|By Leigh Dyer, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 26, 2004 - Mike Butts, the newly named head of Visit Charlotte, has stepped into leadership amid sweeping change in the area's tourism industry.
His agency, with 40 employees and a $5.2 million budget that comes from a combination of hotel/motel taxes and private funds, is now part of the newly created Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. The city created the group this summer by merging Visit Charlotte with the body that controls the Charlotte Convention Center, Cricket Arena, the Charlotte Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium.
With nearly three decades of experience in the marketing and hospitality industries, Butts has worked for Charlotte's primary tourism agency since 1999. He became its acting co-president after his predecessor Melvin Tennant left last year to head San Antonio's convention and visitors bureau.
Butts' appointment as executive director was announced Friday.
Mike Butts, the newly named head of Visit Charlotte, talked this week about his priorities. His comments are edited for length and clarity.
QUESTION: Why is boosting tourism important?
ANSWER: If we can get more successful in promoting Charlotte as a tourism destination, it will not only help individual leisure visitors, it will help in promoting Charlotte as a good convention destination.
Conventions don't come here because of the way the space is laid out in the convention center. They come because of all of the elements that come with it: Lowe's Motor Speedway, Paramount's Carowinds, Bank of America stadium, the new Bobcats arena, museums and the money we spend on the arts. That's the stuff that will make us a successful destination.
Q: What new amenities do we need most?
A: I'd go for a motorsports museum downtown and shopping downtown. I was just in Minneapolis. That's a city I've watched change over the past 10 years. With their Nordstrom, Marshall Fields and all the other shopping they have downtown, they've created a pretty neat synergy.
Q: Where do you stand on the $6.4 million in public funding that has been approved for that project?
A: I believe there has to be a mix of public and private funding. I think the onus is on the private. I don't think people should continually go to the public for that kind of money. I think that puts a burden on the local taxpayer.
Q: The Westin has now been open over a year. The city council devoted $16 million toward the hotel project with the goal of boosting convention center bookings. Is it making a difference?
A: Yes. We're able to book bigger conventions because of it. The average-sized convention last year increased up to almost 1,200 room nights from right around 1,000 the year before -- so 20 percent.
Now that we're chasing the CIAA college basketball tournament, the Westin is part of the package and will help. We'll probably find out about that around the end of September.
Q: How has the creation of the new visitors authority changed the job of Visit Charlotte?
A: What is different is that I now I have the whole resource of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority to go to for support. I can go to (its acting CEO) Mike Crum. I can lean on that board. And eventually what'll happen is we'll be able to have more synergy among the marketing of all the buildings: the auditorium, the convention center, Cricket Arena and the coliseum (until it becomes the new arena).
Q: Convention center bookings for 2005 are substantially lower than those for 2004, measured in terms of nights booked in hotel rooms. How much of a problem is the performance?
A: It's been a bad year, but it's trending back up. The convention center is going to do fine. Last year was one of the best years ever. When that was all happening, I kept thinking to myself, 'Uh-oh, how do you maintain that pace?'
Q: Bookings for 2005 conventions were under way in 2002, when the nation was suffering a post-Sept. 11 travel slowdown. Is that the reason for the lag?
A: We had staff turnover, we had our budget cut 26 percent and we had travel constrict.
Q: Is your budget the right size now?
A: No. We're still under- resourced. Our new board understands that. If you look at how our budget compares to our competition -- cities like Tampa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Columbus, Baltimore -- we're far behind them.
When we bring meeting planners in, it's not that they don't like the other hotels. But when they walk into the Westin, they recognize this city is really growing up. It has the critical mass of hotel rooms required to bring in bigger conventions.
Q: What's on the horizon?
A: More of an effort for partnership. We're now focused on the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge and making sure that annual event doesn't leave Lowe's Motor Speedway. (NASCAR has committed to holding its all-star race at the track again next year, but could move it to other venues in subsequent years.)
We can't just have more money and get this. It truly does mean we take the strength of what the Charlotte Chamber has, the sports commission, and everyone. That's what's going to keep the Nextel here for as long as we can possibly keep it. It's not just money.
Q: Before the merger was approved, Visit Charlotte endured criticism. Is that changing?
A: I've worked in a lot of cities. And every city has a certain level of dysfunction. The sad thing is, it's very easy for hotels to blame the bureau when they're having a bad year, and the bureau to blame the hotels or the convention center. It's ridiculous for any of us to blame the other because we're all responsible.
All I would say is under our previous way of doing business, we didn't say that we were accountable or responsible like maybe we should have. Because at the end of the day if we don't win, who else are you going to blame?
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