cable television. Their insane popularity has made Waco a tourist destination for home improvement fanatics.
Scott Byrne is part of what he calls the Magnolia Effect. New companies spring up, catering to the new tourism economy in Waco. He owns Brazos Tours.
“We're very fortunate to have several good tour companies in Waco,” Byrne told me as he drove me around Waco.
“Who would’ve thought there'd be any?” I said.
“Exactly,” Byrne said.
Scott also bought one of houses renovated by the Gaineses on the show. It's a highlight of his tour, with visitors snapping up home improvement ideas to take home for themselves. The 3 Little Pigs House, as it’s known, rents for up to $550 a night.
“When you decided to start this business, did you have some projections?” I asked Byrne.
“I did. And I blew past them really fast,” he said.
Let's get back to that tourism claim.
The Magnolia does not publish attendance information and declined my request for an interview. But it does share information with Carla Pendergraft with the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. She's the one saying they've got more visitors than the Alamo.
“You started a little controversy,” I said to Pendergraft.
“Did I?” she asked.
“I think you did,” I said.
“They have an infrared counter there, somewhere, that counts the number of people going through,” Pendergraft said. “So, we think it's a pretty accurate gauge. And the last two years they've been at 1.6 million,” she said.
More specifically, it’s 1,619,925 visitors.
The Art of Counting
Sounds official. But how accurate is it? You can't see it.But at an entry point, the beam gets broken every time someone walks through it. Every time it breaks, that counts as one visitor.
Professor Michael Thomas Paz knows all about hospitality and tourism. He teaches at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University.
“The weakness of the system is you’re going to end up with some kind of overcounting. You'll have people walking in and out multiple times,” Paz told me.
So, overcounting is a possibility. He also said the location of the popular Silos Bakery could also create an overcount issue. The front door of the bakery is outside the main gate.
“Someone who walks into the market, through a sensor, ‘Oh, I forgot my wallet.’ They walk back out, they come back in. And that counts as two visits even though it's one person who’s coming back and forth twice."
The Alamo, Remember?
Bruce Winders, Ph.D. is the curator of the Alamo, a World Heritage Site.
“Why is this important to the whole world?” I asked him.
“I think it’s the universal values it represents. Bravery, self-sacrifice, honor, standing up for something you believe in even if it's going to cost you your life,” Winders said.
At the Alamo, visitors are counted by infrared technology when they come through the front door of the iconic church. And now many visitors does the Alamo get?
In press releases, The Texas General Land Office, which controls the Alamo, says "over 1.5 million visitors every year." Which means the Magnolia wins by 119,925 visitors.
But, there's a problem. The Land Office now tells me, for years, it has mistakenly been using that outdated number. The official Alamo visitor count, from Winders, is 1,679,065.
So, it's the Alamo that wins by 59,140.
And Winders said that number does not reflect many people who stop by to take a photo in the plaza but don't enter the church.
"They're here. They're having an experience. But they don’t necessarily get counted because they don't go through an electronic device,” he said.
But that will be changing. There's a redevelopment plan happening that will tone down the carnival vibe around the Alamo, close the road to noisy cars and tour buses, move out the amusement parlors and move in an Alamo museum. And there will formal entry points allowing all visitors can be counted.
“When your project is done, do you think your number is going to be higher?” I asked.
“I think it will be higher,” Winders said.
“A lot higher?” I asked.
“Significantly higher,” he said.
So, does the Magnolia record more visitors than the Alamo? Turns out the answer is no.
In fact, it's possible the Magnolia overcounts while the Alamo undercounts.
Look, the Magnolia effect is impressive. But compared to Waco, San Antonio is a tourist mecca that gets 10 times more visitors with the Alamo as its crown jewel. Don't forget it.
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