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Audit Claims Greater Houston CVB Using "Subjective Estimates"
 to Determine Hotel Room Night Bookings

By Kristen Mack, Houston ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Sep. 20, 2006 - The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau should seek new means for measuring its success besides hotel-room rentals, according to a city controller's audit that criticizes some of the bureau's management practices.

The audit does not explicitly deal with the effectiveness of President Jordy Tollett, who recently returned from a leave of absence that began after a television camera caught him drinking at a bar during lunch.

And City Controller Annise Parker said the audit wasn't spurred by any particular complaint with the bureau.

"We didn't launch this because the bureau is doing a bad job," she said.

But she said the audit did identify "sloppy procedures, lack of internal controls and the need for more cooperation between entities working to sell the city."

The bureau's success -- and a portion of Tollett's annual bonus -- has long been determined by the number of hotel-room nights booked each year. The audit found that the bureau is using "subjective estimates" to determine hotel-room-night bookings.

The bureau's goal for this fiscal year, which ended June 30, was 675,000 room nights. It booked 638,000.

"Room nights are almost an impossible thing to quantify," Parker said. "It's easy to inflate room-night bookings."

The audit contains nearly 40 recommendations for "improved coordination, efficiency and effectiveness of bureau operations."

Auditors concluded that the bureau has no policy on entertaining prospective city visitors, including expenses for food and alcoholic beverages.

The audit also noted low staff morale, high turnover, inadequate record keeping to document use of free air travel and sporting-event tickets, and strained relations with the city-run Department of Convention and Entertainment Facilities.

"There is no evidence that people were using things inappropriately," Parker said. "They just weren't documenting it."

Tollett, who returned to the job late last month after taking a six-week leave from the bureau for unspecified treatment, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Doug Horn, chairman of the board, said the audit will be a learning tool for the bureau and that he is open to looking at how it accounts for room nights.

"It's a real nebulous, ambiguous issue," he said. "This audit, all in all, reveals that we have some areas to work on. There is nothing in here that is egregious or dishonest."

Horn said the relationship between the bureau and the city convention and entertainment department has improved, and that representatives of the two entities now meet weekly.

The audit, conducted by Hidalgo, Banfill, Zlotnik and Kermali, cost $89,000 and took seven months to complete. The last time the city conducted an audit of the bureau was in the mid-1990s.

Mayor Bill White called the audit detailed and helpful. The city provides more than $10 million of the bureau's $12 million annual budget.

White has previously suggested that the bureau consider replacing Tollett, whose five-year contract is up in February.

Horn said it is too early to tie the audit to Tollett's future at the bureau. "We ought to allow him to get reacclimated to his job properly and given all the confidence this board can give him in order to succeed," he said.

Tollett has worked for four Houston mayors drumming up convention business and tourism, and took the bureau's helm full time in 1998.

His base salary is $206,000 a year. He also is eligible for an annual bonus of up to 40 percent of his base compensation.


Copyright (c) 2006, Houston Chronicle

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