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Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau Reports 25% Decrease
in Single Quarter Tax Revenue as Convention Attendance Remains Down

By L.M. Sixel, Houston ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 19, 2009--It's been a tough year for the travel and leisure industry as hotels have slashed room rates and attendance at conventions is down, according to Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

That, in turn, has depressed the collection of the hotel occupancy tax, which funds about 90 percent of the bureau's budget, said Ortale, whose report for the bureau's annual meeting on Tuesday was not as upbeat as previous years. This quarter alone, tax revenues are down about 25 percent.

The bureau has tightened its belt, trimming its budget 5 percent in January and then reducing its current fiscal year spending another 10 percent, he told the 500 members at the George R. Brown Convention Center. And that's probably not the end of the cost-cutting, Ortale said, adding that he has managed so far to avoid salary cuts and forced furloughs.

The rough environment also made future convention booking more difficult. The sales team hoped to book 650,000 room nights for future years; instead, the bureau secured commitments for only 72 percent of that goal, Ortale said.

"Not the tally we wanted, but under the circumstance, a tally that is worthy of noting particularly when you consider that 500,000 room nights that should have contracted with Houston this fiscal year delayed decisions to the next fiscal and future years," he said.

The bureau also installed Jim Mills, general manager of the Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa, as its new chairman this year.

"I'm both excited and energized about our city," said Mills, who thanked outgoing chairman Thomas Jones for his strong leadership. He addressed the economic challenges the city faces. "In spite of our troubles, our goals will remain aggressive."

Jones is a partner in the accounting firm McConnell, Jones, Lanier and Murphy

The bureau, the Greater Houston Partnership and the Texas Medical Center are joining together to bring more medical conventions to Houston.

Ortale said the three groups plan to survey their members on what kind of conventions they attend and what they'd like to host. It's not just about generating income from food, drinks and cabs, he said, but how trade shows can foster relationship-building. Medical companies, for example, could recruit at conventions or use them as a way to launch products.

The bureau is also pursuing a new niche -- family reunions. In four months, the bureau helped arrange contracts for 970 room nights and another 1,374 room nights that are expected to close soon. It may not seem like a lot, Ortale said, but it's a sector that could grow.

Houston is also becoming a player in reality television, serving over the past year as the location for Supernanny,Cristina's Court, Judge Alex and America's Got Talent.

While he didn't discuss it at the meeting, Ortale said he's hoping to change the name of the bureau later this year to something more contemporary much like he did when he headed a similar group in Minneapolis.

While he didn't discuss it at the meeting, Ortale said he's hoping to change the name of the bureau later this year to something more contemporary much like he did when he headed a similar group in Minneapolis.

"Greater Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association" was an unwieldy 19 syllables, he said. Once "Meet Minneapolis" was adopted, he said, the new name was quickly accepted, people remembered it, and it made a strong statement about the city.

lm.sixel@chron.com

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Copyright (c) 2009, Houston Chronicle

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