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Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau
 Faces 1st Public Audit in 10 Years
By Beth Kassab, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Mar. 21, 2007 - For the first time in a decade, taxpayers will get a full accounting of how millions of dollars in public money have been spent by an agency controlled by Orlando's leading tourism executives.

The county did not, however, do the one thing that many of the prominent industry leaders who run the nonprofit Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau feared most: push to turn the bureau into a public agency that would be subjected to the state's open-records laws.

Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie said Tuesday that she expects to take an in-depth look at the finances and performance of the visitors bureau this fall.

The move comes a month after the Sentinel reported that the bureau had not been publicly audited since 1997 and that its ballooning share of tax money was doled out each year with increasingly lax oversight from the county.

The bureau has spent more than $100 million in tax dollars in recent years and is receiving $48 million this year alone from an increase in the tourist-development tax.

"With this influx of money, that's a factor that moves them up the list [of audit priorities] considerably," Haynie said of the extra tourism-marketing money.

Officials from the visitors bureau said they are open to an audit and, in response to one commissioner's question, vowed to make a greater effort to reach broader segments of minority travelers with its ad campaigns.

Gary Sain, who took over as president of the visitors bureau last month, said he is not concerned about the upcoming audit.

"I'm very impressed with the organization," he said. "We have nothing to hide."

Commissioner Tiffany Moore asked the visitors bureau why it hasn't included minority firms in its advertising strategy.

Bureau Chairman Mark McHugh said the agency is in the process of hiring Hispanic and African-American marketing firms to help with those efforts. The bureau's ongoing ad campaign targets minority travelers with ads running on Hispanic and African-American television channels such as Univision and BET.

"Looking back, I'm not sure we've done as good a job as we possibly can reflecting the rich cultural diversity of our community here and looking at some of these other demographics to go after," said McHugh, who is also president of Gatorland.

Crotty requests meeting

Bureau representatives appeared before the County Commission on Tuesday at the request of Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, who had asked for an update on the agency's recently launched $68 million ad campaign, the largest publicly funded marketing effort in the region's history.

At that meeting, the upcoming audit was briefly discussed, but talk of additional oversight was muted as commissioners made clear their regard for the visitors bureau, whose board members and staffers filled several rows of seats in the commission chambers.

"First of all, you're brilliant. You know that we women are in charge," Commissioner Mildred Fernandez said of the national campaign that targets mothers ages 25 to 54 as the decision makers for family vacations.

The campaign -- centered on the slogan, "Built for families. Made for memories." -- is expected to boost visitors to Orlando this year by about 900,000, bureau officials said. About 49 million tourists are forecast to travel to Orlando this year.

Already, officials said, they have noticed a 42 percent increase in traffic to the visitors bureau Web site over the same period last year.

Next year the bureau plans to share with the county the results of a return-on-investment study that will measure the effectiveness of the campaign, which includes 30-second commercials that began airing on national network television last month.

Few tough questions

Only Commissioner Bill Segal questioned the structure of the visitors bureau as a private, nonprofit group that takes in millions of dollars in tax money with little oversight from the county, though he emphasized he did not think the group should be turned into a public agency.

"I don't think that would be in the best interest of this area or the industry," Segal said. "But we don't get much feedback here at the county as to what you're doing . . . I guess that's our fault. We can ask for more input."

Segal asked the visitors bureau to review its policy of allowing its president and chief executive to serve on its board of directors, a setup he compared to being "the employee and the employer at the same time."

He also raised concerns about two of the bureau's highest-ranking vice presidents who are married to each other.

McHugh assured him there were steps being taken to make sure Larry Henrichs, vice president of finance and administration, and Deborah Henrichs, vice president of publications and interactive services, do not report to each other or sign off on each other's financial requests.

Segal said he was "at a loss" about why his fellow commissioners didn't ask tougher questions of the agency.

Effect of sales tax

Tourism-industry representatives deflected one hard question: how they feel about a potential 2.5-cent increase to the sales tax that is part of a widely debated proposal in the Legislature.

"Nobody wanted to make waves," Segal said. "There are a lot of big, powerful interests there, and I guess maybe nobody wanted to offend anybody."

Commissioner Teresa Jacobs urged the industry leaders to join with Orange County to help oppose the proposal to cut property taxes and raise the sales tax, a move that could turn away coveted business from price-conscious meeting and convention planners who are considering Orlando as a destination.

"You're a powerful interest group in this state, and we know it," Jacobs said.

Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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