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Christopher Bowers, the Chicago Convention and Tourism
 Bureau's Chief Executive, Resigns Unexpectedly

By Kathy Bergen, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Jul. 14, 2005 - The revolving door at the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau continued to spin Wednesday as it was announced that Christopher Bowers, the chief executive hired with great fanfare 16 months ago, was resigning to return to the private sector.

A polished and aggressive salesman who was well-liked by the bureau's board, Bowers, a former United Airlines senior executive, will become senior vice president for customer strategy, sales and marketing at NES Rentals, a Chicago-based equipment rental company run by fellow United Airlines veteran, Andy Studdert.

"This was an unexpected opportunity, and a chance to go back and work with a good friend from United," said Bowers, 57, who is leaving midway through a three-year contract. The move comes as a blow to the bureau, which has lost other top sales executives recently. Deborah Sexton resigned as president to head up a trade association, and Mark Tester hopped to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates McCormick Place and Navy Pier.

"Losing the head of any organization, particularly someone who was there only 16 months, is disruptive," said Sexton, who is president and chief executive of the Professional Convention Management Association. "But there are very strong people within the bureau, and I think the team will continue to move forward."

Phil Stefani, chairman of the bureau's board, said it may not take long to hire a replacement.

"We already are entertaining someone to take over . . . and we're hoping to get an answer shortly," he said. Observers say Bowers likely is jumping to a more lucrative post.

"The bureau is not the corporate world," said Stefani.

A not-for-profit organization funded with a combination of private and public dollars, the bureau is the sales arm of McCormick Place. The bureau declined to disclose Bowers' salary, and he declined to discuss his package at NES.

Bowers' exit comes at a time when convention bureaus across the country are sweating bullets, notes Ted Mandigo, a hotel consultant who also tracks the convention industry.

Competition for conventions and trade shows has become cutthroat as construction of exhibition halls proliferates, with relative newcomers Las Vegas and Orlando grabbing bigger shares of the pie. Meanwhile, some trade shows are shrinking due to industry consolidation and greater use of technological tools to sell products. On top of this, the travel slump post-9/11 depleted hotel-tax revenues, leading to reduced government funding of bureaus.

All this "presents a real huge challenge for directors of bureaus," Mandigo said.

"You will see this same situation all over the country," he said. "Convention directors will turn over."

Bowers acknowledged there were frustrations. "I want to see things happen quickly," he said. " With an entity such as this, touching so many others, it takes a little longer than I may like."

As well, he said he was frustrated "by a continuing need to educate legislators as to the benefits the hospitality industry brings to the state, county and city. Some get it, others don't."

But these frustrations were not factors in his exit, he said.

Indeed, he cited a number of bureau accomplishments during his short tenure. The bureau fought successfully to maintain its state funding, and to stave off a Cook County hotel tax, he noted. It landed some choice pieces of business, including a five-year run for the American Society of Clinical Oncologists annual convention. And it announced this week that visitor levels returned to pre-9/11 levels for the first time last year.

Bowers "set in place a sales team that is starting to deliver," said Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

Also during his tenure, a coalition of organizations worked with McCormick Place labor unions to hammer out work rule changes to help cut exhibitors' costs.

Last March, Bowers was hired to replace veteran Jim Reilly, who decided not to seek an extension of his contract amidst turmoil at the bureau.


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