As we’ve stated multiple times this year, South Padre Island in Texas was the place to be for Spring Break in 2017. Not only was SPI absolutely flocked with college students looking to blow off some steam before mid-terms and finals, their beautiful beaches managed to stay relatively incident-free considering the potential for disaster. Keep in mind that while places like Panama City Beach–once a mecca for Spring Break–have completely shunned away Spring Breakers from their city by passing a number of new laws, South Padre Island has managed to keep their open container laws on the beach and keep the peace.
There’s no doubt that a lot of eyes were on South Padre this Spring Break. We named SPI the #1 Best Place for 2017 Spring Break and then the annual Hannity Fox News special took a trip to Texas. We don’t mean to toot our own horn here, but that’s pretty suspicious. But despite Fox News’ attempt to instill fear in the parents of college students, the residents and law enforcement at South Padre did a phenomenal job of keeping the peace and giving people a safe place to have fun.
We wanted to talk to someone at South Padre Island directly in regards to this year’s Spring Break, so we were extremely happy to be granted an interview with Keith Arnold, the Director of the South Padre Convention and Visitors Bureau. Keep in mind that there’s still one week of Spring Break left, but considering all the press about SPI this week, we thought it best to talk to the man immediately.
COED: How long have you been a director at the South Padre Convention and Visitor’s Bureau?
Keith Arnold: 2 Years. This will be my second Spring Break.
How would you say that this year’s Spring Break compares to last year’s in terms of attendance?
We don’t have our figures tabulated, but in all appearances it was significantly bigger than last year.
What is it about South Padre that makes it such a great Spring Break destination?
Great beach, warm weather, lots of things to do, good entertainment, and great restaurants. Also it’s an island that’s all self-contained, it’s very easy to get around in. Essentially the same things that make it a great tourist destination are what make it a great Spring Break destination.
I know that you’re aware of some of the issues that plagued Panama City Beach, and while you can’t speak to what happened at PCB in another state, I was curious if you could talk about what keeps South Padre protected from some of the issues that were going on there.
In a very general sense, we’ve learned from other people’s challenges. When you get a very large crowd of people during Spring Break there are going to be things that occur but we have an extraordinary police department, we have cooperation from state agencies, we have cooperation from federal agencies, and in the overall we’re a safe place to be. We’re trying to be fun place, but also safe considering the volume of people that come here—particularly during Texas Week.
Do you have a general guesstimate of how many people were there during Texas Week?
Honestly I wouldn’t even dare. It was an extraordinarily large number of people.
It certainly looked like a large number of people, which is why I was so impressed with the fact that I saw almost zero negative press about South Padre. Not to say that nothing happened, because that would be impossible with the volume of Spring Breakers, but just that it seemed as though you kept things handled well.
Every year we have Spring Break, and as it gets larger, we learn more things to do in successive years to keep it fun, to keep it enticing, and to keep it safe. Those are the three things that we try to do very well as a city, as a county, and just in general for the businesses on the island.
Can you give me some specifics of how you guys prepared for a bigger Spring Break?
One of the things we did with the new city manager and new Fire Chief, who have a lot of experience in incident management, is that we had a really well-established Operating Control Center for all the departments who were involved: from cleanup, to public safety, to all those types of departments. We had a really good process this year and really good communications.
Another thing we had this year, and I don’t know if this is anywhere else, is a faith-based operation that comes each year with a whole lot of college students who volunteer their time to help the city and to help kids who need help. We had a thousand kids with Beach Reach this year, volunteering with vans to drive people who needed it, to just generally be there to support the Spring Breakers. These volunteers also prepared food for our public safety officers. It’s been here for about 30 years, which is a huge help. Beach Reach is a really phenomenal program.
Were you expecting this year to be as large as it was?
We were expecting it to be larger than last year, yes. But judging from preliminary reservations (condominium, hotels, etc.), we were expecting at least a 15% increase. We’ve had good attendance throughout all of Spring Break. We call the other weeks “shoulder weeks” but Texas Week, plus the addition of Oklahoma who was also out at that time, meant that we had massive numbers all through March, including this week.
One of the things that I find so fascinating about South Padre in terms of safety, is the fact that you allow open containers on the beach. Can you tell me a little bit more about how law enforcement is able to keep control?
Well we have officers on ATVs, on bikes, patrolling on foot, and that includes everyone from the safety department of parks and wildlife, game wardens help us, and there’s electronic surveillance, too. We have license plate readers and those kinds of things. We try and keep very very aware of the people coming on or off the island that is of any potential danger, so we try and isolate that too. It’s really well-segmented, the compartmentalize sections of the beach. You can’t drive on our beach, except the north (which is the county). So the concentration of students are walking onto the beaches through limited access points. So the entrance and egress is pretty easy to follow. The Police Chief has been here for quite awhile, and the senior officers have too, and they have it well systematized. There are a couple of things I can’t talk about, but one of the things I can discuss is that there are a number of undercover officers.
From what you’ve seen so far this year, if next year’s Spring Break was the same as this year, is that something you would be happy with?
If we can continue to improve on this year, and learn how to better handle large crowds, but certainly Spring Break is important to our economy, so we want to make it better for the businesses, the residents, and particularly for the people to come here and have fun.
What’s the opinion of South Padre locals of Spring Break?
Generally speaking, everyone understands its value to our economy. That’s the most important thing to make a note of. We keep trying to find ways to make it better.
The last comment I have that I think is really important. When you’re dealing with large crowds in the commercial area of South Padre that is only 2.5 square miles, the most important thing is to learn every year and be in a mode of continuous improvement for fun and safety.