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The Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau Riddled with Staff Departures,
43 Employees have Left in the Last Two Years; Some Say Board too
 Involved, Blame High Pressure Environment

By Kathy Bergen, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 9, 2006 - The Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau is riddled with staff departures and beset with sagging morale as it faces intensifying competition nationwide.

In the past year seven key executives have left, and three other staffers are departing this month. In the two years since industry veteran Jim Reilly left the top post, 43 employees have left the not-for-profit, which has a workforce of 75 to 80 people.

Some left in frustration over the fact that proven inside talent was bypassed by outside hires, industry sources said.

The departures come at a critical time. The bureau, which books space at McCormick Place, has seen its workload increase as it is also marketing the $882 million West Building addition scheduled to open in mid-2007.

Heading into the demoralized ranks next month is Tim Roby, the hotel sales and marketing executive recently hired to head the bureau--an important job, given that travel pumps $9 billion annually into the local economy.

Roby, who starts April 3, was traveling and unavailable for comment Wednesday.

The Jacob K. Javits Center in New York is among rival facilities that are expanding, "and New York has said very explicitly that it wants to get big enough to challenge Chicago," said Heywood Sanders, professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Philadelphia, Phoenix and Indianapolis are bulking up, too, and even hurricane-ravaged New Orleans plans to proceed with an expansion, he said.

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates McCormick Place, said it would continue to work closely with the convention bureau.

"We are confident that with the new bureau president coming on board early next month, the joint sales and marketing efforts between our two organizations will experience continued success," said Leticia Peralta Davis, chief executive of the authority.

The turnover has not hampered the bureau, said Greg Saunders, the tourism bureau's board chairman. "The CCTB continues to aggressively secure new and repeat business for the city, its hotels and McCormick Place," he said.

"We've secured three pieces of relocated business from New Orleans that helped an otherwise slow first quarter and we'll be giving back nearly $1 million to the New Orleans hospitality relief program," said Saunders, who added that 41 meetings have already been booked for the West Building.

The staff departures "were the result of personal decisions and nothing more," he said. "Our economy is bouncing back and new opportunities arise on a daily basis."

But industry sources say some actions by the officers of the bureau's board have contributed to the exodus. The officers include three hotel executives, Saunders, of Hyatt, Thomas Loughlin, of Hilton, and Michael Cassidy, of Starwood, as well as trade show services veteran John Patronski and restaurateur Phil Stefani.

Saunders, who answered Tribune questions via e-mail, was speaking on behalf of the bureau and its board, according to bureau spokeswoman Meghan Risch.

Most galling to some staffers has been a perception that effective veterans were either pushed out or pushed aside and replaced with outsiders who did not have experience in the trade show business or in marketing a major destination.

Saunders countered that the bureau hired leaders with strong credentials. Christopher Bowers, who replaced Reilly, led the United Airlines sales team, he said.

And Roby, who replaces Bowers, has 23 years in the hospitality industry. His previous post was senior vice president of sales and marketing for Kerzner International Resorts Inc., representing its big Atlantis Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas. He grew up in Winfield.

Some staff members said they object to the involvement of officers in day-to-day operations.

"The board and officers are very involved, and some employees felt it was not appropriate and chose not to work under that," said Deborah Sexton, former bureau president, who is now president and chief executive of the Professional Convention Management Association.

Some other staffers were frustrated by a perception that the board officers are too focused on the needs of the hotel community, to the exclusion of other sectors in the hospitality business, sources said.

Saunders responded that board leadership includes executives from a broad spectrum of businesses, all of whom are committed to selling Chicago as a meeting and convention destination.

Another factor in departures, said one former bureau executive, is the high-pressure environment.

"There is a lot of demand to fill hotels and the convention center in a market bound by outdated labor jurisdictions," said Anthony Abbate, formerly the director of trade show sales.

"This makes it increasingly difficult to compete with 'right to work' facilities that have caught up in size to Chicago," said Abbate, now director of convention center sales at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center, due to open this summer.

The revolving door started to pick up speed after March 2004, when Reilly left, pushed out by power brokers on the board.

The board hired Bowers as the next chief executive, bypassing Sexton, the bureau president. She resigned a year later to take the PCMA post. Five months later Bowers resigned to return to the corporate world.

Bureau veteran Bill Utter was made acting CEO, but the board tapped Roby as the permanent top executive, though with the title of president. Last month Utter resigned to take a post in the private sector.

And as the chess pieces shifted at the top, waves of executives and staffers headed for the exits as well.

The most recent exits present a rebuilding opportunity for Roby, Sexton said. "He was probably planning to bring in his own people anyway, and this gives him free rein to do it sooner."

"This isn't the end of the world," she said. "This is a great organization, and the city will win."

Kbergen@tribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune

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