Tourism Matters: A Special Tribute
Visit Newport Beach City President & CEO Gary Sherwin
Usually in this space, we talk about the phenomenal assets Newport Beach has including its beaches, harbor, excellent hotels and its aspirational brand, all of which make us a very successful destination.
Today, I wanted to talk about another critical asset, people, and two of whom we lost on the same day. Former Newport Beach Mayor and Newport Beach & Company Vice Chairman Denny O’Neil and Werner Escher, the Executive Director of Domestic and International Markets for South Coast Plaza, two icons of our community, passed away Jan 6.
There has been considerable media coverage of both their passing that are richly deserved. Both were instrumental in making our community considerably more economically vibrant.
After serving two terms on the Newport Beach City Council as well as a stint as Mayor, Denny was appointed to our Executive Committee by the City Council in 2011. Denny admittedly didn’t know much about tourism when he joined the board, but that wasn’t the point. He was bringing the perspective of the city and that of a former city attorney.
Denny relished his role and set to work learning about our industry, how it worked, the markets we pursue to bring visitation to the city and got to know our staff on a first name level. He was completely dedicated to his work on our board and his respect among our hospitality community soared.
When we had legal issues such as contracts or lease agreements, Denny brought his legal mind to our benefit, volunteering to handle all of those on a pro bono basis. He championed our development into a broader marketing agency for the City by encouraging agreements to expand marketing of the Christmas Boat Parade and restaurant marketing with the Newport Beach Restaurant Association.
More importantly, he was a sage counsel, as he was to so many city officials and business leaders keeping us all on the straight and narrow, and respecting the division between public and private partnerships. Denny leaves a hole in my heart and this organization that will not be easily filled.
I have lost a good friend.
Werner Escher, although working in neighboring Costa Mesa, was a long-time Newport Beach resident who was a national tourism figure. When he joined South Coast Plaza more than 40 years ago, it was a mall in a lima bean field. It had a handful of stores but it had big aspirations. Werner was literally the pioneer of retail tourism; the concept that people would actually get on a plane from a faraway place and come to shop. When he began this effort, he was mocked. Really, who would come all the way from Japan or China to go shop in his mall?
Of course, Werner was right, they did come and boy did they spend. Asian visitors now account for more than 20 percent of South Coast Plaza’s business. There was always a rivalry with Fashion Island, but Werner admitted he shopped there a lot.
Now retail centers across the country follow Werner’s lead and market themselves globally, but none do it with the flourish of Werner.
The man had a quick wit and an elegant goofiness that endeared him to all his colleagues throughout the country. You could always count on Werner to be a partner with you on projects and to help all of us tell the OC story to a wider global audience. It seemed like he was always everywhere and at every meeting. No one worked it like Werner.
Although he was a promoter of Costa Mesa, he was also proud to live in our city where he raised his family with his wife Diane, who would often roll her eyes as Werner told another corny joke at a social function.
Werner was indeed a character but he was also a visionary who was whip smart and developed a loyal following around the world.
Denny was a true statesman and Werner a true ambassador. Both of their contributions to our city, as well as their loss, will be felt in Newport Beach for a long time.
Gary Sherwin is President & CEO of Newport Beach & Co.