|By Beth Kassab, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
Jan. 25, 2007 - The recent search to find a new president for Central Florida' s largest tourism promotion board was marked by internal conflict over whether Orlando should focus on attracting more conventions or leisure travelers.
Gary Sain, a local marketing executive with a background in brand promotion but little meetings or convention experience, last week accepted the top job at the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, succeeding longtime chief Bill Peeper.
E-mails among the seven members of the search committee obtained by the Orlando Sentinel reveal a hiring process complicated by discord among local industry leaders and bring to light efforts to skirt Florida's open-records laws.
The candid e-mails offer an uncommon glimpse of the inner workings of the visitors bureau, a private group controlled by Central Florida's most powerful hospitality and tourism executives.
The bureau operates behind closed doors with a budget this year of about $67 million, including $48 million in public tax dollars.
Exchanges between visitors bureau Chairman Mark McHugh, who led the search effort, and other board members including Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty's chief of staff, indicate some top players were reluctant to support Sain because he lacked a background in the convention business.
Harris Rosen, who owns several hotels near the Orange County Convention Center, and two Universal Orlando chiefs appeared to favor candidate William "Bill" Hanbury.
However, Hanbury, president of the Washington D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. with years of experience in convention sales, withdrew his name from the search before McHugh had the chance to tell him he was the committee's top choice.
In an e-mail on Jan. 4, McHugh told the search committee that he sat in on both Sain's and Hanbury's interviews with Rosen and his vice president, Garritt Toohey. The two candidates also talked with Universal Parks & Resorts Chairman Tom Williams and Bill Davis, president of Universal Orlando Resort. Neither of the Universal executives served on the search committee.
"I thought both candidates did a great job under Harris' intense questioning," wrote McHugh, who is also president of Gatorland.
"Afterwards, Harris and Garritt said they both chose Bill over Gary, stating he portrayed a better vision for the CVB whereas Gary appeared more reserved in outlining short-term changes as well as showing some hesitancy towards the job. [Universal executives] Bill Davis and Tom Williams also preferred Bill Hanbury . . ."
Six days later, after it was clear Hanbury was no longer a candidate, McHugh and other committee members began to discuss offering the job to Sain, chief marketing officer at Maitland ad firm Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell.
But Rosen, who also was not on the search committee, had other ideas.
"He [Rosen] was strongly opposed to going with Gary due to Harris' views that Gary is weak on the meetings side and suggests we do another search," McHugh wrote to the search committee on Jan. 10.
Rosen did not return calls for comment.
Davis of Universal, which like other resorts and hotels relies on conventions during off-peak leisure travel months, praised Sain this week.
"He is well known in the industry for his creativity and leadership, and I truly look forward to working with him as he takes Orlando to the next level in terms of driving visitation to the market," Davis said.
Members of the search committee were united in offering the job to Sain, according to several e-mails.
"This gives us the opportunity to hire a top salesperson to complement Gary's marketing savvy," wrote CNL Hotels & Resorts President John Griswold.
Top 2 candidates
Sain and Hanbury emerged as the top two candidates after a round of interviews with five candidates in mid-December.
The six-month process started in July after Peeper announced in June that he would retire at the end of 2006.
Peeper, the only president in the visitors bureau's more than 20-year history, was known to be well-connected on the meetings and convention side of the business.
McHugh said leisure travelers and conventions are both crucial to the industry, but finding a new president with strong experience in both was tough.
"Looking at all the great candidates we did, there wasn't anyone with strong skill sets in both areas," McHugh said in an interview this week.
Sain, who left Hyatt Hotels Corp. to become vice president at Premier Cruise Line in the early 1990s, said in an interview last week that if he can make that jump he can transition into the convention and meetings world.
"When I joined Premier, I was never on a cruise line, never took a cruise, never really knew travel agents that well," he said.
"If I can do that, this will again be something that I think I can do."
Ultimately, the committee settled on a three-year contract with Sain that includes a base salary of $287,000 and up to $100,000 in annual bonuses, according to one e-mail.
From the very beginning of the process, McHugh and other members of the seven-person search committee went to great lengths to try to keep confidential all information about the search for the head of the nonprofit trade association.
For example, based on misleading advice, the members wrote "exempt" in the subject line of nearly every e-mail about the search in order to keep secret certain communication with county government officials. Generally communication with elected or other public officials is open to public view under Florida's open-records laws, which allowed the Sentinel to obtain the e-mails related to the search.
In addition, McHugh arranged to deliver documents to the home of search committee member Elizabeth Gianini, chief of staff to Crotty. In fact, Florida law says that documents related to public business are within the public domain even if they never enter a public official's office.
McHugh said in an interview with the Sentinel this week that he was concerned that if any candidate names were made public it would discourage them from being interviewed and narrow the visitors bureau's choices for the job.
"It's their careers we're talking about here," he said.
Beth Kassab can be reached 407-420-5448 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
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