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Bill Peeper

Bill Peeper, Longtime President of the Orlando/Orange County CVB,
Retiring at the End of 2006

By Jerry W. Jackson, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Jun. 24, 2006 - Bill Peeper, a veteran tourism leader in Orlando, is leaving a key position at a critical time for the industry.

Peeper, longtime president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, is retiring at the end of the year, spokeswoman Danielle Courtenay confirmed Friday.

Industry leaders said Peeper, 62, had been considering retirement for some time, but his skills and clout will be difficult to replace as the region's top cheerleader for the multibillion-dollar industry for more than 20 years.

"He's accomplished everything he can accomplish," said Stuart Blumberg, longtime president of The Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association.

"He's taken that bureau to another level, and put the [Orange County] convention facility in such a tremendous position."

Courtenay said Peeper, who took the reins in 1984 and now is the nation's longest-serving visitors-bureau president, was traveling on a sales mission Friday and unavailable for comment.

"He had been thinking about this [retirement] for some time," Courtenay said. "He wants a smooth transition," and a search committee is being formed to select a replacement by Dec. 31.

Mark McHugh, chief executive of the Gatorland attraction and visitors-bureau chairman, will head the national search.

Executives scrambled late Friday to notify the organization's staff of about 150.

Word of Peeper's pending retirement leaked out through a government e-mail obtained this week by the Orlando Sentinel.

Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty appointed his chief of staff to a search committee to find a successor to Peeper. Elizabeth Gianini said in the brief electronic message to a county legal adviser Wednesday that "this [search committee] has not been announced yet," and she asked whether e-mails concerning the meetings would be open to the public or exempt.

Gianini said Friday that she could not elaborate.

"He's a great guy. That's all I can say," Gianini said of Peeper.

Crotty was in Puerto Rico and could not be reached for comment.

Current and former members of the visitors-bureau board said they had heard that Peeper had been considering stepping down from the helm of the state's largest tourism promotion board. Still, they said they were surprised.

"More than any other individual person, he's been responsible for the development of this industry here, particularly the convention and meetings business," said Alan Villaverde, general manager of The Peabody Orlando hotel, across from the Orange County Convention Center.

Margot Knight, president of United Arts of Central Florida and a new visitors-bureau director this year, said Peeper is a longtime supporter of the arts as well as tourism and his departure would be a loss to the broader community.

"He's been such a partner," Knight said.

The timing comes during an ongoing industry debate over whether to add a sixth penny to the 5-cent Orange County resort tax on hotel rooms to support visitors-bureau marketing and possibly arts and sports facilities. The local hotel industry also is concerned about weaker occupancy levels in recent years with competition from time shares, which generally are not taxed, and vacation homes.

Peeper became executive director of the bureau in 1984, one year after completion of the first phase of the Orange County Convention Center, where he had served as sales director.

He earned $242,750 in salary -- but $318,953 when incentives and benefits are included -- in 2003, according to the visitors bureau and its 2004 federal tax report. Peeper oversaw a budget of nearly $41 million that year. The bureau is supported by county tax dollars as well as private industry.

Peeper's pay and prominence in the industry have grown steadily through the years.

He earned about $90,000 a year in 1991 and was courted by convention and visitors bureaus in larger cities such as Atlanta and Dallas.

Growth of the Orange County Convention Center into the nation's second-largest and burgeoning tourist-tax revenue cemented Peeper's position as a national player.

Through the years, Peeper has been cited as one of the most influential people in the industry nationwide, in surveys by trade publications such as Meeting News.

Several other key positions in the Orlando travel and tourism sector are open, and national searches are under way.

They include the executive director's job at Orlando International Airport, following the recent retirement of Bill Jennings, and the top job at Walt Disney World. Longtime Disney World head Al Weiss recently was promoted to head all of Disney's theme parks worldwide.

Jerry W. Jackson can be reached at jwjackson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5721.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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