|By Mike Clary, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jul. 10, 2007 - A committee searching for a candidate to lead the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau as it emerges from financial scandal on Monday recommended a veteran tourism chief familiar with public relations challenges.
Two years ago, Aruba Hotel and Tourism Association president Jorge Pesquera faced international calls for a tourism boycott following the disappearance of American high school student Natalee Holloway. The case of the missing Alabama vacationer, 18, became a media sensation, and remains unsolved.
"He's been quite tested in the crisis mode," said attorney Jim Stuber, interim administrator of the bureau. "Everyone welcomes the idea that he has proven himself under difficult circumstances. He brought tourism officials and the government together and has experience with the press."
Pesquera was one of four finalists to replace longtime president and chief executive, Warren "Mac" McLaughlin, who resigned in November after employee Donna M. Duffer told police she stole $1.6 million over three years to cover gambling losses.
She has been charged with grand theft and money laundering and is awaiting trial.
Following a unanimous vote of the eight-person search committee, Pesquera's nomination to take over the nonprofit bureau will be presented to the full board of directors on Wednesday, Stuber said. Pesquera would then be invited back to Florida for an interview with the board.
"We believe we've found the right candidate at the right time for the right position," said Roy Assad, search committee chairman.
If hired, Pesquera would be paid about $198,000 a year, Stuber said, a substantial cut from his $250,000 salary.
In a resume submitted with his application for the post, an executive search firm said that Pesquera played "the key role" in working behind the scenes in Aruba "to minimize the impact of the Holloway story and effectively stopped calls for boycott [sic] by some U.S. elected officials."
Aruba, a Dutch possession in the southern Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela, attracts 1.3 million visitors a year. Palm Beach County counts some 4.4 million annual visitors, including 2.2 million hotel guests.
Pesquera is a 30-year veteran of the tourism industry who went to work in Aruba in 2004 after 10 years as head of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau in San Juan. He holds a degree in hotel administration from Cornell University.
Since the scandal broke, Stuber said, the number of bureau board members has been cut from 35 to 17, and financial controls have been tightened.
"Now," said Stuber, who serves as outside counsel for the bureau, "we're hoping he can take the organization to the next level, rather than have to come in and clean it up. We think we've cleaned it up."
The Convention and Visitors Bureau receives about $10 million yearly in hotel bed-tax dollars to promote the county as a tourist destination.
Mike Clary can be reached at mwclary@sun-sentinel or at 561-243-6629.
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